A Leader Communicates

This week I had the privilege of hearing Gov. Mike Beebe speak at the downtown Rotary Club. I have not heard a better constructed, more skillfully delivered piece of leadership communication since Richard Nixon’s famous Checkers speech.

The ability to not just inspire but persuade through powerful communication is a hallmark of skilled leadership – and the governor put on a master class.

So what did the governor do that worked so well? For one thing, he touched on all four of the domains I have talked about here during the last few months.

  • Inspiration – not charisma and smoke

The governor made the focus of his remarks clear at the outset by inviting those in the room to let go of the old story about the quality of education and level of per capita income in Arkansas. He reframed the issue from a struggle to stay out of last place to a push to continue to move up. He painted a picture of a new attitude for the business community, enabled by change that is already happening. He reported progress in each of the critical measures. In short, he changed the game from “Let’s try not to lose too badly” to “We are already gaining on the leaders; in fact, in some categories we are the leaders and we can do more.”

  • Physical presence instead of artificial formality

Aside from his stature and demeanor, the governor appears to be what I might call “comfortable in his skin.” While Beebe was suited up for the occasion, the formality of his physical presence was softened by an easy, self-deprecating and mercifully joke-free humor. I don’t know if he was nervous. Many of those present likely didn’t vote for him and don’t agree with his agenda. But he was so comfortable in his engagement with those who introduced him and with the room that no sort of power play was necessary. I have often seen leaders feel the need to create a commanding presence through aloofness, formality or even setting the stage so that they were somehow made to look more imposing. These kinds of tricks tend to backfire on a leader; they may do more damage than the outright appearance of nervousness. And for all you PowerPoint junkies out there: The governor used no slides or visual aids of any sort.

  • Emotional connection without drama

Inspiration is hollow if it lacks personal connection. Beebe skillfully connected his vision to the impact that even slight progress has on the business community.  By focusing on the needs of business and the nonprofit community, the governor clearly anchored the vision to things that mattered to his audience. Add to that the connection he made through his physical presence, and the impact on those in the room was palpable.

  • Logical proof in a support role

Too often this is the domain on which leaders depend. I have seen CEOs stand in front of their organizations and drone on about financial analysis, capital markets and operational statistics, believing that a logical appeal would win the day. There are venues where the data take front and center, but those tend to be working sessions. One of the most talented presentation coaches I have ever worked with used to encourage his clients to think of supporting data as the seasoning that brings the flavor out in a dish. Governor Beebe had the goods in terms of state rankings for such important metrics as per capita income, educational effectiveness, college admissions and graduations, new jobs and new employers. And he used them with skill, allowing his audience to be surprised by Arkansas’ progress – in some cases dramatic progress – in key metrics.

I can’t offer a copy of the governor’s informal presentation. You can find a video of the famous Nixon Checkers speech by searching “Checkers speech” at MillerCenter.org

Originally published in Arkansas Business, Barry Goldberg On Leadership, July 12, 2010.