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The Leader’s Tone – More Important Than Words


 

For most of the last thirty years, I have made a hobby out of studying the life and leadership of Winston S. Churchill, Great Britain’s greatest Prime Minister and one of the outstanding leaders of world history.

It’s the sort of hobby you can never exhaust. His life covered so many of the important events in his country’s recent history and his character is endlessly fascinating.

I am making my way slowly (one a day) through a collection of Churchill’s speeches spanning his whole public career – from 1897-1963. The collection is edited by Churchill’s late grandson, who told the story of speaking at the 50th Anniversary of the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising and being approached afterward by a Polish woman:

“Mr. Churchill, I was a girl of just twelve, living in the Ghetto at the time of the Uprising as the Nazi storm-troopers were attacking us to take us to concentration camps. Whenever your grandfather broadcast over the BBC we would all crowd around the radio. I could not understand English but I knew that if my family and I were to have any hope of coming through this war, it depended entirely on this strong, unseen voice that I could not understand”.

Imagine that. A group of people, in the midst of unimaginable stress and pressure and fear, being buoyed and given hope by a voice speaking a language they could not even understand.

A “strong, unseen voice” which made all the difference, beyond the words the voice was speaking.

Words matter, but words aren’t always the point. The tone of the leader matters a great deal too.

Tone can communicate anger, bitterness, impatience, disappointment, disapproval, mockery, disrespect.

Or tone can communicate hope, optimism, belief, courage, encouragement, respect, love.

Even the exact same words spoken with different tone can convey vastly variant meanings.

Imagine “We’ve really got to up our game!” spoken to a team by a leader whose tone radiates spite, disappointment, superiority, and impatience.

The tone behind the words communicates this: “How did I get stuck with such a group of losers?” “Why can’t you people see that your underperformance is hurting me in the eyes of my boss?”.

Now imagine “We’ve really got to up our game!” spoken to a team by a leader whose tone radiates warmth, passion, humor, intelligence, and confidence.

The tone behind the words communicates this: “We’ve got a great opportunity here and we are just the people to take advantage of it”. “I am so honored to lead this group of folks and I can tell you I am going to do my dead level best to give you the kind of leadership you deserve so that we can accomplish great things together”.

Beyond the words, the tone of a leader is an indispensable part of the organizational culture-crafting process. Tone can demean, cut down, dis-spirit and dis-incent. Or tone can inspire, build up, in-spirit, and incentivize.

The tone of the leader can make or break the culture of the team.

We believe that every person has the innate desire to belong, to contribute, and to make a difference. And we believe that if you craft a culture where these desires are realized then your organization will thrive.

One of the key elemental building blocks of thriving culture is Connection – where people honor and respect one another and their individual contributions, all in the service of a common mission.

The leader’s tone can go a long way towards establishing a climate where Connection can thrive…or where people are led to cannibalize, jockey for position and power, one-up, and sabotage.

As a leader, what is your typical tone – beyond the words?

If we were to ask your direct reports and guarantee them confidentiality, how would they respond to that question?

What actions can you take this week to more closely monitor your tone and craft it to where you want it to be? What do you need to change and who can your key allies be in that effort?

 

Todd Hahn is a Culture Architect and Executive Advisor with TAG.