Of all the talents bestowed upon men, none is so precious as the gift of oratory.
Steven F. Hayward, Churchill on Leadership: Executive Success in the Face of Adversity [Rocklin, Calif.: Forum (Prima Publishing), 1997, 1998], p. 97.
The company is a bona fide success. Its stock price is climbing. Market analysts are praising the management team. Morale is high. For a brief, shining moment, it seems that the company can do no wrong.
Then it all comes apart. Perhaps it's a new product failure, a defection of a senior leader to a competitor, or a market reversal, but suddenly the only people calling on the company are members of the media looking to find out what went wrong.
When this happens, and it seems to happen in the cycle of any successful enterprise, the company's leaders have two choices when it comes to communications: They can say nothing and hope the story just goes away, or they can speak out and work out their issues with input from key stakeholders.
Invariably companies make the wrong choice—in the face of bad news, they hibernate rather than proclaim. Worse, senior managers huddle quietly among themselves rather than speak even to employees. When this happens, communication does continue. Communication, like nature, abhors a vacuum. In the absence of word from the leader, people will create their own messages, typically in the form of rumor, innuendo, and gossip. The net result is a compounding of difficulties: Employees who could be part of the solution instead become part of the problem. Why? Because they are uninformed—worse, they are ill informed. The leader needs to get out front and tell the truth, instead of letting people draw their own conclusions. When you leave employees to draw their own conclusions without providing the proper message, they will draw the opposite conclusion from the one you want them to draw. They will automatically assume the worst, when perhaps the problem is not so grave, if it is addressed in time.
Have you ever heard something that sounds right but does not feel right? For example, when the boss says, "Our people are this company's most valuable resource," you groan because you know it's a cliché. You also know better. The boss rules by fear and looks over your shoulder constantly. Your coworkers are frustrated at their inability to make decisions. Your subordinates are fearful of losing their jobs. And the bean counters are making noises about impending job cuts. And this from a company where people are important! Could it be that there is a disconnect between the speaker and the message? Exactly! The words are not consistent with the boss's behaviors. As a result, what sounds well and good comes across as phony and false. This is an example of a situation where speaker and message do not intersect; there is a lack of credibility.
Effective messages are built upon trust. Trust is not something that we freely grant our leaders; we expect them to earn it. How? By demonstrating leadership in thought, word, and deed. Credible leaders are those who by their actions and behaviors demonstrate that they have the best interests of the organization at heart. They are the type of bosses who view themselves as supporters; they want their people to succeed, and they provide them with the help they need in order to achieve. These bosses know that they will be judged by the accomplishments of the individuals or teams who report to them, and that is why they invest so heavily in those individuals or teams.
When a leader makes a commitment to the success of individuals in order to achieve organizational goals, that leader is well on the way to earning trust. All of the leader's specific actions, such as articulating the vision, setting expectations, determining plans, and allowing for frequent feedback, are further ways of demonstrating trust.
The message emerging from a leader whom we trust is said to be a leadership message. Such a message is rooted in the character of the individual as well as his or her place within the organization. The leadership message is essential to the health of the organization because it stems from one of the core leadership behaviors—communications. Of all leadership behaviors, the ability to communicate may be the most important. Communications lays the foundation for leading others.