May 1999 Issue



By Brent Filson

Over the years, I have learned two simple but remarkable truths about business leaders. If someone had told me these truths before I started writing and consulting about leadership 15 years ago, I would have called her nuts. Yet I have discovered that these may be the most common truths in business. One truth is that practically all business leaders, even the most successful, get only a fraction of their potential results. And the other truth is that this failing is invariably their own fault. So no matter how well we are doing, we are not doing as well as we could be, and we have nobody to blame but ourselves.

I'm not going to go into an analysis of the many and often complex causes behind these truths. Instead, I'm going to tell you how to do something about them--starting right now, and for the rest of your career.

To employ the corrective that I'm prescribing, you do not have to come equipped with advanced degrees or seniority. You don't have to be a big shot leader. You don't have to be on the fast track. You just have to do one thing, and you must do it well. And you must do it consistently.

You have to be able to develop and deliver leadership talks.

The Leadership Talk

To begin with, a leadership talk is not a presentation. There is a clear difference between the two--and that difference often marks the dividing line between achieving full potential or forever second-guessing what went wrong. The difference is simple: A presentation communicates information, but a leadership talk has people believing in you and wanting to follow you. My experience is that 95% of leaders communicate through presentations and give presentations 95% of the time. If you flip this, and give presentations just five percent of the time and leadership talks 95% of the time, you will go a long way toward getting the results you are capable of getting.

Here's an example of how to develop a leadership talk. I'm going to use a CEO I worked with, but this does not mean that the principles and processes of a leadership talk are only applicable to high-level leaders. They are the same for any leader at any level, from supervisors and mid-level managers to senior executives and CEOs.

The CEO of a worldwide business asked me to help him develop a talk he planned to give to several hundred of his top executives. "I feel as if I am Daniel going into the lion's den," he said. Hired from a competing firm, he was a stranger to the company, a company hobbled by declining market share and the bad morale caused by the arbitrary actions of the previous CEO, an isolated dictator. "This is the first time most of them will see and hear me," he said. "I'll give a presentation on the state of the business."

"Hold on," I said. "Don't give a presentation--give a leadership talk instead. If you're simply going to give them information, why not hand out a brochure? On the other hand, if you want them to take action for results, you need to give a leadership talk. You've got a great leadership talk opportunity. But to have people believe in you and follow you, they must be emotionally committed to you and what you say."

Principle #1: Understand the true meaning of leadership. To be able to give a leadership talk, you must first understand the principles of leadership. For I find leadership one of the most misunderstood concepts in business. The word "lead" comes from the Old Norse meaning "to make go." Indeed, leadership is about making things go--making people go, making organizations go. But the misunderstanding comes when leaders believe that they make things happen through the force of their own wills. These leaders think that if people must go from point A to point B, they must be ordered to go. But "order" leadership founders when decisions and results must occur quickly and responsively in today's competitive markets.

Today, we need a new kind of leadership--leadership predicated on the idea that we lead well not when ordering people to go from A to B, but when motivating and empowering them to go from A to B. The leadership talk flows from
that idea.

Principle #2: Understand your audience's emotional needs. To have people be emotionally committed to following you and your cause, you must first understand what their needs are. To understand this, let's reference philosopher René Descartes, who said "I think, therefore I am." When it comes to leadership, he's wrong: It's "I feel, therefore I am." Human beings define their existence by how they feel about reality, not so much by what they analyze. The emotional needs of our audience mark the playing field where they can believe in and follow a leader.

For instance, well before his talk was to be given, the CEO and I spoke with a number of his managers and found out that they were feeling intimidated by the demands of increasingly sophisticated customers. They feared they would not be supported in the decisions they made in the field. They were angry at having to meet what they considered unnecessary reporting requirements. We learned that they didn't trust the top executives. Intimidation, fear, anger, distrust--those emotions described the state of his audience and, in truth, the state of the business. The CEO began to develop a leadership talk that spoke to and answered the needs of those emotions, a talk based on the single idea that he was a person whom they could trust. Emotion drives results. Analyze and speak to the emotional context of a situation and you can become a more effective leader.

Principle #3: Bring conviction to what you say. A great business leader said to me, "Brent, I'm a patient, reasonable man, but when I run out of patience, I give my best leadership talks." Your best leadership talks come when you are dedicated, fully informed, and passionate about what you want to say. The leadership talk is about transferring your excitement to others. If you are not excited about what you want to say, you won't get others excited.

The CEO made sure that he was passionate about the points he made. In fact, he set the standard high: If he was not excited about a particular point, he threw it out of the talk.

Principle #4: Get your audience to act. Results are what the leadership talk is all about. But in order to get results, people have to take action. Without action, there will be no results.

Many leaders misunderstand what action really means. Let us take a measure of action from the ancient Greeks: "When Achenes spoke, the Greeks said, 'How beautiful he speaks.' But when Demosthenes spoke, they said, 'Let's march against Philip.'"

Leadership talks should stir people to march, take action, and get results. In this case, the CEO challenged his audience to write down three specific ways that he could build trust in the organization. In the months ahead, he acted on those suggestions and, in turn, challenged his audience to do the same.

In short, the CEO, instead of giving a presentation, gave a leadership talk. The difference between a presentation and a leadership talk in that situation is the difference between a lightning bug and lightning.

One more thing. The leadership talk is not just given from a podium. It can be given across a desk, at a water fountain, or in a conference room to a small group. Leaders give 15 to 20 talks a day. It's the interaction in those talks that defines the success of leadership. And you make that definition most compelling, now and throughout your career, when you substitute the leadership talk for the presentation. *

Brent Filson is founder and president of The Filson Leadership Group, Inc., in Williamstown, Mass. His latest book
Results! Results! Results! Getting
More Faster
. He can be reached at either or

James L. Craig, Jr.
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