Tuesday, February 14, 2012

The Power of Words

"I have a dream..." Martin Luther King, Jr. uttered those famous words in 1963. (Watch full speech here). I was one year old, and am now 49. Yet they resonate, and will continue to do so, because of the powerful thoughts that they represent. Words are powerful things, and they have the potential to turn men's hearts and to alter the course of nations. With this kind of power we ought to be careful how we use them.

Words aren't always used for good, sometimes they are used for manipulation. Witness the powerful imagery that Hitler conjured with his speeches about a "thousand year reich." The world shook for years as the nation of Germany united around a madman who was good with words.

As leaders, then, this is a subject that must be thoughtfully considered. The more influential the leader, and the more challenging the times, the greater import of the choice of words. Look again to World War II as an example. Most of mainland Europe lay completely under the boot of Hitler's Nazis, and he turned his murderous attention on England. The island nation was facing the full might of the powerful German airforce - the Luftwaffe. On numerous occasions over the next few years, Winston Churchill's voice and words rose to inspire a nation.

On June 4, 1940 he declared:
"We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France,
we shall fight on the seas and oceans,
we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air,
we shall defend our Island, whatever the cost may be,
we shall fight on the beaches,
we shall fight on the landing grounds,
we shall fight in the fields and in the streets,
we shall fight in the hills;
we shall never surrender..."
(Read the whole speech here.)

On October 29, 1941 he famously uttered these words:
"Never give in. Never give in. Never, never, never, never -- in nothing, great or small, large or petty -- never give in, except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force. Never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy." (See more here.)

It is the power of words that can turn leaders into legends. Witness John F. Kennedy's stirring call to Americans at the time of his inauguration: "...ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country."

As a leader, I've witnessed that the power of words is critical, not just for the world-shaking occasions described above, but for the challenges that face your organization and mine. When difficult times come, what you choose to say (or not say) can result in a renewed vision and determination or a continued loss of momentum. How do you know what to say? Here are some keys that I think need to be remembered:

Have a sense of the times.
Those who follow you need to know that you have a sense of perspective. You don't have to mouth platitudes that "everything is going to be all right," but you do need to explain the situation. The last thing that people want is their leader "fudging figures" or trying to tiptoe around reality. People already have a sense when things aren't going well. The best way to deal with that is to acknowledge that and set a course of action to change it.

Be a "dealer in hope."
Napoleon famously stated that “A leader is a dealer in hope.” This is a true statement, even if we can question Napoleon's motives. The truth is that people need to be inspired, and without hope, people will quickly abandon the fight or the cause. They need to know why they ought to continue to pay the price, and it's a question which deserves an answer.  

Believe it before you say it.
No-one wants to follow a hypocrite, and nothing serves to destroy the heart of an organization more quickly than to find out that their commitment was being taken advantage of. If you do not believe in what you are doing  - get off the bus, call u-haul and leave town. Let another leader emerge who has the courage of their convictions. Sharp people are very quick to sniff out a fraud or a coward. On the other hand, people long to follow a leader who they can believe in. Witness my favorite scene from Braveheart:




Think before you speak.
This speaks of preparation and intentionality. When you understand that what you say could turn the fortunes of your organization or the future of your people you'd best take your time. Focus your mind on the key thought that you want to convey. Remarkably, Martin Luther King, Jr. rarely used a manuscript, but preached from an outline, having the key thoughts committed to memory. Listening to him you have a sense that he had spent a great deal of time pondering how to express the burden that was in his heart. This, I believe is a  real hallmark of great leaders: they embody their cause.

I sincerely believe that people are looking and longing for a cause that is bigger than themselves; something that is worth living for. They are looking for leaders that are able to articulate the vision in a way that they can understand. They want to know why they ought to sacrifice; why they ought to commit wholeheartedly to a cause. It is a large part of a leader's role to cast that vision with clarity - so choose your words wisely.

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