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Communication Is a Leader’s Strategic Weapon- But Be Careful Where You Point That Thing!

Volume: 1 Issue: 2

The Democratic primaries are just beginning to swing into full gear. And yet, many pundits are saying that the decision is already made in favor of John Kerry. That is odd considering that not so long ago, those same pundits were saying that the nomination was Howard Dean’s to lose. So, what happened?

After a stinging defeat in the Iowa caucuses, Dean appeared at a rally and was determined to be positive and upbeat. Clearly he knew that he had to reach out with a message that would re-energize his troops and renew their belief in the vision that had been so clearly achievable only days, if not hours before. The problem is, Howard Dean confused emotionally compelling vision with raw emotional delivery and in trying to re-ignite the fire of his campaign, made himself the brunt of late night TV and morning radio for days. Leadership requires an emotionally compelling vision and delivery with heart and personal credibility. An example under similar circumstances was then candidate Bill Clinton’s speech after losing in both Iowa and New Hampshire. With good humor and upbeat language he thanked the state of New Hampshire for making him “the comeback kid”, and went on to become just that.

Your Own Style is Critical
There are other lessons for leaders in Governor Dean’s communications after Iowa. One commentator on NPR described his style the next morning in New Hampshire as sounding as if Dean had been given a “political lobotomy.” Having lost control at one end, Howard Dean tried to adopt a style that was not his and would not- no matter how extremely opposite in delivery- undo the damage of the night before. Possibly worst of all is that his credibility on the issue was compromised with a statement that he no longer had to scream since the other candidates had begun to deliver his own messages. Not since Gary Hart asked us to believe that he slept on the couch have we had such an example of self defeating positioning.

Skilled leaders are calculating communicators. They are clear about what messages need to be taken to which audiences and the best ways to do so. However, leadership also demands genuine, honest communications. Leaders foster vision and paint a clear picture of the way people will be impacted by the realization of that vision. And, they do so by communicating with authenticity.

Actions Speak Louder Than Words- Especially When They Are Not Explained
As if the Dean campaign did not have enough challenges, on the heels of losses in Iowa and New Hampshire, Howard Dean made unexplained changes in the management structure of his campaign staff. Although technically demoted, Dean’s campaign manager was, in essence, chased out. News stories gave no account for the change and instead were focused on a reported funding crisis in the Dean campaign. Of course, no one but the Dean Campaign inner circle was privy to the conversations in which the decisions were made. The action, especially in the absence of a credible explanation, spoke volumes to Dean fans and critics alike. One disgruntled Dean volunteer put her response very succinctly when she said, “I was his biggest fan- even after the Iowa mess. But he disappointed me with this. He should take responsibility for problems- not blame someone else. And how could we suddenly have a money problem? Now I have to go figure out who I can support.”

The irony is that Governor Dean may have had very legitimate reasons for every decision he made. Each may have been part of a carefully considered strategy. However, the absence of communication about why he was making such critical changes, so quickly on the heels of his own questionable performance gives the impression of placing blame. The vote on February 3rd reinforced that the Howard Dean has gone from front runner to dark-horse- not because of issues or changes in policy. His fall has been fueled by poor communications.

Effective Leadership Communications
Whether your communication is a written article, a program update, a planned presentation or impromptu comments, use these guidelines to craft your message:

  • Remember that every communication event counts and assume that your words will be remembered and repeated.
  • Consider carefully the audience(s) that you are addressing and be clear in your own mind about how you want them to feel and behave as a result of your communication.
  • Deliver you message with authenticity and with heart, but be cautious of emotionality as the message. Even the best purely motivational speeches have a short life in terms of sustainability.
  • Remember that while your messages establish context, your audiences will watch your actions closely as a way to define what you mean.
  • Be certain that your actions and your communications are aligned.

Until next time….

I. Barry Goldberg
Entelechy Partners

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