We exercise our leadership best when we are listening…
“We exercise our leadership best when we are listening, when we recognize the world is a complicated place … when we show some element of humility and when we recognize we may not always have the best answer but we can always encourage the best answer.”
G20 Summit. Barack Obama April 2009
As Oxford philosopher Isaiah Berlin wrote in Mr. Churchill in 1940, “The Prime Minister was able to impose his imagination and his will upon his countrymen. . .and lifted them to an abnormal height.”
Furthermore, and here’s the key point, Churchill made the British people feel as if they were part of the action and vital to the cause of victory. Churchill gave voice to personal involvement, or what we might today call “engagement.” That is the challenge that every leader faces when pushing a significant change initiative. Communication is critical to creating engagement.
The following four-step communications model for creating buy-in comes from the book Great Communication Secrets of Great Leaders.
1. Inform. Explain the situation in terms that are both general and specific. Generality provides context; specifics provide expectations. For example, make the case for your initiative, ask people to support it, and tell them why.
2. Involve. Once people understand the facts as well as what is expected of them, they decide to participate or not. Critical to gaining commitment is communicating “what’s in it for me” (WIFM). You must make the specifics clear, and show what people will gain by supporting your initiatives.
3. Invite. Once people understand what is expected of them, ask for their support. Never assume people will follow you until you ask them. Be specific and persistent as in, “Can I count on your support for this initiative?”
4. Ignite. This final step is not always possible but it’s one that separates the ordinary from the extraordinary. It is when you invoke, as Churchill did, the commitment of individuals to pull together for a cause greater than themselves. Excite the imagination by talking about what will happen when your initiative is a success.
One further point: never assume that once people buy into the process, and understand the WIFM, that you can stop communicating. That was the genius of Churchill. His speeches throughout the war years were designed to rally the British, and they did that through the use of a brilliant combination of rhetoric and storytelling. Churchill made his followers feel vital to the cause.
One of my favorite authors on the topic of leadership is Max Dupree. He wrote two books that I recommend, Leadership is an Art and Leadership Jazz. In the later book he writes, “Leadership can never stop at words. Leaders must act, and they do so only in the context of their beliefs. Without action or principles, no one can become a leader… integrity in all things precedes all else.”
One of the best leaders that I have ever worked with was the former President of Catholic Charities Saint Louis, Rich Vehige. Rich was a former executive at Southwestern Bell Telephone. In 1999 Rich was asked to take over the Presidents role when the man holding that position was critically ill with cancer. He accepted the position on a part-time temporary basis at no compensation. Five years later, Rich finally resigned to spend more time with his wife, Carol, eight children, and a dozen or more grandchildren on the family farm.
In those five years, Rich led an organization of more than 1000 employees, located at fifty site locations, providing services to more than 100,000 poor and vulnerable people annually. In the short time Rich was President, Catholic Charities had a long list of accomplishments. The most impressive of all accomplishments was his absolute clarity when it came to mission, vision, values.
Every staff member had a clear understanding of what we were doing, who we were serving, and why we were going to work everyday. Through his daily actions Rich made the mission clear. His vision and value were unwavering. He demonstrated this clarity through daily prayer. Every important meeting of any kind began with the following Catholic Charities prayer:
Oh Lord, our God, source of all love, we come in the name of Your Son, Jesus Christ, to ask Your blessing on Catholic Charities. Open wide our hearts to those who urgently need a helping hand and tender care.
Send Your Holy Spirit to guide and direct our efforts to respond to those in need, work to improve social conditions, for all Your people, and call others to do the same.
Help us become fully catholic through sharing our gifts with each other and with all who are hindered by poverty or isolation.
May we do Your work with charity, Your gifts of healing love, which reaches beyond daily needs to touch our hearts.
We praise You and bless You Lord, for Your many gifts to us and for the blessings we receive. May we share them generously with our brothers and sisters. Hear our prayer in the name of Jesus Who is Christ the Lord.
As we bring closure to a difficult year, my prayer for America, for my church, and for the organizations I serve is that we demand good leadership and that I contribute anyway I can toward good leadership. We must expect from our leaders absolute clarity when it came to mission, vision, values.
God bless you all, and may 2010 be your best year ever.