Whither The Bully Pulpit


Recent geopolitical tensions around the world have shone a fresh light on the role of leadership communications in shaping the outcome of events. Much ink has been spilt criticizing President Obama’s communication style (Stolberg, 2009) and applauding (or mocking) Vladimir Putin’s taste for virile photo ops that involve playing with tigers (Kramer, 2012). Implicit in much of this commentary is the idea that a leader’s communications style has a distinct impact on perception, whether in stiffening the resolve of one nation against another or giving people in the midst of deep economic recession a hope to soldier on until better times return.

President Theodore Roosevelt is probably the best known of American leaders who held this view when he described the successful leader as someone who spoke softly and carried a big stick (Goodwin, 2013) but the idea of the voice of the leader him or herself carrying people forward, expressing fundamental principles, pointing to the future has had many transcendent expressions. President Franklin Roosevelt’s fireside chats during the Depression (Roosevelt, 1933-1944) come to mind as does Ronald Reagan’ s challenge to Mikhail Gorbachev “to tear down that wall” (Reagan, 1987).

It is an equally cherished belief that leadership communications in a business and organizational context has the same importance as it does in the sphere of the sovereign state but the evidence for its effectiveness in those settings is much more mixed. Chief executive officers and other business leaders supported by their corporate communications and human resources departments are expected to use their words, priorities and public appearances to convey critical information to their employees, to customers and shareholders about strategy, direction and underlying values. In today’s colossal multinational organizations, it is questionable whether any such efforts can materially influence the billions of customer interactions, the attitudes and personalities of front-line supervisors or the daily commentary from analysts and the media on the wisdom or folly of corporate decision-making.

However, the effort continues to be made and executive communication continues to be regarded as a critical piece of business leadership. In the highly complex and networked global enterprise of today, certain features of successful leadership communications stand out more than others.

The most effective examples of leadership communications appear to share four characteristics:

1. The communication, whatever form it takes, is the authentic voice of the individual leader him or herself.

2. The leadership communication is the beginning of a cascade of continuous communication through the entire chain of command rather than a one-time event.

3. The communication is expressed in terms that are personally relevant to individual employees and explains how the message affects their work.

4. The communication is backed up (sooner is better) by visible actions flowing from the narrative or the strategy expressed in the communication.

Whither the bully pulpit: leadership communications and corporate transformation appeared in The Journal of Business Strategy, Vol. 35 Issue: 6, pp.66 – 70, and is reprinted with permission from Emerald Publishing Group Ltd.

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