by Don Gomez
Have you ever found yourself in a meeting or gathering expecting to hear one thing from a senior leader but instead hearing something completely different? Something seemingly unrelated to what you thought was important?
“What the hell was that about?” someone might ask as the gathering breaks up.
Or have you ever received an email from senior leader echelons above you addressing a topic with care and candor in an unexpected way?
Was there an odd way that the email was structured? Was the font a different color? Were there variations on bold, italics, or underlined words?
Did it just seem…different? Maybe overtly deliberate?
Over the past few years, I’ve found myself paying closer attention to the behavior, speech, and messaging of senior leaders. I’m not talking about the senior leaders we all see on television or social media – the “echelons above reality” senior leaders. Rather, I’m referencing the senior leaders in our actual organizations. The ones that are closer to us, but who we might not interact with every day.
If we pay close attention when observing senior leaders – especially ones we admire – it becomes apparently clear they must have thought through what is about to be communicated. It’s deliberate. There’s a message.
But it isn’t robotic.
However, delivering important pre-packaged messages in an authentic manner is a difficult skill to master.
Behavior is magnified. Manner of speech is scrutinized. Word choice becomes paramount. Even facial expressions or nervous tics become gossip fodder for the organization’s followers.
An eye-roll or snarky remark will be remembered forever.
Additionally, many of us have experienced the chill that comes over a room when a senior leader expresses disappointment or anger over some small transgression during a routine meeting. Hushed whispers circulate immediately following the meeting to determine what was meant by some cryptic statement or sarcastic remark.
There’s a lesson there.
Likewise, it is not uncommon to be sitting in a room watching a senior leader receive a presentation that’s not going well. The briefer is fumbling. It’s incoherent. It’s disorganized. You’re waiting for the boss to blow up, but instead, this senior leader gently follows along with enthusiasm and asks guided questions to get what is needed without causing additional embarrassment.
There’s a lesson there, too.
If a senior leader had never sent an email to the entire organization before, and suddenly you get one in your inbox, it is going to send a clear message that this “thing” is important – whether it actually is or not.
It seems that the most effective leaders understand that as they move further along in an organization, they need to take extra care in how they deliver their messages. Moving up the ladder means that interactions with the ones who actually execute their decisions become less frequent. Good leaders want to maximize these opportunities to ensure that their message is making it down to the lowest level. There is deliberate thought given to what is going to be communicated and how.
Or at least, there should be.
Have you ever watched subordinate leaders scribble things down in a notebook as leaders two or three echelons above say something? For whatever reason, these subordinates latched onto that remark. And that remark is likely to be translated into an order somewhere, which may result in real people executing real missions. It is important that the “right things” make it into that notebook.
Not every leader gets this right. But when you find one that does, it is worth taking a moment to try to understand what is behind the messages. Where are they coming from? What methods are they using to communicate?
And if you’re a senior leader, it’s worth knowing that your subordinates are paying close attention.
Captain Don Gomez is a Psychological Operations officer currently assigned as an Instructor of Arabic at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official policies or positions of the US Army, the United States Military Academy at West Point, or the Department of Defense.