Communication is essential to leadership and failure to communicate dooms any effort.
We all know the famous line, “What we’ve got here is . . . failure to communicate,” spoken by the prison warden (Strother Martin) in the 1967 Paul Newman movie, Cool Hand Luke. Almost 50 years later the line is even more poignant when applied to the nascent 2016 presidential campaign.
With the notable exception of two candidates, those running for the Republican and Democrat nominations are frustrated by their failure to gain what is called “traction” with voters. Despite their best efforts, the establishment candidates languish in the polls and are starved for attention. At the same time, against all odds, two candidates – Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders – float to the top of the polls in their respective Parties.
What’s happening here? What’s happening here is simple – we have a failure to communicate. Most of the individuals running for president are telling people what they think they want to hear, but are failing to actually communicate with the voter. Communication is not just telling someone something. Real communicators, as the 1980s AT&T commercials encouraged, have the power to “Reach out and Touch Someone.” (Of course in today’s politically correct world, if you were to actually follow AT&T’s suggestion to reach out and touch someone, you would be sued for sexual harassment.) But the point is that real communication allows the leader to reach out and touch the hearts and minds of people; it educates, inspires, motivates and moves people to action. All else is simply babble.
The Power of Communication Skills
Communication is not leadership, but it is an essential tool of leadership. Without the ability to effectively communicate – to connect with people – the leader becomes powerless. Conversely, the effective use of the power of communication has the potential to bestow leadership; even upon the most unlikely of leaders.
The “experts” are discounting Donald Trump’s run for president because they see him as just a hyped-up “television personality.” Do you recall the name of the last “television personality” to run for president, only to have his chances poo-pooed by the experts? His name was Ronald Reagan. And after his election, what phrase was used to describe Reagan’s leadership style? He was called “the great communicator.” Reagan was a master at communication and could connect with people because he had the ability to take complicated issues and put them in terms that people could understand; and it got him elected President.
The early stages of the 2016 presidential election offer stark evidence of the power that can be gained when one is an effective communicator; and conversely when not. Do you get all tingly and pumped-up when Jeb Bush or Hillary Clinton give a speech? Do the words of Rand Paul or Scott Walker drive you to the barricades or to distraction? Trump was only too pleased to point out that over 24 million people (the most of any primary debate in history) tuned in to watch the first campaign debate. The question Trump posed was, “Do you think they tuned in to watch Jeb Bush?” Like him or loathe him, the outsized response to Trump, in comparison to all the other candidates, is not because of his specific plans or proposals – because he has none – but because he simply connects with people.
To reinforce this point, a New Hampshire “focus group” of Republicans were asked the number one reason to support Trump. The reason most often mentioned was because “he is one of us.” These peopled expressed this “connection” with a guy who constantly flaunts his wealth, “elite education” and high-powered friends. Can you imagine any group of voters pledging support for Hillary Clinton because, “She is one of us”?
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that to be an effective communicator requires the outlandish, bombastic style exhibited by Trump; that is just a style that works for him, but other styles can work just as well. When Bernie Sanders, the Independent senator from Vermont, entered the race for the
Democratic nomination against Hillary Clinton the odds against his success were even higher than those for Trump. Not only was Clinton the overwhelming presumptive candidate, but unlike Trump, Sanders had virtually zero name recognition, was not wealthy and has a frumpy appearance, combined with a rather retiring – almost shy – way of speaking. On top of it all, Sanders is an admitted Socialist. Despite these apparent deficiencies Sanders has steadily risen in the polls; to the point that he now leads Hillary in New Hampshire and is close on her heels in Iowa. Maybe even more surprising is that the crowds who come to hear Sanders speak are even larger than those that show up for Trump.
What all this comes down to is that if you are an effective communicator – can connect with the people you want to lead – even if the people don’t agree with you on all issues, they are still willing to follow your leadership because they feel connected.
On Becoming Your Own Great Communicator
If you seek to be a successful leader, you can start by learning to be an effective communicator. Real communication is a process of interaction that sends a message of respect, inspiration and motivation as much as it imparts information. Helping those who you want to follow you to understand why something is being done, not just what is being done is the type of communication that creates a connection between the leader and the followers.
Leaders who are good communicators build alliances, never stop painting the vision, create a clear sense of purpose and an urgency to achieve the objective and do so in a way that brings together all the followers. In essence, soon the followers begin to adopt the message and vision of the leader as their own.
If communication is to be effective, it must be open, constant and consistent. Real communication is not something the leader strategizes or plots out; like politicians checking the latest polls before saying anything. Open and honest communication that connects with followers is not a process or a procedure but is something the leader lives. When Trump says something that may be outrageous, the reaction of his critics is, “That is just Trump being Trump.” Being open, constant and consistent can’t be faked and if a leader cannot be that way in every way, there will be a failure to communicate; leading to rejection of the wannabe leader. That is why most of the candidates for the presidential nomination are being “Trumped” and “Berned.”