Thanks to my Hay Group colleague Scott Spreier, who has done a lot of work with CEOs, for this guest post. NOTE – since the original posting, I’ve received a number of partisan comments, which was far from our intent; we were really looking at how leaders communicate and so, to be fair, we are going to code one of Reagan’s early term speeches for comparison. Stay tuned…
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Memo to senior executives in the finance and auto industry:

Regardless of your political persuasion, before you leave the office today have your assistant print out a copy of President Obama’s Cairo speech. When you get home, pour yourself a Scotch, pull it out of your briefcase, and read it – slowly and carefully. It may be the most productive time you’ve spent all day. There’s a lot you can learn from the President on how to talk to the public and regain your credibility.

Take a look at not only what Obama said, but also how he said it. We did, using an expert in coding stories and speeches for the motives and values behind the words. Such concepts create specific perceptions and reactions – good, bad, or indifferent — in the minds of listeners and readers.

What our expert found was as delicate balance of empathy, engagement, and achievement  — a subtle speech that established clear goals, but then sought to engage a highly diverse audience in realizing those goals. 

Absent was the corporate posturing, finger-pointing, power-tripping, and pie-in-the-sky promising that is seen daily in the business press. (We also analyzed a full-page GM “To our customers” ad that appeared on the same day as the Cairo story. It was all about what GM planned to achieve – and stated almost nothing to really empathize with or engage the auto-buying public.) 

The President, on the other hand, leveraged three key concepts that people around the world tend to either value or be motivated by: 

Achievement – meeting or exceeding a personal standard of excellence. We’re big on achievement in the US, sometimes to the point of offending or scaring our global neighbors. Yet Obama didn’t shy away from laying out some specific goals: “…the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security. That is in Israel’s interest, Palestine’s interest, America’s interest, and the world’s interest. That is why I intend to personally pursue this outcome….”

Power – impacting and influencing others. Unlike his predecessor and many corporate leaders, Obama didn’t try to hammer these ideas home with brute force. He used a subtle approach that attempted to influence and engage – to collaborate with – an extremely diverse and partisan audience. “All these things must be done in partnership,” he noted. “Americans are ready to join with the citizens and governments, community organizations, religious leaders, and business in Muslim communities around the world to help our people pursue a better life.” 

Affiliation – maintaining close personal relationships. Finally, the President through a frank but friendly tone created a long-lost sense of transparency and trust. Even though he stood behind the Presidential Seal, through his words and demeanor he created the perception that he was first and foremost a friend and fellow human being. 

In the end, the President’s speech was successful because through an authoritative, yet democratic and friendly voice, he created a narrative that touched the basic motives and values of all of us, no matter our religion, politics, or nationality.

Given the dearth of credibility and transparency in business today, corporate leaders would be wise to take a similar approach. We don’t want to hear how good you are, or how you’ve been victimized, or how great you will be. We want you to be open and honest, frank but friendly. Most important, we want you to drop your imperial demeanor and engage us as equals. 
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Scott is a senior leadership and talent consultant at Hay Group who works regularly with CEOs and their leadership teams. He co-authored the most downloaded Harvard Business Review article in 2006,  “Leadership Run Amok: The Destructive Potential of Overachievers, which I discussed in an earlier post, here.  Feel free to contact Scott directly at Scott.Spreier@haygroup.com

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