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Chapter 3: Developing the Leadership Message


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
Katherine Graham, Personal History, 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.

Establishing Credibility

The purpose of leadership communications, as pointed out in Chapter 1, is to build (or establish) trust between leader and follower. This trust is essential to a leader's credibility. Lyndon Johnson lost the trust of the American people over his conduct of the Vietnam War. His accomplishments in civil rights legislation and the war on poverty were overshadowed by his refusal to be straight with the American people, or even with himself, over the issues involved in Vietnam. The accounting firm Arthur Andersen suffered an enormous lack of credibility in the wake of its faulty auditing. Its lack of accountability (no pun intended) destroyed the company and cast a harsh light on other major accounting firms that were beset with their own scandals. The financial markets, too, reverberated as investors wondered if they could trust the financial statements of any company.

Credibility is a leader's currency. With it he or she is solvent; without it he or she is bankrupt. Communications reinforces a leader's credibility. How can a leader establish credibility (see Figure 3-1)? [1]

Establishing Credibility

Figure 3-1:  Establishing Credibility

Uncovering the Meaning of the Message

The message is the most important part of the presentation or the one-to-one chat. It is the core upon which the entire presentation or conversation depends. Think of the message as the 30-second "take-away thought" that you want people to remember. The message is not the same as the content of the presentation or conversation; it is the reason for the speaking. If you will indulge a simple analogy, consider the presentation or conversation as a piece of chocolate candy. The content is the chocolate surrounding the creamy center. The creamy center (or the cherry, if you prefer) is the message - the heart of what you are saying.

What are you trying to do? Why are you speaking to this group or this individual? Do you wish to explain a hot topic? Do you need to sell them on a new process? Do you wish to impart a need for change? Or do you just want them to have some laughs? Each of these purposes is valid. Your challenge as a leader is to decide what you want to do, and do it.

If you work for an organization of any size, you quickly become accustomed to presentations. Politicians make them. Celebrities make them. Entertainers make their living off them. The most successful leaders are those whose message you can sum up quickly in a sentence or so.

That sentiment is the beginning of the message. It is not the message itself; rather, it is the flavor of the message. Returning to our chocolate analogy, it is the difference between raspberry and orange fillings, or between strawberry and vanilla. All of these fillings may be creamy, but the flavor varies. As a rule of thumb, the more precise and concise you are about your message, the more precise and concise your presentation will be.

Creating the Leadership Message

Now we're getting to the filling. What do you want people to remember? Is it fluffy and light? Chewy and rich? Nutty and scrumptious? You as the presenter need to make certain that your message is clear and unambiguous.

Here are some examples of leadership messages.

Each of these messages is short and to the point. There is no ambiguity. The intent is clear. That is what you want to strive for when you create your message. You can also regard such a statement as the thesis, or the why, of the message. It contains why you are speaking and what you will say. The greater the clarity of your message, the greater the chance that it will be remembered. How can you create your message? The methods are as varied as the shades of color in a rainbow.

A word of warning: Do not feel that the audience must like your message. For example, if you are a union steward and you want to describe what the union will request from management, chances are that the membership will listen and will like what you have to say. You are their representative, after all. By contrast, if you are in management and your task is to present the company's side of the issues, you can be certain that much of what you are saying will be met with skepticism.

What a Leadership Message Does: The Four I's

Leadership messages must communicate information as well as open the door for participation by the listener. As such, the leadership message must do these four things (see Figure 3-2):[2]

All four elements need not be apparent in every message. Sometimes the leader's message is simply an update. Other times it's a call to action or an invitation to do something. But over the course of a leader's tenure, the success of leadership communications depends upon including these four elements over and over again.

When a leader informs his or her people, involves others in the effort, ignites ideas about what is to be done, and invites people to participate in the process, that leader gains support for his or her ideas and makes the process of achieving results possible. Also, as with all strong leadership messages, the leader makes it possible to build greater levels of trust, the bond upon which all leadership must be grounded.

Communicating Up

When we think about leadership communications, we often assume a downward flow of messages from the leader along with a bubbling up of messages from an engaged audience or individual. This communications loop from leader to followers and back again is not the whole story. Leaders also need to communicate upward. The recipient of such messages may be the leader's boss, a company director, or sometimes an advisory committee. These messages, like other forms of leadership communications, are grounded in the culture of the organization and are about significant issues related to vision, mission, and transformation. Likewise the purpose of upward leadership communications is the same: to build trust and drive results.

In his book Leading Up, Michael Useem describes examples in which leaders in subordinate positions strive to do the right thing. General Roméo Dallaire, commander of the U.N. troops in Rwanda, tried unsuccessfully to persuade his superiors, both military and civilian, to allow him to take aggressive military action to head off the threat of genocide. It was to no avail, as the majority Hutus and the minority Tutsi began a genocidal attack on each other; more than 800,000 people died during the bloodbath.[3] Charlene Barshefsky, as principal U.S. trade deputy, negotiated a trade deal between the United States and China that both permitted the latter's entry into the World Trade Organization and integrated the myriad special interests on the U.S. side, including those of business and labor. In other words, it was a job that balanced both negotiation skill and salesmanship.[4] Both Dallaire and Barshefsky employed effective communications; sadly, only one of the two succeeded. And there is a lesson in this. Leaders will not always succeed, but they must always communicate. And through the continual practice of communications, they will improve their likelihood of success down the line. When communicating up, it is wise to keep these points in mind:

Upward leadership communications serve another purpose: They create a culture of dialogue and discussion. When employees see their bosses communicating regularly with their own managers, they soon learn that communications is integral to the leadership process. And while individual requests may not be granted or goals be met, the process of communications never ceases.

Restoring Credibility

Credibility is the bond between leader and follower; it is almost sacred because it forms the bedrock of why people want to do what leaders ask them to do. Sometimes a loss of credibility occurs because the leader makes a mistake. Think of leaders who fail to fulfill their promises. Other times circumstances conspire against the leader and, through no fault of his or her own, problems arise. Think of economic slumps. None of us is perfect, even leaders. If a leader's credibility becomes damaged, what can the leader do (see Figure 3-3)?

The point must be made that the leader may not be the person who was directly responsible for misdeeds. As the leader of an organization, however, he or she owes it to the stakeholders to take responsibility and be accountable when things go wrong. Leaders who step forward and accept blame will often rise in stature, not decline. Why? Because they are seen as people who are trustworthy. Credibility, remember, is like currency; followers decide how much of it they want to buy, sell, or hold. The greater the holdings, the greater the levels of trust.

Katherine Graham - Leading from Within

When you read Katherine Graham's autobiography, you get the feeling that this is a woman who was not certain of her selfhood until very late in life. Make no mistake: Katherine Graham was a giant who took a not very good newspaper and built into one of the nation's most respected, and at the same time created a media empire.

Along the way, she helped bring a president to justice, stood down a tough union, and survived a husband who demeaned her as he sank deeper into a suicidal depression. Underneath her society-bred manners and sweet exterior, Katherine Graham was one tough broad. As publisher of the most influential paper in the world's most influential capital, she was a powerful communicator and a shining example of how to learn to lead. At every step in her public career, the stakes got higher. And each time she rose to the challenge.

Professional Education

When Graham took over the Washington Post in the wake of her husband's suicide in 1963, it was not the powerful institution it would become. It was dowdy, parochial, and, except for its being in the nation's capital, inconsequential. In a way it was a mirror of Graham's self-assessment of her abilities. Although she had been a reporter in her twenties, she certainly was no businessperson. She took the helm out of family duty; her father, Eugene Meyer, had owned the paper, and Graham wanted to keep it in the family.

Despite her role as publisher and owner of the Washington Post Company, Graham was very much a creature of her upbringing. She did as she was taught; she deferred to men: first her father, then her husband, and later the male executives in her own company. She illustrates her naiveté in quotes taken from a Women's Wear Daily profile of her written in 1969, in which she admits, "I guess it's a man's world. . . . [M]en are more able than women at executive work and in certain situations. I think a man would be better at this job I'm in than a woman."[9]

Leadership as Learning

In her autobiography, Graham attributes her success as a publisher and as a businesswoman to men. She extols Ben Bradlee, the crusading editor who stood behind reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein during the Watergate investigation. She also credits his journalistic integrity for helping to make the Post a great newspaper. Graham is warmly laudatory of financier Warren Buffett, who after buying a stake in the Washington Post Company became a sort of financial mentor, helping her to learn the business side of publishing.[10]

Graham's learning process stemmed in part from her ability to listen. She was comfortable with asking questions and integrating lessons into her actions. Complementing her listening was her writing ability, often expressed in letters. For example, she speaks of the letters she and Bradlee exchanged annually; it was their own private feedback on each other's performance. Such letters are a good way to air issues, settle accounts, and give due acknowledgement for success.[11]

Graham's views are not that remarkable. As one of the few high-profile businesswomen of her era, she had no female role models or peers. She was literally a pioneer in her field. What she demonstrated was her willingness to learn from others. She was not threatened by the presence of brilliant people. In fact, she relished their company. And the lessons she learned helped to give her the confidence she needed to become the leader she was capable of becoming. The sum of her collected learnings can be found in her autobiography, Personal History, which subsequently won the Pulitzer Prize.

Leadership Resolve

Inside her company, she also could be tough. Right after Watergate she went toe-to-toe with the pressmen's union, which was resisting modernization efforts. To her the Washington Post was family, and the strike was very painful for her. When rogue elements in the union vandalized the presses, she took it as a personal affront, and it stiffened her resolve. After more than 4 months, during some of which time she was personally vilified by members of the union, the strike was settled. She learned also that "when management . . . forfeits its right to manage, only trouble can result." She resolved to improve "communications within the company."[12 ]With the labor issues settled, the company prospered. In 1991, when she handed the reins of the company to her son, Donald, the company's revenues had grown from $84 million to $1.4 billion.[13]

Leadership under Fire

She had the final say on editorial and publishing decisions. In 1971, when her paper, along with the New York Times, published the Pentagon Papers (government documents about the United States' involvement in Vietnam that were leaked to the public by Daniel Ellsberg), it was her name that was on the injunction brought by the Nixon administration. It was a risky decision, not just because she was going against the administration, but because it coincided with the Washington Post Company's going public. Publicity of this sort would not be helpful. Graham persevered.[14] She quotes Bradlee as saying that it marked a "graduation of the Post into the highest ranks" of news organizations.[15]

Graham's will would be tested a short time later during the Watergate investigation. From the moment of the burglary at the Watergate complex on June 17, 1972, to President Richard Nixon's resignation on August 9, 1973, it was the Washington Post that led on the story, keeping it alive after Nixon's landslide election in November 1972, when few other papers had any interest. Bradlee, as executive editor, was front and center on the coverage, but Graham supported him. It was important to her. Watergate "was a conspiracy not of greed but of arrogance and fear by men who came to equate their own political well-being with the nation's very survival and security."[16] This is an apt statement about Watergate, and also about any other political scandal in Washington or any other capital.

And it points up the reasons why our nation needs a vigorous and free press as well as strong independent leadership at the helm of such media. Ultimately, as Graham wrote in her autobiography,

The credibility of the press stood the test of time against the credibility of those who spent so much time self-righteously denying their own wrongdoing and assaulting us by assailing our performance and our motives.[17]

Not a bad epitaph for a woman who grew in her role as a leader and used her communications to demonstrate leadership in good times and bad, and in the process served as a good example for others.

[1]James Lardner, "Why Should Anyone Believe You?" Business 2.0, March 2002, pp. 42-48. This article provides background material on the issue of credibility.

[2]Four-step model inspired from points in Nick Morgan, "How Effective Leaders Communicate," Harvard Management Communications Letter, September 2002, Synopsizing four points of a communications model (empathize, engage, educate, enlist) from James Wanless, Intuition @ Work & at Home and at Play.

[3]Michael Useem, Leading Up: How to Lead Your Boss so You Both Win, pp. 74-114.

[4]Ibid., pp. 212-247.

[5]Andy Raskin, "Free Advice for the Suddenly Non-Credible," Business 2.0, March 2002, p. 48. This article provides background material on the issue of reestablishing credibility.

[6]Paula J. Caproni, The Practical Coach: Management Skills for Everyday Life , pp. 71-73.


[8 ]Ibid.

[9]Katherine Graham, Personal History, p. 418.

[10]Ibid., entire work.

[11]Ibid., pp. 458-459.

[12 ]Ibid., pp. 575-576.

[13]Obituary of Katherine Graham, The Economist, July 21, 2001.

[14]Graham, Personal History, pp. 441-459.

[15]Ibid., p. 458.

[16]Ibid., p. 504.

[17]Ibid., p. 508.

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