Not all of the chairmen and chief executives Kevin Murray has coached in the past two decades have been geniuses. But that did not prevent them from being extremely successful leaders, he said.“There were some who didn’t appear that brilliant but who managed to get people on board and achieved huge things,” said Murray, chairman of Bell Pottinger Group, the public relations business. “There were others I worked with who were just brilliant, the most awesome thinkers, but they couldn’t take people with them. It became clear there was something here that wasn’t being addressed.”
That something, he believes, is whether or not they were able to inspire people. This does not mean hitting audiences with facts and figures until they grasp the logic of your position, but triggering the right emotional reaction.
“Most communication I have seen is rationally formulated and then rational messages are delivered,” said Murray. “But what moves people is emotion. People are driven to change their behaviour because of how they feel, so you have to make them feel differently.”
Many business leaders, who tend to be highly rational and very analytical in their approach, find this difficult, he said. “It becomes an issue of the language you use, the way you talk and the purpose you give them, but mostly it is about what you believe in, why you think it’s important and what you want other people to do as a result.”
Murray, author of The Language of Leaders, uses rational thinking — reason must always be a part of things, but it cannot be the only part — to help business people work out what their underlying values are.
“I talk about strengths, then about the beliefs that create them … then you start uncovering their deep-seated values, which are the emotional platform for leadership,” he said.
When thought, action and speech spring from this platform, people will be more passionate and more convincing without even trying, because they are talking about things that matter to them. Acting on values, rather than always waiting for a rational analysis of a situation, is the only way in which businesses can react fast enough to keep up with the speed of communication in a world of people constantly changing and publishing their opinions on social media.
Too often in today’s world we are ruled by lawyers, constrained in what we can or should say so that we don’t lose court cases “Today, a single disaffected customer with a powerful point of view can go online and create in minutes a situation where you are under fire. You must have a strong point of view that will allow you to agree with that person and say ‘sorry, we have got this wrong and we will fix it’ or ‘we do not see the world that way, sorry; this is our point of view’.
“You cannot wait until that moment arrives to have that point of view, you can’t take time to think about it, because you won’t have anything to say. You will revert to rational explanations, you will wait for information, and that will mean that you are behind the curve the entire time. You will be sitting there trying to give highly rational arguments about why you are right, but the debate will have moved on.”
The former BP chief Tony Hayward’s handling of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, which was raised by more than half the business leaders Murray spoke to when researching his book, can be seen as an example of this. “I do not believe he was using a moral compass to frame how he was communicating,” said Murray.
“Rationally and technically a lot of what he was saying was correct but it failed to take into account people’s emotion. How they were feeling was crucial.”
In such situations, business leaders need to show their human side. “It’s about that sense of true north, your own sense of ethics and integrity, and recognising that you are dealing with other human beings who are likely to think and feel and have the same emotions that you do. Your personal values must overlap with the business values, otherwise you cannot be authentic in the way you lead.”
Murray says that you must be aware of these and react accordingly and then you will communicate more effectively, although you may also find yourself making statements against the short-term interests of the company.
“Too often in today’s world we are ruled by lawyers, constrained in what we can or should say so that we don’t lose court cases,” he said. “But what happens is that we lose in the court of public opinion. This is a factor that leaders have to take into account. And sometimes they will have to make that decision [that it is better to risk losing in court] because it is public opinion that will determine your long-term future. I think that he [Hayward] felt constrained by what he could legally say.”
Understanding and speaking according to your values tends to make communication more effective and, helpfully, less difficult.
“Time after time I coach leaders who are nervous because they have to give a big speech from a script that has been written for them. I tell them to ditch the script and instead to tell three or four stories that they are comfortable with and let them get their point over.”
Sharing anecdotes that mean something to you as an individual is easier for you and more memorable for the audience. “When people tell these stories they are always more authentic, more convincing, more passionate. It’s very hard to get passion and emotion into a speech when you are reading something that someone else has written.”
Say what you mean, mean what you say
When Kevin Murray questioned business leaders about what they look for when hiring other leaders, the results were consistent.
Raw intellect and the ability to think clearly and strategically came first. The ability to choose the right people and align them to a cause was second, and the ability to communi- cate with others and inspire them was third.
Other sought-after characteristics included a future focus; a sense of mission; strong values; integrity and authenticity. This last aspect requires individuals to understand their strengths and weaknesses, he says in his book The Language of Leaders.
“You have to be clear about the beliefs that underpin your strengths. Figure out your sense of purpose. Articulate all of the above. Only then can you talk from the heart.”
People who can talk from the heart tend to communicate better because their message comes across through their body language. Speakers not trusted by listeners will not be effective communicators, no matter how polished their performance.