Leading movements, communicating change
Communication is a key ingredient for leaders to turn their ideas into reality. It comes down to inspirational, authentic leadership and communities of advocates.
Leaders often leave creativity alone, and it holds us back.
It’s simpler for an executive to optimise existing processes at their company than to think outside the box. When political leaders are in the political wilderness, it’s okay to work through lots of ideas, but you look indecisive if you’re the actual government. It’s worse for social leaders, who can typically be reduced down to one big concept; thinking of a new one erodes the foundations of their current high status. These problems are exacerbated in the 21st century, where social media propels cloudy clickbait judgements across the world, claiming to have just as much of a right to define the future as ideas that could genuinely change a bit about how the world works.
This all comes down to communication. Big ideas are less attractive because they tend to have bigger costs if they fail, come with greater uncertainty, and indeed often stretch the boundaries of the possible. The World Economic Forum estimates that 25% of the market value of a company is determined by its reputation, which is initially surprising, but then makes sense when you think about it.
Whether people believe in your ideas is pretty crucial for building momentum behind them and making them happen. I want to use Elon Musk as a case study throughout this blog: him and Steve Jobs are the great corporate communicators of the 21st century (Malala Yousafzai and Tony Blair stand out from a non-corporate sense); Tesla is a fantastic example of how telling the story can sustain an ambition right the way through to execution.
But big ideas are harder to communicate than others. First, the stakes are higher: those bigger costs of failure (the downside) mean that, even when the benefits of success are also larger (the upside), the idea is a bigger, more variable risk overall.
Second, ideas are inherently uncertain, and the uncertainty of what the upside and downside actually is exacerbates just how risky people perceive these already-bigger-risks to be.
Bound up with all this is the third point, stretching the boundaries. When you come to someone with a big idea, it’s not only riskier, but its size often pushes against the boundaries of what people think is possible; big ideas don’t usually fit the status quo, and that makes people uncomfortable (particularly those benefiting from it).
As a result, leaders can struggle to find a critical mass of people willing to support them, whether support means investing in or adopting a new product, voting for a new policy, or activism. I have some ideas about how we can overcome the problems inherent in communicating big ideas.
The stakes are high — so inspire them to elevate their thinking to the bigger picture; that’s where your ideas lie
There’s uncertainty — so be authentic to earn their trust and be believed
Stretching the boundaries — so build connections across your movement, not just from the top down, and show them how their community is greater than the sum of its parts
The stakes are high — so inspire them to elevate their thinking
Especially in the early days, committing to a big idea is risky. Even when you’re further along the road to the goals you want to achieve, you’ll find yourself consistently faced with the need to convince key stakeholders to take the leap. And whilst it’s valuable to establish just what somebody is risking and to respond to that — whether it’s money, their social status or prestige, their job, or something else — the common skill is being able to inspire individuals and groups to elevate their thinking to the bigger picture where your idea is already sitting.
On an individual basis particularly, building an emotional connection is almost a trump card. Connecting with people on a deeper level gets key stakeholders emotionally invested in your idea, and this emotional pull tends to encourage people to open their eyes to larger-scale ideas. As Gizem Weggemans says, leader of Egon Zehnder’s global HR leadership advisory practice, a crucial skill when it comes to communication is “the ability to leverage emotion to drive change.”
But it’s the art of storytelling where leaders who communicate successfully are at their most effective. Last month I discussed ‘coordination totems’: defining the purpose of an organisation that everybody coordinates themselves around. Communication plays a crucial role and leaders have to figure out how to tell a good innovation story in order to erect those totems. [Edit: in May 2022 I zoomed in on the role of coordination totems in my post about North Stars]
Storytelling has always been important, but in today’s environment, with the attention of our audiences stretched thin, it is ever more so for getting noticed. Thinking about Tesla, we have at least two key stories. First, there is ‘leading the way towards sustainable energy’. This is big. And exciting. And encourages people to buy a car. But there’s a second story, and that’s success against the odds, and this is what has really propelled Tesla’s success over the years, because millions of investors have bought into the Tesla journey, and they are inspired to participate.
There’s uncertainty — so be authentic to earn their trust
There are so many people with so many big ideas, all claiming to bear fruit so far in the future. It’s not easy to figure out which ideas are the winners. In other words, uncertainty clouds the judgement on whether to commit to an idea. To effectively communicate your message, you have to convince people to trust you, and authenticity is key; nobody wants to follow someone who they don’t think is genuine.
I think the key distinction between someone who comes across as authentic, and someone who does not, is that for the authentic person, we see a fuller depiction of who they are as an individual. When we talk about authenticity, we think about someone who really cares and someone who is relatively similar to ourselves. So to build authenticity we should think about signals that only genuinely authentic people would bother to emit. And there are lots of ways to do this, but demonstrating a) that you are more than just a representation of your organisation, and b) that you also do normal things, including make mistakes, appears to be particularly effective; non-authentic people would prefer to create the impression that everything is perfect.
On being more than your organisation, telling the story of how individuals are impacted by your idea are key, alongside demonstrating that you, as a leader, really are more than your organisation — Elon Musk sent his Tesla into orbit and tweets memes every so often for goodness sake! Admitting mistakes also plays an important role, and being, well, normal, in general. Now, some things, like smashing up the window of your prototype during a car demo and smoking a spliff are harmless. Others, like defamation and stock price manipulation, are not. (It seems to me that the harmless mistakes have been more beneficial for Musk’s authentic image that the harmful ones too.) The point stands that having the courage to appear unpolished lets leaders thrive as authentic and even trustworthy communicators.
Stretching the boundaries — so build connections within your movement
Inspiration and authenticity go a long way, but nothing crushes the spirit more than the sense that success is impossible! And when big ideas push the boundaries of what people think is possible — as they tend to do — welcoming these people into a community is enormously effective at reframing what they think is possible by demonstrating that the community is greater than the sum of its parts. When people feel like they're part of something bigger than themselves, they'll be more likely to get behind your cause.
We can quickly move on from thinking about this in a very traditional way, with the community emanating from the top in the form of a two-way dialogue, between the leader and each individual. (A top-down approach is probably the true ‘traditional’ one, but I want to move on anyway.) These traditional approaches have value in bringing along key stakeholders, but it’s less effective at building a community that can turn your ideas into a real movement. To do this, effective communicators leverage the contributions and enthusiasm of early adopters to exponentially grow the connections across their movement. Rather than creating the communications themselves, leaders simply need to cultivate the social infrastructure that fosters decentralised discourse.
Thinking about Tesla, the carmaker achieves the best of both worlds, with an official, centralised channel, the Tesla Owners Club, which can be closely aligned to the organisation’s goals (e.g. political influence), placed alongside decentralised groups, of which the Tesla Motors Club is the largest, that unleash new levels of community engagement:
“The Tesla Owner Club is a community of owners and enthusiasts committed to advancing Tesla's mission to accelerate the world's transition to sustainable energy.” — the official Tesla Owners Club
Similarly, I love this story from Steve Sargent, former CEO of General Electric Australia and New Zealand and Global Mining. It’s almost a decade old, but it illustrates how communities of advocates can play a key role in translating big ideas into reality and elevating the strength of your movement.
Sargent established a mining-industry network that cuts across GE's geographic regions. Employees in Brazil work with colleagues in Australia to develop products and services for customers in both countries. The network's success led the company to elevate it to the status of a fully-fledged GE mining business. "Leadership isn't about control, but about enabling and empowering networks," Sargent says. "The type of leadership we need finds its full expression in the DNA of collaborative technology.” — McKinsey & Co. (2013)
The key thing to recognise about these communities is that in this participant-empowered world, leaders have less control over a message once it’s sent. At the same time, there is massive potential for leaders to re-shape communities to create opportunities for participant-generated content that elevates the community to new heights, integrates new members, and exacerbates the impact of inspirational and authentic leadership for your movement.
I think the best way to use this framework of inspiration, authenticity, and connection is to take it, and reflect. What inspires us? What is our own story, and what makes us authentic? How can we create communities of advocates? How will you use ideas of inspiration, authenticity, and connection improve your own communication style?