One of the joys of my life has been studying the lives of great leaders and teaching the lessons gleaned. I count it a privilege. I’m also impressed by how many of these lessons of leadership are common to the greats throughout the centuries. I want to urge one of these lessons upon you now.
There is a power in simplicity of thought and language. Effective leaders know it and discipline themselves to harness this power. Mediocre leaders never do get a handle on this truth.
I make it a practice to listen to how leaders speak and to notice what their words signal of how they think. It has become clear to me that the man who is uncertain about who he is and what he is doing will use a lot of oversized words to express himself. The man who knows who he is and what he is about will speak simply, clearly, and powerfully.
Most people try to talk themselves to understanding. They don’t know quite what they think before they speak, so they talk until conclusions announce themselves. Weak leaders often add to this the use of big words and complicated sentences to hide the fact that they aren’t sure of what they’re saying. This causes them to talk for far too long, to speak in exhausting complexity, and to leave their listeners without the clear trumpet call they need to know what to do.
Strong leaders, on the other hand, do their homework before they speak. They think through their purpose, their values, their tactics, and their goals in advance. Then they distill their thoughts into language—simple, penetrating, inspiring language. When the moment comes, they speak confidently. They speak convincingly.
Churchill was a master of this. The British government was drowning in aimlessness and confused language when he became prime minister. He decided to change the language in order to change the culture. He insisted on short words. He also insisted on simple phrases. Stanley Baldwin, one of Churchill’s predecessors, might say “a bilateral agreement has been reached,” but Churchill said simply that the two parties had “joined hands together.” He insisted on calling The League of Defense by more engaging words: “Home Guard.” He could reduce pages of bureaucratic language into a few sentences that lived vibrantly in the hearts of the British people. This is why John F. Kennedy said that Churchill, “mobilized the English language and sent it into battle.”
Churchill could only do this because he had done the hard work in advance. He knew himself. He knew what must be done. He had designed and practiced the best way to say it. And his words changed the course of nations.
Take an honest look at the way you communicate. Enlist the input of those you trust but who aren’t afraid to tell you the truth. Make the changes you need to make. Also, use this truth of leadership to examine the leaders you’ve deployed around you. If they exhaust you when they talk, then they are exhausting those they lead. If they speak in broad, complicated, airy phrases, then they don’t really know what they’re doing. Help them improve or move them out, but you can’t afford to leave them as they are.
A general once told me something he had said to his troops: “If you can’t tell me who you are and what you are doing in 30 seconds then get the hell out of my command.” There is truth in this for all of us, military or not.
That’s it. Happy St. Patrick’s Day and have a good weekend.
Reader’s Digest published an article, “Cheers! 14 Fascinating Facts About Guinness Beer,” and quoted my book, The Search for God and Guinness, which is on sale for only $.99 in the Kindle Store through Sunday. Download it for yourself and tell your Irish (or Irish wannabe) friends!