There is a powerful piece of news footage which shows Barack Obama entering 10 Downing Street in front of Gordon Brown. As Obama reaches the British ‘bobby’ on duty outside that famous front door he pauses and holds out his hand. The policeman breaks into a broad grin and shakes. The two men take a moment to speak to one another. It is a warm and empowering moment. As Brown follows on the policeman leaves his hand extended. The Prime Minister leaves him hanging as he walks on by. Why does this moment matter so much when it comes to thinking about communication and leadership style?
Good communication builds teams
At the time of the ‘hand-shaking’ incident, Obama was US President and possibly the most powerful person in the world. Yet, through this one small action we get a glimpse of how he mastered the ability to reach out to his public. He knew that the way to reach hearts and minds was to think in terms of ‘we’ not ‘I’. By shaking the policeman’s hand, he made everyone around him that day think that they mattered and had something worth engaging with.
When the pressure’s on, say ‘we’ not ‘I’
When a leader tells his board, his staff, or his shareholders that ‘we’ are in it together, everyone feels involved. Standing up and offering a junior member of the team a cup of coffee when they enter the room doesn’t diminish a senior leader. Instead, it projects a sense that that person is valued and increases the desire of the whole group to make a project a success.
A true leader knows how to communicate
Great communication doesn’t just mean giving an inspiring speech. It also means knowing how to make eye contact, give a firm handshake and talk to others to let them know they are valued and that their input matters.
Communicating in tough times matters
Life is not always a cup of tea and a handshake. Sometimes leaders have to deliver unpopular news linked to something like organisational restructuring. But senior-level leaders who have already embedded an open and honest communication style have put themselves at an advantage. If a leader has a track record of delivering bad news impersonally, via evasive or inconsistent emails, for instance, those affected will be feeling angry and resentful even before an announcement is made. However, if the leadership trait is to reach out and treat people like individuals, those affected by the change are more likely to accept it.
Author and presidential speechwriter James C Humes got it right when he said, ‘The art of communication is the language of leadership.’ What we say, and how we say it, really does make our leadership stronger.