One of the most powerful tools a leader has at her (his) disposal is her words. Therefore, the process of building and reinforcing an ethical culture requires effective communication. Ethical leadership is the product of one’s ability to speak with empathy, and to motivate and inspire people.
As they say, in times of crisis, leaders aren’t made, they are revealed. And, over the past nine months, or more, the COVID-19 crisis has revealed several exceptional leaders. One great reveal has been Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, who has led New Zealand through the pandemic with one of the lowest case rates, per capita, in the world.
The success of New Zealand in fighting COVID-19 rests on the shoulders of many, but it starts with great leadership. In a recent virtual presentation at the John F. Kennedy Forum, Ms. Wendy Sherman, a professor at the Kennedy School, remarked about the Prime Minister’s leadership style, stating “I was so inspired and so taken by her transparency, her accessibility, her humanity”. “She was telling me a story about herself, not just as a prime minister, but as a human being”.
The Prime Minister was demonstrating a skill that all leaders must have, or develop, if they want people to trust them, believe in their cause and follow them. Ms. Ardern was demonstrating that she was “relatable”, through her words and actions.
In a recent article, How Should Leaders Speak to Others, so They Listen?, the author states that “leadership communication goes beyond presenting information to people – it’s about inspiring people to want to act on what they hear.”
Unfortunately, many corporate leaders don’t understand the need for this skill or the potential value that it opens up for their organization. As we’ve pointed out in previous posts, stakeholders are quickly losing trust in large corporations and it is most likely the result of the organization’s ineffective communication.
What not to say
As an example, I listened to a virtual presentation by a CEO to shareholders this past summer and I was not impressed. The inability of the CEO to look directly at the camera or answer questions in a relatable manner left me uninspired. Moreover, he came off sounding like a robot, which one should probably expect from a proponent of automation, robotics and big data.
When selecting executives for the CEO role, Boards need to ensure that they look beyond technical and industry skills. They should also be looking for CEOs who have the ability to effectively communicate to every stakeholder. This represents one of the most important attributes, along with the ability to create other leaders.