The Oscar-winning film, ‘The King’s Speech’, is a treat to watch. England’s Prince Albert must ascend the throne as King George VI, but he has a speech impediment. Knowing that the country needs her husband to be able to communicate effectively, his wife - Elizabeth hires Lionel Logue, a speech therapist, to help him overcome his problem.
An extraordinary friendship develops between the two men and at one point, the speech coach, prods with the question, “Why should I waste my time listening to you?” In a breakthrough moment, King George VI exclaims, “Because I have a voice!” To which the coach knowingly replies, “Why, of course, yes you do.”
King George VI must speak for his nation in a time of war, but he also speaks for us in the audience when he taps into his presence as a leader and summons up what I call
You don’t have to be a king to identify with the terrifying fear of being caught searching for words. But as I have found in my 30 years of working with managers and leaders, underneath that frustrating anxiety lies a powerful and authentic voice waiting to emerge.
What is the key to projecting your presence and leading with fearless courage? The answer lies in a simple but profound idea: Speaking your mind, from the heart, even when your voice shakes.
‘Speaking your mind’ is more than being open and honest in expressing your thoughts because it also involves encouraging others to speak their minds to express their thoughts. As thoughts may include questions as well as views and opinions, ‘speaking your mind’ may also involve critiquing the thoughts of your work colleagues, as well as encouraging them to critique your thoughts.
I have found that a leader’s presence with an audience is a function of his or her presence of mind. In other words, clarity, credibility and conviction with an audience are contingent on being clear, authentic and committed within yourself. As speakers, we feel and come across at our best when we are focused and cantered in our purpose.
In a sense, leaders must be the ‘truth-teller-in chief’, willing to say what must be said, expressing ideas that are grounded in their values yet flexible enough to meet an audience’s needs at least halfway. Speaking your mind means treating your audience as individuals with minds of their own, as thinking decision-makers able to accept or reject your ideas using their own powers of reason.
Logic and reason
To speak your mind with fearless courage means to dare saying something truly interesting rather than just touting the party line. And especially in business, these ideas need to be more than thought-provoking; they need to align behaviour, compel action and get things done.
There is a great saying: No fears in the writer, no tears in the reader. The same is true when a leader speaks. Logic and reason, though important in swaying an audience, are not enough. Those you lead want not only to understand your message but to feel your presence on an emotional level.
Inauthentic emotion is easily seen through, so for others to connect emotionally with their message, leaders must connect emotionally within themselves.The inclination to speak out on issues and the ability to influence others to act involve the will and the skill. You can increase both by observation, reflection and practice.
Here are five tips to find your voice.
Start with empathy and encouragement
Do you know someone or some group going through challenging times? It’s a rare team or person who will reject your encouraging words and empathy. Let them know you understand their puzzlement, injustice or loss or ask them to tell you more about it and listen so you can ask even more specifics and listen longer. They’ll walk away from the encounter thinking you’re the most brilliant conversationalist they’ve ever met.
Identify your passion and purpose
A jack-of-all-trades soon becomes a handyman, not a specialist. Likewise, a leader who speaks out on every issue soon becomes a loudmouth. To become a person of influence, decide whom you want to influence and why you want to influence them. Notice that the priority on the who and why may change, depending on the issue. On occasion, the why (your purpose) drives what group you need to influence. At other times, the who dictates the why.
Practice in a safe zone
If you’re naturally an introvert, you probably won’t make your first forum a political rally, with hecklers in the crowd. Try your wings by expressing your controversial opinions to friends whom you know will disagree. As you build confidence at holding your own with friends on confrontational topics, then voice your opinion to a colleague you don’t know well. These first two steps will increase your confidence to speak up in large groups about controversial ideas.
Promote ideas; don’t preach them
Keep in mind that confidence to speak up doesn’t equate to expertise or influence. As you communicate your ideas and opinions, phrasing matters a great deal. Word choice, tone, body language - all these communicate an attitude toward your listeners. As a leader, make sure that your communication style doesn’t detract from the message or idea. Many a good idea has been rejected because groups disliked the messenger—his or her arrogance, presumptions or biases.
Share your rationale
The story is told about a popular local speaker that he wrote on his speech notes on one occasion: “Weak point. Yell louder.” Nothing builds a team’s confidence in a leader like competence. When you speak up, know whereof you speak! Gather information from valid sources, analyse it, draw conclusions and then speak up.
But don’t overlook a key step at this point: Pass along your reasoning! Leaders make a big mistake when they simply announce a decision and expect their team to support it. Sure, they may have spent hours gathering and analysing data. Their decision may be the perfect one. But people will follow more confidently and quickly if they hear your reasoning.
If you are an aspiring leader, be courageous because expressing your thoughts and encouraging your colleagues to critique your thoughts is risky: you and/or they may feel embarrassed or threatened because:
nYour views about a work issue or problem may be significantly different to those of your colleagues.
nYour colleagues may cause you to question your thoughts and views.
Both of these scenarios may happen in a meeting when other people, perhaps more senior managers, are observing or are involved in the conversation.
You may need to develop your strength to handle the perceived risks of speaking openly and honestly and of being vulnerable to having your work colleagues question, critique and challenge your thoughts.
For example, if something is wrong, as a leader you must speak your mind. You are not expected to blow your lid and insult people. But you do have an obligation to respectfully define your concerns and express them in a way that encourages others to join the cause of making things better. Finally, you need to play a role in finding and implementing a solution. It’s all well and good to be among the first to identify a problem. It takes resolve and real courage to play a role in defining the solution.
Be a great role model for the people who work with you by demonstrating your willingness to express your thoughts, critique others’ thoughts and encourage your work colleagues to do the same in working with you.
Now, think about your own performance as a leader. Do you speak up and identify problems when and where you see them? Are you among the first to volunteer to find solutions? Or, do you just retreat to the lunchroom or coffee station to complain endlessly about how bad things are without offering a single idea on how to make things better?
(Lionel Wijesiri is a retired corporate director counting three decades of senior management experience. He is now an independent consultant and a freelance journalist. He may be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org)