Whether or not you consider yourself to be politically inclined, a smart business leader can learn a lot from the campaign rhetoric being tossed around during election season. What McCain, Obama, and Clinton understand -- or at least their campaign managers understand -- is that policies and procedures, regardless of how sound they might be, do not win over the hearts and minds of voters. People follow those who engage them and connect with them on an emotional level. To do that, candidates are always searching for that special story or photo opportunity that will help them tap into the cultural zeitgeist.
But this column is about business leadership and since your employees aren't voting for management, what does this have to do with you? Everything. The failure of most leadership training is that it is focused on policy -- and policy is dry, sterile, and boring. Many leadership gurus publish works that are so dull they are virtually unreadable. Leadership isn't a series of steps on how to implement 360-degree feedback or how to create a new mission statement. Leadership is about making employees care. And while your employees may not be voting for you in a literal sense, nobody can lead anyone who isn't willing to follow.
If you want to inspire your employees, you must accept that people don't rally behind policies. In most cases they don't even understand them. Expecting your staff to get motivated by explaining the intricacies of the new annual strategy is like Obama trying to win votes by detailing how he's going to boost the exchange rate of the dollar. People aren't interested, it doesn't win votes, and most people don't understand it. The same rules apply to your employees. Sales projections, market share percentages, and even customer satisfaction ratings are just numbers. If you want to connect with your employees, you have to find the story behind the numbers -- the story that gets them personally involved, that shows them the human face and the results of what they (and the company) are doing. Imagine that your company makes life jackets. The numbers might show that your life jackets have a 30% market share or even saved 1,000 lives last year. But if you want to show your employees the importance of their work, how much more powerful would it be to hear the personal account of one person whose child was saved from drowning because of your product?
In order to create a personal engagement with your employees you must learn to find stories that contain emotional representatives. This can be inside or outside of the company. For example, let's say you own a financial planning business. Instead of expecting your people to rally around some typically incomprehensible mission statement such as, "To surpass client expectations of financial planning and provide service to secure their assets," why not share with them the story of how your grandparents lost their house because they didn't plan well and how that drove you into financial planning? In the aforementioned life jacket example you see that the face and story of one is far more powerful than the count of many. The real life story of a family saved or a child alive serves as an emotional representative for your employees -- and even your own -- personal beliefs, fears, and dreams.
Like the politicians who pander to the voting masses, when you're thinking about stories to inspire your team always remember that they should have universal relevance and be simple to understand. Stories that elicit thoughts of family, security, values, and children are particularly powerful for generating feelings of emotional closeness and in-group team dynamics. Generally speaking, the more complex your ideas and message are, the less it communicates your humanity, decisiveness, and strength. Most people don't want to think and analyze, they want to be shown examples of how you relate to them and how you can make them feel better.
Remember, leadership comes from making people want to follow you, not from management feedback surveys and policies that have no hope of inspiring and motivating your staff. Inspiration and personal engagement come from finding -- or creating -- the story behind the numbers. Business leaders would do well to study winning presidential campaigns for examples of emotional stories beating favorable policies. In 1984, Democratic vice presidential candidate Geraldine Ferraro asked some union workers, "Ronald Reagan hasn't been a friend to the Unions, why would you vote for him?" A worker replied, "Because he made us stand tall again." The Democrats had pro-union policies that benefited the workers, but Reagan inspired them with his story. Ferraro would later say she knew at that moment they had lost. She added, "We couldn't fight that." Reagan went on to carry 49 of 50 states and win the biggest electoral landslide in history. This is the power of having the right leadership story. Do you know yours?