Leadership - Capturing Hearts and Minds

Not long ago, I was asked about the most memorable speeches by historical figures and what they teach us about how to lead in business. One topped the list: Martin Luther King on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963. 

    “I have a dream that one day…”

King repeated this phase in his speech, then exhorted, “Let freedom ring”. His final lines were: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!” This speech, to over 250,000 civil rights supporters, was a defining moment for the movement and the 20th century.

Last October, Jacinda Ardern stood on the forecourt of Parliament and delivered her maiden speech as Prime Minister. She too captured hearts with messages of inclusivity, aspiration, collaboration and empathy.

What can business leaders borrow from the techniques they used?

1)    They captured the hearts and minds by articulating a simple concept that all could visualise. King spoke of his dream; Ardern of her belief that “New Zealand is a wonderful place that can be even better.”

2)    They were inclusive, binding together disparate factions towards a big common goal. Ardern was emphatic, not just in her first speech as Prime Minister but in earlier speeches as party leader, that Labour under her hand would be one for all New Zealanders. On the forecourt, she acknowledged those who did not vote for her coalition, then said, “It is an honour to stand here in front of your House with your Government – and I want to put emphasis on the words your Government . . . we took on these responsibilities on behalf of you . . . We vow that regardless of who you voted for, regardless of where in Aotearoa New Zealand you live, this will be a Government for all New Zealanders.” She repeated the inclusive you while explicitly respecting the democratic process.

3)    They promised a positive new tomorrow but avoided the tricky finer details. (Think of JFK’s promise to put a man on the moon. It didn’t address the hard parts, but all Americans understood.) Ardern chose her adjectives with care, promising an active, strong and empathetic Government: “We will be a Government that works together . . . We cannot and will not do it alone. We will work with anyone who shares our values” and she singled out the business community, NGOs and non-profits, and Maori. Ardern spoke of job creation and rising wages, accessible healthcare, world-class education and environmental protection, then distinguished herself from the standard political pitchwoman by saying that under her leadership, New Zealanders “will be proud to be judged on how well we look after our elderly and our children.”

4)    They articulated a goal expressed in a simple, memorable phrase that every person could recall and repeat. The major lines of King’s speech are some of the most famous ever uttered, while Ardern’s campaign tagline, “Let’s do this”, evolved at the end of her inaugural speech as PM to a message of energy and momentum: “Let’s keep doing this!”
These speeches can stand as ideal examples for any major address by a top business leader. But can business leaders still do this? Are audiences too cynical? Are there still ripe moments for such lofty addresses? 
One of the common experiences of today’s business leaders – which makes inspirational speech difficult – is brevity of tenure. Chief executives tend to be employed by boards on contracts of three to five years – and a Prime Minister’s time in the job can be even shorter, as very recent history proves. As a result, the leader’s focus is on the short term and their remuneration rewards short-term thinking. The chief executive needs to use these techniques to show they have ambitious, long-term aspirations for the organisation.
A final word of caution: a great speech will capture hearts, but capturing minds requires immediate subsequent action. The course should be defined before the goal is set and speech made. Speeches are one thing – performance is everything.

John Peebles