We are living in an age of huge media events and breaking news. Historic happenings seem to intrude into our lives daily. It means that the people we lead look to us for perspective and assurance. The insecure leader uses this attention to make matters worse. The wise leader knows how to instruct and inspire.
I was watching a young leader recently as he spoke to his firm about the challenges of Covid-19. His talk was filled with authoritative sounding recitations of fact and broad sweeping conclusions all given with an air of importance and insider knowledge. Yet when he was done, the most that could be said was that the young man had done his homework. He restated what had long been restated. Sadly, no one was instructed. No one was given a battleplan. No one was inspired. In short, nothing was better for the firm.
I found myself wishing that before this young leader stepped to the podium, I had been able to say to him, “We know what is wrong. Tell us how to fix it. Make us better than we are.” I didn’t expect him to solve Covid-19. I did expect him to set a direction and impart the courage to us to be successful in that direction.
Fortunately, this young man, sensing that he had failed, asked for my help afterward. Trust me, he has improved dramatically in the time since. So, with his permission I want to tell you the main mistakes he made. I do this because I see leaders in every arena making the same mistakes. I want to help you not just avoid unwise ways of communicating, but to be powerful and inspiring when you talk about the future and the challenges of our world.
First, check your motive. I realized not far into the young man’s speech that his entire talk was really about how bad things are and therefore how he couldn’t be held responsible for his assigned goals. In short, and he has admitted this, the whole talk was a long-winded excuse for what he couldn’t achieve. If this motivation or anything like it besets you, deal with it before you speak, before you give your views of the world. You can do more damage in a few minutes than you can possibly imagine.
Second, check your need. When I coach speakers, I urge them to identify their personal need in giving the speech. This need exerts a magnetic force on the speech and can either deform it or fill it with higher meaning. If my need is to build a valuable team, my speech can soar. If it is to be thought smart, I’ll likely fail and leave everyone unprepared for the future. My young man realized when we spoke that he wanted to paint himself as smart but not responsible. No speech with this motive will be a success.
Third, use statistics with understanding. Remember that Mark Twain said that there are three types of lies— “Lies, damn lies, and statistics.” My young man recited statistics with an aura of great import when a few minutes’ analysis proved the statistics had no meaning. I won’t bore you with details but imagine this scenario. A state has one Covid-19 death. It’s tragic, but it’s low. A second death happens. Soon after someone reports breathlessly that the state’s death rate is the highest in the nation because it doubled. The truth is that the state’s total—two people—is thankfully low. Yet the misguided use of statistics convinced everyone listening that the situation is worse than it is. This produces fear, paralysis, and loss of motivation.
Fourth, always, always—in every speech—include a dose of inspiration. Don’t lie and don’t exaggerate, but do tell people what is possible and that they are the people who can achieve the possible. A single sentence— “Look, these are tough times, but I’ve never known a team that could make a company thrive through adversity like this one”—can change the entire trajectory of your team. My young man never got close to inspiration and he regrets it now.
Our young man will be fine. How about you? Take a look at what you do. Speak with a lofty purpose in mind, offer a plan, use statistics wisely, and don’t forget to inspire.