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Once more with feeling

By Simon Holland - February 14, 2012

In his second blog of 2012, Simon Holland, Global Head of Strategic Change and Organizational Transformation, explains why making emotional connections with people is one of the hallmarks of great leadership

Emotions have always been a business taboo. It’s time to redress the balance. Feelings not facts move people to action when implementing decisions

Valentine's cork boardIt’s Valentine’s Day and my thoughts are turning inevitably to warm and fuzzy things: feelings and relationships. However, my inspiration for this month’s blog is not Saint Valentine himself, but some of the most eminent leaders on both sides of the Atlantic.

A couple of books, The Corner Office and The Language of Leaders, have been brought to my attention. The former is by Pulitzer prize-winning American journalist Adam Bryant; the latter by communications expert Kevin Murray, a South African who’s spent most of his working life in Britain. They’re both based on transcripts of interviews with leaders, many of them big names, and they offer some strikingly similar lessons. Chief among them is this: the soft stuff matters—and it matters hugely. Leaders who don’t understand people and know how to communicate with them are lost. Business, as Jeff Swartz of Timberland reminds us in The Corner Office, is personal.

The corollary is that impersonal leadership is weak. The ivory tower boss who fails to talk to followers is as doomed as he or she is anachronistic.

In his introduction, Murray tells us that “just about every leader … identified communication as a top-three skill of leadership, if not the second most important,” pointing out that “the best strategy was useless if people could not be inspired to help deliver it.”

One of Murray’s interviewees, Sir Stuart Rose, who, as a former CEO of retailer Marks & Spencer is one of the best-known names in British business, tells him that: “Building reputation and trust is the day job, which makes communication the day job, too.”

Contributors to The Corner Office agree, one of them believing, says Bryant, that “communication is not merely a tool for leadership but leadership itself.”

Effective communication builds emotional connections, which in turn build relationships—and relationships, according to Murray, are the “engines of success,” they’re what persuade people to make a commitment to organizational goals: “Relationships are all about feelings, and great communicating leaders lock on to this to get emotional buy-in.”

If they can’t make emotional connections—by, for example, authentic, passionate storytelling—leaders are not going to persuade people to make the “discretionary effort” on which success depends.

Relentless repetition and endorsement of mission and values (through standards and behaviors) and high visibility are hallmarks of good leadership. So, too, is the ability to listen. Silence, the softest thing of all, has its place in the corner office. Even the most ebullient and macho of bosses seem to acknowledge this. Steve Ballmer of Microsoft tells Bryant: “If you really want to get the best out of people, you have to really hear them, and they have to feel like they’ve been heard. So I’ve got to slow down and improve in that dimension, both to make me better and to make the people around me better.”

Clear communication of values, mission, and vision and goals, forming relationships through talking and listening—this is pretty obvious, motherhood and apple pie stuff. Why do we need books about it? Because we have a nasty habit of taking motherhood and apple pie for granted. “I did not find evidence of widespread leadership communication training,” says Murray in his conclusion.

The Corner Office includes this quote from Guy Kawasaki, former marketing guru for Apple: “Much of education is backwards. You study all the hard stuff, and then you find out in the real world that you don’t use it. As long as you can use an HP-12 calculator or a spreadsheet, you have the finance knowledge you need for most management positions. I should have taken organizational behavior and social psychology.”

Now, I’m not suggesting for a moment that we turn our back on reasoned arguments and clear-sighted analysis. Business decisions must be based mainly on the hard stuff—evidence, robust data, facts, etc. But it’s clear that, for decisions to be implemented effectively, you need the soft stuff—and lots of it.

Too often, emotion seems a dirty word in business, considered too “messy” for the hard-nosed world of strategy. A female boss tells Bryant that she felt she had to be “tough-minded and decisive” on her way to the top and that it was a mistake to show “compassion.”

The thinking organization sees the big picture. It asks if there’s the commitment and engagement, the corporate will, to realize its vision. And if not, what can be done about it. As Murray suggests, it knows that emotion can support—as well as inhibit—logic.


Dttl_simonholland_56x56Simon Holland, Global Head of Strategic Change and Organizational Transformation for Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, specializes in people performance and leadership and has guided the design, development, and delivery of many change programs, helping organizations lead people in new ways of thinking and working—for the long-term benefit of shareholders and stakeholders.

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