Leadership Communications - Exercising Wise Use of Power

May 4, 2015, Björn Edlund

Recently, I was asked deliver the opening keynote at Eurocomm 2015 in London, a conference organized by the Europe, Middle East and North Africa chapter of the IABC.

I talked about leadership communications, starting by stating my belief that, just as you can't lead if you can't communicate, the obverse is as true: if you can't lead, you can't communicate.

On leadership, I quoted the management thinker Warren Bennis, who said:

“Leadership is the wise use of power. Power is the capacity to translate intention into reality and sustain it."
And to rise a flag of caution amid the current “change craze," that, if untampered, can be pretty devastating, I reached for an old Chinese saying:
“Leading an organization is like frying a small fish. You spoil it with too much poking."
Finding a balance is a key challenge. Our role as communicators is crucial to organizational leadership. At its most ambitious, public relations is about how to lead. Our job is to help our C-Suite colleagues find the narrative that best expresses their strategic intent.

At the enterprise level, the principal contributions of a Chief Communications Officer are these:

  • We manage brand and are the stewards of reputation;
  • We are listening and mindful story-tellers;
  • We evolve a narrative compelling and open enough for others to join;
  • We tear down walls and build bridges;
  • We find, for our companies, shared value with its stakeholders;
  • We help nurture culture and values;
  • We help shape behavior.
To me, shared story-telling – creating and evolving with others an open and inviting narrative – is probably the most refined form of leadership.

I don't mean that we should sit down and write company stories with our stakeholders. But in the long, public arc of our evolving organizational narrative, we should keep our input open enough for others to be able to project their world view, beliefs and experiences onto a shared canvas.

The art lies in keeping our inputs attractive to allow us to gently steer the story, and knowing when and how to let go.

Recalling some lessons from my first career as a correspondent, bureau chief and new editor for UPI and Reuters, I also told the participants that by doing what reporters do, namely observe and reflect, as a journalist I learned early on that any group – any group – wants to be led.

Against that background, my key point on leadership and communications is this: It is the No. 1 job of PR to help business leaders recognize and meet a deep-seated human need, of both individuals and groups, to be included, inspired, engaged and rallied toward a common goal. With that in mind, how do we as heads of communications, and our teams, help leaders lead?

First and foremost, by helping them think things through. We add context, depth, nuance and contrarian views to often very linear decision-making processes.

It is our job to lead C-Suite discussions away from the false certainty and comfort of Excel spreadsheets, customer analyses and market projections to thorny explorations of distrust, dissent, conflict and controversy – of why people and communities may be closing not only their doors, but also their hearts and minds – and their wallets – to us, and how to engage them constructively – ideally on their terms.

Thinking things through also means that we help shape the strategic intent into a narrative, which in turn will help us build and nurture the relationships our corporations need.

So if our job is to help leaders think things through, what is the core of leadership itself?

From a communications perspective, a useful definition by Henry Kissinger goes like this: “The most important role of a leader is to take on the burden of ambiguity inherent in difficult choices."

After talking about the importance of writing, and providing some examples from my time at ABB (you can read the whole speech here ) I shared my 10 leadership rules, and closed by urging communicators to seek leadership positions.

“We should all aspire to leadership, to test and develop ourselves and to help make our world a better place – one shared story at the time. I urge you to do so. “But also I would also urge you to be mindful of what you wish for. Leadership is hard work, and there is no off switch for a leader. It's like in Hotel California in the old song by the Eagles: 'you can check out any time you want, but you can never leave.'"
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