The need for leadership is at an all-time high these days, and a quick glance at your inbox, the news, or social media will show you there’s no lack of individuals stepping forward to fill the void with commentary and advice. Effective leadership, though, is another story all together.
As someone who has taught communications for over 25 years and who taught Crisis Communication again this semester, I’ve been feeling a bit like a character from one particular story as I’ve listened to different leaders communicate in the media and within various organizations.
You’re probably familiar with Goldilocks, the judicious heroine of the fairy tale involving three bears. Like Goldilocks trying to find the right oatmeal to eat, I’ve been listening to find the leaders whose communication is “just right.” And like her, I’m finding multiple options that range from too hot to too cold before discovering leaders whose communication is just right.
Communication that’s too hot
Leaders struggle with confidence in the best of times, let alone in a crisis. Uncertainty breeds anxiety for everyone, and leaders are not exempt from this. How aware leaders are about their own thinking about a situation determines their effectiveness at leading others through the crisis with reasoned response rather than panicked reaction.
This awareness and ability show up in their communication. For the leader who is frustrated or angered by a situation, there is a tendency to lash out and use words that are fear-based or inflammatory in nature. They have taken their emotions about a crisis and, instead of reflecting inward about how they are feeling, they project outward in reaction mode.
Be wary of leaders who are in reaction mode—they can explode at any moment and for any reason. In the middle of a meeting or a conversation, a simple question may result in yelling or, even worse, name calling or blaming.
Like the porridge that scalded Goldilocks’ tongue, the words of hot-headed leaders can burn both speaker and listener.
Communication that’s too cold
Then there are the leaders who are too cold, ranging from silent (as in saying nothing), to the use of cold words, cool tone, and body language devoid of emotion.
Leaders who are uncertain and anxious may feel that saying nothing is better than saying something negative. We’ve all heard the old saying, “if you have nothing good to say, then don’t say anything.”
However, as Aristotle stated, “nature abhors a vacuum.” When there is a vacuum of information, people will tend to fill in the details themselves. And as humans, we are wired to go to the most negative place, which only serves to create more fear and anxiety.
Other leaders may feel that it is wrong to show any negative emotion when communicating during a crisis, so they take their personality completely out of the equation. They present “just the facts” in a measured, even way. Such leaders may feel that they are coming off as calm, but without any passion connected to the information being presented, people are often left feeling disconnected and unsure.
There’s a reason Goldilocks left the porridge that was too cold on the table—it wasn’t warm enough for her to feel comforted and sustained.
Communication that’s just right
And that brings us to the leader whose communication is “just right.” These leaders are able to communicate in a way that engages and inspires others. They are just as unsure of the future as other leaders. However, they are concerned about their audience and allow that caring to come through when they speak.
These leaders also present the facts, but with an emotional tone that is appropriate for the message being delivered. They are transparent with their information, demonstrating authenticity and a belief in their message.
Leaders whose communication is just right know how to balance pointing out what’s positive in the current situation without crossing the line between being overly optimistic and unrealistic. As a result, people are able to receive their message as credible, and are inspired to move forward.
When the porridge isn’t too hot or too cold, every last bit of it is savored. When communication finds the perfect pitch between those two extremes, people are able to consume it and be sustained by it. Each of us are leaders. Whether we lead in our own organizations, businesses or communities, now is the time to step up and provide effective leadership through communication that is responsive rather than reactionary; engaging rather than distancing. At the end of the story, we’ll know we communicated well if the people who hear us are able to say, “Ah, that was just right.”
Take a look at each of these types so you can determine how to make your communications “just right” the next time you need to speak.
Curious, who do you think are some leaders who get it “just right” in their communication?