Language of leadership – the good, the bad and the ugly

by Claire Wilson

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As governments across the globe scramble to steer their countries through the coronavirus pandemic, leadership has rightly come under the spotlight.

The crisis has also thrown into sharp relief the importance of communication from our leaders, and the stark difference between good and bad communication. As the pandemic has progressed, some leaders have earned trust, reassured their people and won support for extraordinary public health measures. Other leaders have left their citizens confused, distrustful and angry. We’ve looked at examples of leadership communications throughout the crisis to see what works and why.

Having watched closely, we think there are four key elements to the language of leadership that inspires, reassures and persuades: clarity, transparency, accountability and humanity. We also believe, now more than ever, that words matter, and finding and using the right words will be crucial in governments’ efforts to combat the pandemic. Here’s how the language of leadership has been playing out to help, and sometimes hinder, the fight against the virus.

Clarity on every level

It won’t surprise anyone that clarity is essential for strong communication. At a very basic level, people need to understand exactly what you’re saying, and this is especially so when the stakes are high and lives are at risk. So standard communication principles apply, like using plain English and saying just what you mean. But COVID-19 has shown us that there are multiple levels of clarity that people need. They are also looking for clarity around Government objectives and strategy and the justifications for these.

The strength of full disclosure

New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has rightly been lauded for exemplary leadership through the crisis. And one of the hallmarks of her distinctive style is the clarity of her communications.  Not only does she use plain English and speak in a very natural way, but she also shares an unusual level of clarity about her goals, her strategy and the rationale behind them. In a move which now appears prescient, Ardern announced on 21 March to her people: “We go hard, we go early.” She laid out a four-stage process to lock-down the country and clearly explained that her decision was designed to pre-empt a crisis. She then emphasised this with compelling comparisons that anticipated potential objections: “We only have 102 cases – but so did Italy once.”

Ardern backed her announcement up with a level of detail which showed that her plans had been carefully considered. For example, a list of those professions that qualified as key workers was immediately available, with the Easter Bunny and the Tooth Fairy included for good measure.

Ardern clearly set out her expectations of New Zealanders, saying “We will do everything to protect you; I’m asking you to do all you can to protect all of us.” Everyone understood exactly what they needed to do and why they were doing it, which is a significant win in getting people to comply with disruptive lockdown measures. Her calm but authoritative tone invited and presumed cooperation from the public.

The impact of a reactive approach

Meanwhile, the British government has taken a different approach, slowly ramping up to a full lockdown over several weeks but without stating at the outset that this was where the measures were leading.

By drip-feeding their plans, the UK’s response has appeared much less cohesive. Despite repeating the slogan that they’ll follow the science and take the ‘right measures at the right time”, the government hasn’t shared the scientific information that supports their plans or laid out a clear roadmap for the stages of their public health measures. This has left them open to accusations of changing strategy mid-stream. The discussion of a herd immunity strategy in the early weeks, and subsequent back-pedalling, is a result of this lack of clarity and has damaged trust in the government at a crucial time.

At times, the detail behind the measures was missing and had to be clarified at further briefings. For example, when schools were closed in the UK, the definition of key workers (whose children could still go to school) was not released until the following day. This delay prompted speculation and confusion (and many an angsty WhatsApp chat amongst parents, let me tell you). The nature of ‘essential travel’ during lockdown also had to be explained several times because a lack of clarity in the original communication had left room for interpretation.

Complete transparency

Another core principle of good communication, transparency goes hand in hand with clarity. Both are crucial in building trust with your audience. One leader who has turned radical transparency into a communications asset is the Governor of New York, Andrew Cuomo, or the new Luv Guv, as he is now known on the internet.

The Governor’s press conferences have taken centre stage in the US as New York state, and New York City, in particular, faces one of the largest outbreaks of COVID-19 anywhere in the world. Long known for a no-nonsense, plain-speaking style, Cuomo has been fearless in addressing the big questions of the pandemic crisis. He has spoken frankly about the tensions of working with the federal government, disagreed openly with the President on state vs federal authority and also been incredibly honest about the difficult balance between protecting people AND the economy. His willingness to tackle these matters head-on has made him a trusted source of information on the virus and the pandemic and lifted his approval ratings dramatically.  

His use of slides including visuals and data to accompany and support his messages has also been particularly effective. The simple, yet information rich, slides have helped convey the urgency of the public health crisis and reinforced his frank and open approach.

Andrew Cuomo

Meanwhile, closer to home, Boris Johnson has set the stage for some of his most important announcements by stating frankly what’s at stake for the nation. He has described the pandemic as “the worst public health crisis for generations”, called out the folly of comparing COVID-19 to a bad flu, and gravely acknowledged that “many more families will lose loved ones”. These strong and direct words stand out particularly for a nation famed for prevarication, and his manner has helped to highlight the seriousness of the threat to the public.

Interestingly, while Johnson was hospitalised and other members of his cabinet led the daily briefings, some of his deputies reverted to the vague language we typically expect of politicians. Matt Hancock, Health Secretary, praised the frontline health workers fighting tirelessly to “resolve the situation”. Although understatement is a British superpower that we normally embrace, Hancock’s awkward choice of words seemed to try to sanitise the awful situation and avoid facing the tragic truth of this crisis.

Accountable and responsible leadership

While clarity and transparency are things that we would recommend for building trust with any audience, accountability is an essential ingredient for leadership during a crisis. Simply because the stakes are so high. People have more confidence and faith in leaders who show they are 100% accountable and 100% committed to their decisions.

A masterclass in accountability

Andrew Cuomo has offered a masterclass in accountability during this crisis. When announcing the closure of non-essential businesses, a decision with extreme economic consequences for individuals and the state as a whole, he declared, “I accept full responsibility. If someone is unhappy, somebody wants to blame someone, people complain about someone, blame me.”

Often, leaders can seem insulated from the experiences of their people. Cuomo has been careful to show that he’s sharing in the disruption and threat of the pandemic. He openly discusses the risks to key workers and even the people protecting him as he continues to govern, stating, “I say to the National Guard, I’ll never ask you to go where I won’t go, I’ll never ask you to do something I won’t do.” He has openly argued on TV with his brother, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo, about not applying social distancing rules strictly enough by allowing their mother to visit him. It’s clear from his actions and his words, that the public health measures apply to him and his family just as much as everyone else.

A masterclass in buck-passing

A stark contrast to this level of accountability and commitment is the US President, Donald Trump. No surprises that he’s appearing in an article about the language of leadership. Unfortunately, in addition to openly stating that he takes “no responsibility at all” for the failures in the federal testing programme for coronavirus, he has also spent a disproportionate amount of time seeking other people to blame for the crisis facing the US. In the initial weeks of the outbreak, he regularly claimed that it was a hoax by the democrats and the ‘fake news’ media. Having finally acknowledged the emergency, he insisted on calling the disease the ‘China virus’ or the ‘Wuhan virus’ to apportion blame to the location of the first outbreaks. This was even government policy, with the Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, holding up a joint G7 statement about the pandemic because other governments refused to label it the ‘Wuhan virus’.

And when it comes to showing commitment to the public health measures implemented, Trump ignored guidance around social distancing by continuing to shake hands. Then when guidance was updated to recommend the wearing of masks in public, he immediately announced he wouldn’t be doing it himself. Not being willing to personally make the changes needed to contain the virus undermines the importance of these measures and makes it less likely that others will comply with these simple steps.

Sorry, not sorry

A final essential part of accountability is being willing to admit mistakes. Again, the poster child for accountability, Cuomo has set the bar high by openly acknowledging that there are things he’d do differently if he could go back in time. He’s also made it clear that members of his administration are learning as they navigate this unprecedented situation and may make more mistakes as they learn. Showing humility in this way has won patience and understanding from the public.

On this side of the Atlantic, a UK cabinet minister was called out for avoiding responsibility for government decisions. Stepping in to lead the daily briefing while Boris Johnson was hospitalised, Priti Patel, Home Secretary, said she was “sorry if people FEEL [emphasis added] there have been failings” over the provision of personal protective equipment to front line health workers. Language like this shifts the blame to the people ‘feeling’ as if there have been failings rather than taking responsibility for those failings. Not being willing to acknowledge a situation can lead the public to doubt whether that situation is being tackled vigorously.

The human face of the crisis

The final common feature of inspiring and impactful leadership in the crisis has been humanity. With the global death toll rising every day, it has been easy to become numb to the horror of the human tragedy. The leaders that have won the most trust and support during this time have been unfailingly compassionate and found ways to personalise the crisis and the measures they’ve taken.

Family focused

Jacinda Ardern followed up her public announcement of the country wide lockdown with a video message recorded in her home and shared on Facebook. Appearing in a casual sweatshirt, fresh from having put her toddler to bed, she showed that she’s sharing the challenges of parenting in a lockdown and struck a chord with a personal appeal to New Zealanders to observe the new measures and save lives.

Andrew Cuomo has found several ways to show the personal face of the crisis. He named the law requiring senior citizens to stay home after his elderly mother, Matilda. He has also been open about his fear over his brother’s diagnosis with COVID-19, displaying a vulnerability which has won him praise. And, finally, he has led a social media campaign with the hashtag #istayathomefor, asking people to name the people they are staying home to protect, in a bid to remind the public that they all have someone to protect.

A high-profile patient

Meanwhile, back across the pond, the hospitalisation of Boris Johnson was a watershed moment for the crisis in the UK. When the Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, updated the country on the PM’s condition, his description of him as not only a boss and colleague but also a friend, brought tears to the eyes of many and won sympathy for the cabinet. Upon Johnson’s release from the hospital, his first recorded message to the nation highlighted his gratitude to the NHS workers who had saved his life. Unusually, he also called out and named two nurses in particular who had seen him through the toughest days of his personal health crisis. His humble thanks, and personal messages to the nurses were a strong display of his compassion and humanity in the midst of the crisis.

Leading the way

It is inspiring to see examples of courageous leadership during this difficult time, and these leaders have saved lives by communicating effectively.

We’ve also seen strong examples of leadership from within the business community. In fact, every organisation can benefit from using the language of leadership to win trust and support from their audience. If you’re not sure whether your leadership comms are hitting the target or missing the mark, get in touch. We can help.

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