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Those who lead and those who follow

The role of communication in the making of a successful leader

by Rany Kassab

During these times of unending political squabbles, we often hear people sitting in cafes basking in Beirut’s sun arguing and vigorously calling for the emergence of a new leadership that can help replace some of the “old guard” and resurrect the country from its quasi-lethargic political quagmire.

Elsewhere in the Arab region, the “identity confusion” that has characterized certain societies, in terms of a lack of unified values and divergent aspirations, has also triggered a quest for a leadership capable of fulfilling people’s expectations.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, on Manhattan island, and in the midst of one of the worst financial crises seen since 1929, what used to be the “golden boys” of finance and young executives are desperately hoping for a new corporate leadership that can help shield their gloried financial institutions from bankruptcy, and bring back the good old days of mouth-watering bonuses and lavish lifestyles.

In all cases, however, certain questions come to mind: What exactly makes a leader? Is political leadership, in essence, any different from leadership in the corporate world?And possibly the more fundamental and age-old question remains, is leadership an innate or a nurtured quality?

What’s certain is that while leadership is most often associated with political figureheads and CEOs, it nonetheless is evident all around us, whether in the way a team captain leads his team to victory, a school teacher pushes her pupils to explore their full potential, or a general leads his men into battle. Leadership is also certainly not restricted to humans, as it also extends to the animal kingdom where “alfa” males try to impose their authority and dominance over the pack.

Leadership, thus, is that ability to influence others, to rally and galvanize people around an agenda. It is the capacity to communicate a certain vision in a way that allows it to get across to its intended recipients and very often change perceptions and entrench principles and convictions. Whether these convictions are considered “good” or “bad” is a matter of personal opinion.

In fact, while we might find Hitler, Mussolini, Genghis Khan, Pol Pot, or even Rupert Murdoch’s views and actions appalling, no one can argue their ability to influence people into believing them and in them, which is a quintessential leadership trait.

All such leaders have in common certain sets of skills and attributes that reinforce the perception of leadership that others have of them, most notably charisma, linguistic skills, physical aura, confidence and determination.

While some of these characteristics are arguably innate, most are acquired and developed through the years, and communication plays a central role in this. The way a person communicates, both verbally and physically, can go a long way in establishing his leadership, granted that the physical “package” is coupled with a core “product,” or message that matches, if not surpasses it.

Eye contact, facial expressions, hand gestures, tone of voice, posture and clothing are all bits and pieces of a larger puzzle that when rightfully pieced together can help accentuate and showcase a person’s leadership.

This is especially true when considering that 70 to 90 percent of communication is non-verbal, relayed through body language. Both consciously and sub-consciously, your body tells observers what is really going on with you. As the old adage goes, you can lie with your words but never with your eyes.

Likewise, although subtle, even the smallest of hand gestures can, according to some schools of thought, be associated with a specific image in people’s minds, be it positive or negative.
On the other hand, a person’s posture, stride and gestures, can either convey the image of a strong, forceful and dynamic person, or that of an unassertive and nervous individual who is lacking self confidence and assurance.

But while physical demeanor is key to nurturing one’s leadership skills, it is only one side of the equation, with the second being the content of the person’s message and his ability to engage his audience and to deliver his message in an impressive and resonating manner.

Having the right ideas is a main ingredient for leadership, but being able to convey them through the media to stakeholders in a catchy and simple way that makes them understood by the masses is equally as important, particularly at a time of increased media awareness.

Media skills, both in terms of physical language and message delivery, can nowadays make or break a leader. Case in point, Democratic hopeful Howard Dean killed his chances early in the United State’s 2004 Democratic primaries due to an emotional holler (the “Dean Scream”) during one rally that gave bloggers and late night show hosts in the US ample material for comedy that ruined his “presidential” allure.

Less than a month ago, Hilary Clinton’s inability to control her emotions at a public meeting in the Congo became an online sensation that some political pundits argued undermined her aura and revealed her Achilles heel.

It is because of such examples that established and aspiring leaders alike, both those in the political arena and in the corporate world, have recognized the importance of media training, which has become a skill sought by many across the world. Media training can provide the dos and don’ts of communication that are pivotal to would-be or seasoned leaders, as they can help to enhance the power of their rhetoric while increasing their ability to influence and impact others.

In the Middle East, many corporate heads and politicians are also starting to realize the pivotal role of communication in cementing their leadership. But much is still needed in terms of mastering such skills in a way that does not dilute their image or over-expose them. Their goal should be to ultimately reach the level of “media maturity” that allows their discourse to move from simple propaganda to a truly content-rich and engaging discourse.

In the end, a person’s aptitude to properly communicate and express himself, effectively reaching his audiences and speaking a language that strikes a chord with them, both through his physical demeanor and messages, can determine whether he truly is a leader.

Rudyard Kipling surely said it best when he said:
“If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue,
Or walk with Kings — nor lose the common touch;
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
If all men count with you, but none too much…
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And — which is more — you’ll be a Man [and almost certainly a leader] my son!”

Rany Kassab & Ramsay G. Najjar S2C

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Rany Kassab


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Ramsay G. Najjar

Ramsay G. Najjar is founder of Lebanese communication experts S2C
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