Leaders Can Be Boring—Just When They Don't Want To Be

By: David Langdon

Leaders have long struggled with keeping people focused and engaged during change. The more transformational the change, the more critical the leadership challenge.

Hands up if you’ve recently been forced to sit through a senior leader’s presentation—which was in fact more boring than watching paint dry.

Communication has changed dramatically over the past 10 years. Smart businesses embrace ‘new communication’ channels to create dialogue and influence today’s workforce. That said, there is still a need for leaders to deliver inspirational messages that win hearts and minds. Particularly when it comes to sustaining engagement halfway through the change. Cue the leader.

Five ways to avoid engagement failure:

1. It is less about me and more about you. Simple, but a classic trap. Leaders often fail to orient the communication around what the listener wants to hear. If they knew what the listener was worried—even scared—about, and what the listener found exciting, they’d be hitting all the right neuro buttons our brains pay most attention to. Call it empathy, or the common touch, or just good old-fashioned preparation. Most leaders fail to test out their presentations on the right audience before they go live. 

Take-away: Get honest feedback.

2. Ask more questions. The brain cannot help itself. Our brains are programmed to answer. We are engaged by questions because we have to think—we can’t just sit there smiling and nodding. Questions are the best tool a communicator has. In fact, the most skilful have a wide range of questions. They know when to shift gears from open to closed, and when to pause and wait as long as it takes for the answer.

Take-away: Increase the questions you ask by 100%.

3. Paint the picture of the future. The best leaders I’ve seen are masters at taking you on a journey—they can do it in 60 seconds or less. They use well-put-together visualization techniques to pull their people into the future. Visualization has been used for decades in professional sports to drive self-belief and create motivation. Many leaders still feel uncomfortable and shy away from this essential leadership communication tool.   

Take-away: Use visualization techniques.

4. Data gets top billing. Data speaks louder than words. Even the hard-line cynics can be converted with pure data that shows progress. Targeted measures that speak to the core of what’s changing will provide clarity on progress made, and then identify remaining gaps. Measuring the change, not business as usual, is key. For instance, if we were transforming to become more collaborative and create new end-to-end processes across business units, we need to be sure we are measuring that—not just collecting new cultural or engagement data.

Take-away: Data tracking enhances focus and drives performance.   

5. Share the stage. This is not about abdication. This is about creating the right blend of your messages with others. Followers will follow. Sometimes they need to see the crowd move first.

Take-away: Share leadership; make it easy for others to follow you.

Our expectations of leadership continue to rise. Followership has increasing currency. We will be led, but we also want our leaders to be transparent, genuine, and more accessible. Tomorrow’s leaders have an increasingly tough act to influence their people in times of change, and followership can be fragile. How leaders communicate has never been more important.

One of the most engaging leaders I have ever worked with was in the car industry. She practiced her big communications on the cleaning staff (typically 10 years younger than her managers). If she could convince them personally of where the business was headed and why, she knew she was ready.  

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