Introduction to Leadership, Discipline, and Effective Communication
- May 29, 2012
Tony Hayward faced the press on a Venice, Louisiana, dock. It was May 30, 2010, and the BP chief executive officer had been living on the coast of the Gulf of Mexico for the past month. On April 20, the Deepwater Horizon oil rig had exploded, killing 11, injuring dozens, and beginning a gusher that in 100 days pumped five million barrels of crude oil into the Gulf waters. The Deepwater Horizon disaster had been the dominant story in the news media—it was All-BP-All-the-Time.
Hayward, clearly beleaguered and sleep-deprived, seemed frustrated with suggestions by the media and others that BP—formerly known as British Petroleum—and its leadership weren’t doing enough to stop the flow of oil and protect the Gulf ecosystem. He spoke in front of heavy equipment being readied to be deployed for the cleanup. In a tone of frustration, Hayward tried to show that he cared. He attempted an apology, tried to show that he took the situation seriously: “We’re sorry. We’re sorry for the massive disruption it’s caused their lives. And you know we’re—there’s no one who wants this thing over more than I do. You know, I’d like my life back.”1
It didn’t work. Hayward’s statement had the opposite effect. Instead of showing he cared and that he took Gulf residents’ plight seriously, the “I’d like my life back” quote sounded like self-pity. Critics pounced. There were 11 rig workers who would never get their lives back; dozens of injured whose lives would never be the same; thousands on the coast whose lives and livelihoods were disrupted. They wanted their lives back, too.
“I’d like my life back” became a defining moment. It crystallized for the media and for politicians the apparent callowness of BP’s leadership. It wasn’t the first of Hayward’s verbal blunders. The New York Times had previously quoted him from an internal meeting: “What the hell did we do to deserve this?”2 Nor was it the last. But “I’d like my life back” defined Hayward, BP, and the Gulf recovery. The takeaway: Hayward cares only about himself.
“I’d like my life back” also became self-fulfilling. It began Hayward’s inexorable decline. Six weeks after the quote he was removed as CEO and given a make-work position; he left the company several months later. In the battle for public opinion—for trust, support, the benefit of the doubt—Hayward lost. It was a failure of leadership on a massive scale. And it began with a failure of communication. And that failure, in turn, was a failure of discipline.
Hayward’s blunder is not unique to him. It should be a wake-up call to CEOs and other leaders, to all whose leadership responsibilities require inspiring trust and confidence verbally. Communication has power. But as with any form of power, it needs to be harnessed effectively or it can all too often backfire.
This book applies the Marine Corps’ strategy doctrine, as embodied in its Warfighting manual, to leadership communication. It seeks to help those who engage audiences for a living—whether in positions of leadership or in communication support functions—to do so at a high level of craft.
“The battle for public opinion” is a metaphor. So is “I’d like my life back.” Metaphors matter. Metaphors trigger worldviews and set expectations. As the Berkeley cognitive linguist George Lakoff notes, we tend to live our lives in metaphor, but are generally unaware of the metaphors we live by (see Chapter 8, “Content: Word Choice, Framing, and Meaning,” for more).3
Take, for example, the word “strategy.” We may think we know what it means. But it’s actually a metaphor. In ancient Greek, the word strategos meant a general or the leader of an army. That word derived from two other Greek words: stratos, or army, and agein, to lead. So stratos (army) + agein (to lead) = strategos (one who leads an army). Note that stratos, army, was itself a metaphor. The literal meaning of the word is “organized formation,” as in the layers of rock on a cliff wall.
For the longest time, “strategy” or its equivalents in other languages meant only the art of leading an armed force. But in modern times it has become a metaphor for any goal-oriented activity. Business strategy is a metaphor for using the goal-oriented approach of leading an army to lead a company.
War and communication are not the same thing. But many of the goal-oriented principles of leading an effective armed force can be applied to the leadership discipline of public communication.
For example, the 19th-century Prussian military strategist Carl von Clausewitz defined war as “an act of will directed toward a living entity that reacts.”4 This simple observation is quite profound. War, at its essence, isn’t about fighting or killing, at least not for their own sake. Rather, it’s about an outcome. A reaction. A change.
So is effective communication. I have long taken the metaphor Clausewitz provides, and have translated it this way:
- Communication is an act of will
- directed toward a living entity that reacts.
- Let’s parse this definition:
- Communication is an act of will...
Effective communication is intentional. It is goal-oriented. It is strategic. Unlike ineffective communication, effective communication isn’t impulsive or top-of-mind. It isn’t self-indulgent. And communication isn’t just about what one says. It’s about anything one does or is observed doing. It’s about any engagement with a stakeholder, including silence, inaction, and action.
- ...directed toward a living entity...
Stakeholders aren’t passive vessels that simply absorb messages. Rather, they are living, breathing human beings and groups of human beings. They have their own opinions, ideas, hopes, dreams, fears, prejudices, attention spans, and appetites for listening. Most important, it is a mistake to assume that audiences think and behave just as we do. Most don’t. Understanding an audience and its preconceptions, and the barriers that might prevent an audience from accepting what one is saying, is a key part of effective communication.
- ...that reacts.
This is the element most lost on many leaders. The only reason to engage an audience is to change something, to provoke a reaction. Effective communication provokes the desired reaction; ineffective communication doesn’t. Ineffective communication isn’t noticed, or it confuses, or it causes a different reaction than the one desired. Tony Hayward certainly got his life back, but not in the manner he had hoped.
And whatever the words one uses, we can count on audiences to compare the words to the speaker’s own actions as well as to prior words. The words set expectations; the actions fulfill or betray those expectations. Trust arises when expectations are met and is lost when they are not.
So effective communication is hard. It requires discipline. It requires understanding the desired reaction among the groups to which one communicates, which in turn requires knowing all one can about that group. And then it requires saying and doing all that is necessary—and only what is necessary—to provoke that desired reaction. And it also requires understanding the absolutely predictable consequences—both intended and unintended—of words, silence, inaction, and action.