I know a senior executive at a large corporation who has a big problem. John is smart and knows the business backwards, but people don’t believe in him. They don’t say anything directly to him. Instead, they complain to each other. Some say he is controlling; others say he is not a “people person.”
John holds positional power, but he lacks the personal authority of a real leader. If you took away his title and his multimillion-dollar salary, nobody would follow him. He will probably end his career as a very wealthy man, but nobody will remember him as a leader who helped them grow.
Let’s be kind and assume that John wants to inspire people, but he doesn’t know how to do it. How can he get people to believe in him?
In ancient Greece and Rome, they knew what we seem to have forgotten: your job as a leader is to persuade people to do great things in uncertain contexts, using only one tool: your words. Compelling leaders, as Aristotle might say, have three qualities that they express through three “languages”:
Agility (or “Logos”). This language is about reading situations and getting things done. John is fluent in this language, but he needs to demonstrate that he is a learner. Words like this will work: “When we made this acquisition it seemed a good idea, but as I reflect on what has happened, three things are changing on us…”
Authenticity (or “Ethos”). Followers need to know that you have deep values and dreams, and they need to hear you speak about hope. They also want to know that you are animated by some big beliefs. Authentic language comes from the heart. An authentic statement would be something like: “When I was a kid, a bully beat me up. I believe that bullies don’t belong in our organization. Treating employees like ‘resources’ rather than people is a kind of bullying. Instead of laying people off, can’t
we find a way to unlock their creativity right now?”
Empathy (or “Pathos”). Caring for people is a quality John seems to lack. Do you chat with people in the hallways and reveal your own weaknesses to them? Do you invite people lower in the org chart to have a cup of coffee with you? Do you listen carefully? Are you helpful?
It’s also important to tell stories about your own lessons in empathy. For example, a leader of a large professional services firm told this story: “We employed a male receptionist for ten years. Every day he left work at 4:45 p. m. on the dot. When he retired, I asked him why he left so precisely every day. He explained that he was the conductor of our national opera orchestra, and he had to leave to go to practice. For ten years we never asked this guy what he did, and we had a genius under our noses. That was wrong. How many other people with great hidden gifts are there in our company?”
In the end, John can become the kind of leader people will follow. But to do that, he’ll have to work on sharpening his language skills.