September 2, 2017 – Communication Failure

“There are only two ways to influence human behavior: you can manipulate it or you can inspire it.”

– Simon Sinek,  Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action

Words matter. A good leader must be able to effectively transmit not only the vision for the organization’s future, but to do it in such a way that everyone understands and enthusiastically implements that vision. People can also be manipulated by a leader (hard to say good) who is a good communicator as well. Two examples of communicators who influenced and manipulated are Ronald Reagan and Adolf Hitler.

President Ronald Reagan who was known for his “shining city on the hill” speeches, how that inspired others, and how those who are familiar with his vision still speak about it today. His vision of what America could be still resonates in the Republican Party and with those who think that America’s best days are not behind her. Adolf Hitler is an example of how someone with a can use their powers of persuasion to do evil. Adolf Hitler was able to articulate his vision of a National Socialist Germany effectively, but to a ruinous end for the German people. Both of these men, positive and negative examples, were able to communicate a vision or idea.

Both men were effective, and the point is the communicated and idea (good or bad) that was understood and followed.  Admiral Thad Allen, US Coast Guard (retired) emphasized the need for an effective communication when he discussed strategic leadership during a speech to Washington policy makers 5 years ago He spoke of the need to communicate early and often during a crisis to ensure that the message that the leader wanted to convey gets ahead of any other possibly conflicting messages. This is the same principle an effective leader needs to understand when furthering his or her vision. A good leader will find a message that resonates with those around him, and he will repeat that message in an effective and interesting way. Good leaders must be skillful in seeking common ground with followers who have who have contrasting views or conflicting agendas. To accomplish this, a leader must reach out and effectively communicate why their vision must succeed. A leader must be able to communicate that changes are being done for the organization, and not to the organization. This will depend on proactive engagement, a sense of trust, and frequent communication.

A personal example of this was the message transmitted during the first Gulf War by the U.S. National Strategy team – President, Secretary of Defense, Secretary of State, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff – to the lowest ranking Soldiers, Airmen, Sailors, and Marines deployed during Operations Desert Storm/Desert Shield. The message that I heard while deployed was the same message heard by every single deployed serviceman in theater; the military was there to liberate Kuwait and destroy the Iraqi army in the field. That message was repeated over and over to ensure that every serviceman knew what he was fighting for, and why he was there. No one was more passionate in this message than U.S. Central Command Commander, General Norman Schwarzkopf. It was his communication example that left a lasting impression on how to be passionate about a vision or message. It is passion for an idea that has driven the greatest innovators, inventors, and leaders to achieve their vision.

So why is this titled communication failure?  I played an active part in having a senior government official (on detail to our agency) removed this week and sent back to their home agency. His biggest failure was communication – both upward and downward.  It was not a pleasant episode, and I believe the person was totally blind as to why he had failed. In my opinion, the fault was evenly spread among his peers, supervisors, and subordinates. He had been allowed to progress despite this critical leadership fault, failing forward and upward as he went. The sad part about this gentlemen was he couldn’t inspire or manipulate; he simply couldn’t communicate, except in buzzwords at meetings.  That fooled enough people to get him this far – but it didn’t last when performance was monitored and closely watched.

To watch Admiral Allen’s speech click the link below – its a fascinating look into how to communicate in a crisis.

Admiral Thad Allen, Speech about “Leadership in Times of National Crisis” June 21, 2011,




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