I consider it the role of the head of a newspaper to be bi-partisan and to bring journalists together with people from government. . . . I fear unspoken anger. Especially, people who may disagree on politics must still be able to communicate, and it's crucial for all of us in the press to listen to all sides.
Katherine Graham, Personal History (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), p. 610.
"And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why we are gathered here tonight."
With that statement, the audience explodes in applause, and the speaker steps back from the lectern for a moment and beams.
It is the rousing conclusion to a crafted piece of oratory. The speaker and audience seem as one—but wait a minute. There in the back row, one person turns to another and says, "Nice words, but what the heck was he saying?"
Unfortunately, this little back-row interrogatory happens all too often. We like the speaker. We like the words. We even like the response from the audience, but when we step back metaphorically, as the speaker does physically, we are left with an empty feeling.
Why is this? How can this be? Everyone liked the presentation.
There's a simple reason: There was no message to the speech. The speaker certainly had his style and his purpose for being clear, but there was a disconnect between the speaker and the audience. Why? The purpose of the leadership message was unclear. Unfortunately, this situation occurs all too often, both on the public stage and on the corporate stage—or, frankly, even in the church basement during a fundraising planning session.
The same thing occurs in one-on-one meetings. For example, the boss calls you into his office. He starts talking about the business. He asks you how you are doing, but before you can respond, he's off talking about other people in the department. He eventually focuses on you and asks how things are going for you. As you begin to speak, the phone rings. He answers it, then holds up his hand and says, "Hey, nice of you to drop by. Could we continue this conversation next week?" You mumble something as you walk out of the office shaking your head. What was that little talk all about?
Just as the speaker in the introductory vignette was unclear about his message, the boss was unclear about his. Leaders cannot afford to be unclear; clarity of purpose extends to communications. If the leader cannot express a coherent point of view, the department, the team, and individuals are left adrift in a sea of uncertainty. As hard as we work on who we are and why we are there, we sometimes forget the "What is my message?" part.