Speech Presented by Trevor Ncube at the 8th World Public Relations Forum in Madrid, Spain
21-23 September 2014
“Leadership Through Communication”
Ladies and gentlemen, it is my pleasure to join you today. I am particularly pleased to be able to share with you my thoughts on the link between leadership and communication, as I strongly believe that nothing differentiates the truly great leaders from the average ones than the quality of communication. If we look across the ages and we look at those leaders that stand out in any era, they are those that are able to rally others to their cause through powerful but simple messages.
One of the greatest mistakes of leadership is to invest only in communicating the positive, and avoiding or ignoring the negative. It is telling that when there’s a crisis or things don’t go according to plan, so many organizations stop communicating altogether. But it is precisely when the going gets tough that leadership through communication becomes a must. This is when a leader has to step up to the plate with clear, authentic and credible message. In the absence of such honesty organizations can suffer irreparable reputational harm.
The great leaders often seem to have a knack for saying the right thing at the right time. But it is not instinct that gives them this advantage. They invest time and resources in sharpening their skills as communicators. Whether it is Steve Jobs at Apple, Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, Aliko Dangote, at the Dangote Group, Nelson Mandela in SA, or Pope Francis at the Vatican, there’s a very clear link between these leaders’ ability to cut through the clutter and focus their audiences on a key message or value. In my own industry, the truly great editors are able to rally the talent at their disposal to report stories that matter.
At a time when there is so much information at our fingertips, the challenge for the effective leader is not making more information available. It is rather how to use a set of values as a filter to help sift through the information overload. This makes it possible for others to make decisions quickly and elegantly. These leaders are able to inspire others to act in the interest of the collective.
At a time when change is all around us, and when even the most established organizations are looking nervously over their shoulders at brave upstarts, those leaders that are able to communicate succinctly will always win the day. What communication does is to simplify the choices at hand, to let others know what truly matters and what can be put aside. As Alan Axelrod puts it “Effective leadership is still largely a matter of communication.”
It is often fascinating to watch as organizations stumble from one crisis to the next, not because their fundamentals are not in place, but because there isn’t someone with a strong enough voice to say what needs to be done. When we look at the UN and when it has been most effective, there’s no doubt that a Secretary General with the ability to communicate convincingly the choices at hand is the common denominator. At the moment it is fascinating to see how the UN’s authority has been considerably weakened because of its inconsistent messaging around the major global crisis. Where the UN acted quickly on Libya, it has hesitated on Egypt, Syria, the Ukraine & the Israel/Gaza conflict. This failure to communicate a clear position has eroded its moral authority.
It is worth revisiting the example of South Africa and how Mandela was able to use his considerable communication skills to lead the country out of an explosive political and social situation. At the time of the transition from Apartheid to democracy, South Africans were faced with so many equally important and competing visions for the future. These included justice, equality, redress, fairness, and affirmative action. The enormity of the choices threatened to paralyze the nation at the historic moment of transition. But then Mandela stepped and led through transformative communication. He chose reconciliation and forgiveness as the key values and then set about communicating these as the foundation for the new nation. Lesser leaders may have vacillated between the various options, confusing a restive nation even further. But not Mandela.
In essence Mandela’s great act of leadership was to simplify the choices for South Africans from a dizzying set to very tangible ones. Instead of them watching from the sidelines as the great political drama unfolded around them, he asked each of the ordinary citizens to join in the act of building a new nation by committing themselves to the ideal of reconciliation and forgiveness. In retrospect it is easy to appreciate just how much of a hard sell these values were on either side of the political divide. There was mistrust on either side. There was mutual fear. But a durable and pragmatic way out had to be found.
Perhaps the moment when South Africa truly needed Mandela’s steadying hand, and his leadership and power as a communicator was after the assassination of Chris Hani in 1993. Chris Hani was the leader of the South African Communist Party and chief of staff of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress.
When Mandela could so easily have communicated his own profound loss and anger, he chose a reflective tone, saying to those who were driven to rage: ‘Any lack of discipline is trampling on the values that Chris Hani stood for. Those who commit such acts serve only the interests of the assassins and desecrate his memory.’
Mandela had begun his address in a suitably somber tone by saying simply, “Our grief and anger is tearing us apart”
Knowing how deeply race was at the heart of reactions to the murder of Hani, Mandela added “’Tonight I am reaching out to every single South African, black and white, from the very depths of my being. A white man, full of prejudice and hate, came to our country and committed a deed so foul that our whole nation now teeters on the brink of disaster. A white woman, of Afrikaner origin, risked her life so that we may know and bring to justice this assassin”
The effects of Mandela’s words and firm position calmed passions and prevented a bloodbath. It was a real demonstration of his rare combination of ideals and wily political skills.
If Mandela’s words demonstrate the triumph of communications as a tool of leadership, the opposite is true of latter day Robert Mugabe. Where Mugabe had once urged all Zimbabweans to turn their swords into ploughshares to build a new nation, he now ranted against both the US and the UK, accusing them of driving a colonial agenda against Zimbabwe because of their opposition to his land seizure program. The effect of Mugabe’s land reform program decimated the Zimbabwean economy and his increasingly divisive words tore the young nation apart
Probably the most important lesson of leadership through communication is that leaders show the way, not so much by what they say, but what they DO. Nothing undermines a leader’s credibility more than saying one thing AND THEN doing the exact opposite. This is especially so in the era of transparency when the power of the Internet never to forget coupled with Social Media means what leaders SAY will always be tested against what they DO. Thus, authentic communication is the only form that will stand the test of time.
And it is perhaps why we laud Mandela’s leadership today because he used his own ACTIONS to communicate the power of these values to build trust where it once seemed impossible. This was by no means an easy thing to achieve. And that is why the world took notice of this man who was able to convince a justifiably angry, disenfranchised majority that peace; forgiveness and reconciliation was the path towards a viable future. Contrast Mandela with those leaders who have failed their countries or organizations because they could not communicate what truly mattered in moments of great crisis.
In my mind no other leader of the last 50 years demonstrates the power of oratory quite like Martin Luther King Jr. While his speeches were always thoroughly prepared, and he had clearly rehearsed them, it was in their delivery that Dr King emphatically showed he was SPEAKING FROM THE HEART. In the age of great tools, personal conviction still triumphs
When John D Rockefeller says, “Good management consists in showing average people how to do the work of superior people” he is calling our attention to how a great communicator is able to make people achieve what once seemed impossible. It has been fascinating for me to see how over the past three years there has emerged a new positivity about Sub-Saharan Africa that in many ways is at least partly a result of good communications. The President of the African Development Bank , Dr Donald Kaberuka has been in the forefront of leading the change of Africa’s image through robust and consistent communication, hence the “Africa Rising” narrative. Also, leaders such as Paul Kagame of Rwanda and John Mahama of Ghana have invested much of their energy in saying that Africa is ready for business. They have also simplified the process of setting up shop in their countries, and while problems are still there, it is their messaging that has galvanized their foot soldiers to deliver on this vision.
If you have ever landed in Kigali and you drive through the streets of this city, you will realize what is possible in a mere two decades when a leader repeatedly communicates the vision of the future and makes available the resources to achieve this vision. It is nothing short of a miracle that in a continent where leaders are notorious for stating their five or ten-year visions and then doing little to achieve them, Kagame has not only stayed on message, but he has acted boldly to deliver on this vision.
Perhaps at no other time has mastery of communication been more critical for leaders than in the present period. None of us can mistake the fact that leaders know that communication is very important. It is why dictators invest so much of their time in controlling what is said about them in print, radio, TV, and with great difficulty on the Internet. Even the world’s leading brands invest a great deal of their effort in finding new ways to communicate their way to sustain their leadership positions. They hire influential bloggers, they hold investor conferences, they tweet, they advertise, they may even go as far as to plant stories about their competitors. But as we have seen with the recent troubles at Blackberry, once the message gets lost, it is easy for a once great brand or organization to quickly lose relevance.
But the real job of the great leader is to ensure that their organization stays ahead of the curve. As Jack Welch said, “An organization’s ability to learn and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage”
That is why even though ours is often referred to as the Social Era, I suspect that ours should really be called the sharing generation. Where information was once private, now the impulse is to share it as quickly and as widely as possible. Look how quickly even the most private moments such as loss, death, have become opportunities to share via Twitter, Instagram or Facebook. Of course human beings have always been social. What the technology has done for us is to speed up our ability to share.
The implications of the sharing era lie at the heart of the emerging new economic giants. Whether it is Uber or AirBnB, new companies are disrupting old industries. At the heart of this new sharing economy isn’t technology, but the ability of leaders like the founder of Uber Travis Kalanick to create excitement about the new paradigm and spur early adopters to ditch years of established behavior to found wholly new ways of doing things. Again at the heart of this ability to found new sectors is the ability for these leaders to communicate with impressive clarity.
They communicate very clearly, leaving no room for doubt about what it is they are saying, and why it is important. Put another way, it is difficult to imagine how anyone could become a great leader without being able to communicate clearly. That is why it is not surprising that most of the leaders that we admire the ones we most look up to, the ones that we lionize often differ in many respects, but they are similar in at least one very important way: they all lead through effective communication.
Interestingly not all great communicators are powerful orators. What is common to all effective communicators is the authenticity of their message. It is this that allows them to connect with others, and to move others to action.
One of the great communicators of all time has to be Mahatma Gandhi. Where many focus on his massage, it is perhaps his tools that demonstrate his astuteness as a communicator. Gandhi used two weekly newspapers as his chief means of communication. Both Young India and Harijan were full of powerfully written articles on all the subjects that Gandhi believed mattered the most. Gandhi knew how to use these weeklies to influence mass opinion. Even as his philosophy of non-violent resistance, Satyagraha gained ground, Gandhi continued to write for and edit journals.
In conclusion I would like to say that the kind of communication I am talking about here obviously goes well beyond ‘publicity’. There are enough opportunities for the vain leader to profile himself, but this does not always reflect or amount to leadership. The leadership I am referring to recognizes the necessary link between the success of the organization and successful communication. When organizations succumb to rumor or gossip, it is invariably because there was an absence of leadership through communication.