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[Introduction] You're Being Watched: How Everything Leaders Do, Say and Are Sends a Message


“People want leadership. And in the absence of genuine leadership, they will listen to anyone who steps up to the microphone. They want leadership, Mr. President. They're so thirsty for it, they'll crawl through the desert toward a mirage, and when they discover there's no water, they'll drink the sand.”

- Lewis Rothschild, chief domestic policy advisor, “An American President”

The Key Point:

Sincere leaders – who know that everything they do, say and are communicates something about their sincerity and act upon that knowledge – will have more engaged followers and get exceptional results.

People are starving for sincerity – for something and someone to believe in.

That’s because there’s an epidemic of insincerity out there. Whether it’s fake news or fake photos. Twenty-seven hour celebrity marriages. Reality shows that are anything but. Fine print that’s far too small to read and way too complex to understand. Radio commercials with disclaimers that come so fast our speakers start to smoke. Political scandals and ads that pretzel-twist the truth. Religious scandals where the most trusted become the most wanted. College scandals where the only thing not admitted is the truth. Insider trading that leaves the rest of us feeling like outsiders. Resumes so overinflated, they’re in danger of popping. Not just wallets, but identities being stolen. Slippery advertising words like “virtually” and “water-resistant.” Even product packaging that tells you what you’re seeing isn’t “actual size” when the “actual size” itself is nothing to write home about.

Yes, there’s an epidemic out there, one that can leave people feeling worn out and wrung dry.

As Goes the World, So Goes Business

As you’d imagine, the business world can’t escape this epidemic. It reflects it. Feeds it. Basically, sits smack dab in the middle of it.

In fact, all you have to do is open any “Business” section in the newspaper, or click on any “Financial News” link, to read the latest about a company that got caught doing something wrong, trying its best to “apologize” in a way that doesn’t take accountability.

Oh, yes, as for that apology. It will be chock full of dreaded “corporatese,” another major disease in our epidemic of insincerity. Words like “We apologize if anyone was offended,” and “We’ve reached out to dialogue with the impacted parties.” “Corporatese” – a made-up language of made-up words that makes what happens in town halls and between meeting room walls seem like make-believe.

These scandals, this epidemic, and the fact that people can’t even trust a simple car commercial to tell them what’s real – all lead to people losing trust. And losing trust is one of the hardest things we ever have to do. Because, without trust, we’ve got nowhere to stand, and every tunnel leads down not out.

In these trying times, we need trust. We need a reason to believe.

We need leaders.

The Big Five

This book focuses on five key elements of leadership communication:

People are starving for leaders they can trust.

They decide whether they can trust leaders by observing them and making decisions based on how they feel about what they see.

Leaders need to know that they are constantly broadcasting messages in everything they do, say and are.

In these messages, leaders will either build or destroy trust.

Leaders who are aware of this, and act sincerely, will be more likely to build engaged followers and drive exceptional results.

So, why start with leaders to turn back this epidemic? Because leaders, by their very nature, model behaviors for all of us. And they’re in the most powerful and influential positions in key organizations and institutions around the world. If they understand this, therefore, and if they can drive stronger trust with those looking to them, imagine what these ripples could do.

People Are Starving for Leaders They Can Trust

To be as objective as possible, we must ask ourselves if this is all just circumstantial evidence? Are we simply picking out random observations and drawing conclusions that won’t hold up? Is there really an epidemic of insincerity?

Let’s look:

In 2018, PwC’s 21st Global CEO Survey found that most CEOs (65 percent globally) are concerned about declining trust in business. (Author’s Note: All research will be cited/footnoted in final manuscript.)

According to Richard Edelman, president and CEO of Edelman, a leading American public relations and marketing consultancy firm, when reflecting upon the results from the 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer, the firm’s annual trust and credibility survey: “The last decade has seen a loss of faith in traditional authority figures and institutions.” Findings from the survey include the following concerning takeaways:

“There is a growing feeling of pessimism about the future, with only one-in-three mass population respondents in the developed world believing his or her family will be better off in the next five years."

“Among the mass population, just one-in-five believe the system is working for them and 70 percent desire change.”

Fortunately, there was some good news in the survey, “Despite a high lack of faith in the system, there is one relationship that remains strong: ‘my employer.’ Globally, ‘my employer’ (75 percent) is significantly more trusted than NGOs (57 percent), business (56 percent), government (48 percent) and media (47 percent).”

The bad news, well, yes, I’m guessing you see this coming, is that NGOs, business, government and the media aren’t taking bows about their perceived level of trustworthiness.

According to a 2018 Harvard Business Review study, nearly two-thirds of global senior executives believe trust among people, businesses and institutions is declining.

At first glance, the 2019 survey results from the Financial Trust Index survey administered by the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management show increasing trust in financial institutions (from 22 percent in 2008 to 28 percent at the end of 2018). But, if you take a moment to reflect on that number, you realize how distressing it is that going from 21 percent to 28 percent in terms of trust over a period of ten years is considered “progress.” Another startling finding in the survey: trust in large corporations was “very low in 2008 (11 percent) and, while seeing an increase to 16 percent today, remains very low.”

Not surprising to anyone with a TV or access to the internet, or who has recently sat around the family table at a holiday gathering, a 2018 study by the Pew Research Center found that Americans largely perceive trust in Washington to be shrinking, with almost two-thirds of respondents saying they thought trust in each other had declined, too. The study also found the following:

“Two-thirds of adults think other Americans have little or no confidence in the federal government."

“Majorities believe the public’s confidence in the U.S. government and in each other is shrinking."

“Some see fading trust as a sign of cultural sickness and national decline. Some also tie it to what they perceive to be increased loneliness and excessive individualism.”

Yes, not a pretty picture. But there is hope. We’ve been in worse predicaments and found our way out of them. And when we did, who led the charge? Do names like Churchill and Lincoln and Washington and King ring a bell?

So, Why Do We Need Leaders?

In his 1954 book, Motivation and Personality, Psychologist Abraham Maslow shared his theory that people in all cultures have certain genetically-based needs that do not change. He described these needs in a hierarchical fashion, with some needs being more fundamental than others. As these needs are satisfied, he explained, other higher needs emerge.

The first four needs, as Maslow hypothesized, are the following:

  • Physiological – hunger, thirst, bodily comforts, etc.

  • Safety/security – to be out of danger

  • Belongingness and Love – affiliation with others, acceptance

  • Esteem – to achieve, be competent, to gain approval and recognition

After these needs are met, as Maslow saw it, people naturally look to address the next higher-level group of needs:

  • Cognitive – to know, understand, and explore

  • Aesthetic – to find symmetry, order and beauty

  • Self-Actualization – to find self-fulfillment and realize one’s potential

  • Self-Transcendence –to connect to something beyond oneself, to help others find self-fulfillment and realize their potential

If one accepts the basic tenets of Maslow’s theory (and notable recent research does, though some do suggest modifications), it’s easy to understand why we need leaders –because we believe leaders will help us meet some or all our needs.

For example, a community may elect a mayor who will hopefully bring prosperity to their

town, helping people meet their physiological needs –

– while also going every Sunday to hear a minister who helps them along their religious path for self-transcendence

– while admiring the local Chief of Police and Fire Chief who keep their streets and homes safe and secure

– while all individually following leaders at work, in school, and at home, who fulfill many of their other needs, such as belonginess and love, esteem, etc.

In our own lives, for example, we want someone to help us meet our most basic needs, like paying rent and making our car payment. We also want someone to help keep us and our families safe and secure by giving us a job and letting us know we’ll keep it if we perform well. We then want our leader at work to make us feel like we’re valued and part of the team. And, we also want that leader to help us move ahead in our careers.

Once these basic needs are met, our leaders can help us with the next higher level of needs. They can do so by helping us to find meaning inside and outside of work, to get closer to our vision of what we want to be and do, and to help connect us to others and the mission of ours and other organizations.

So, now that we know there’s a need for leaders we can trust, the next question is how do we know we can trust a leader?

Leadership Begins with the How, What and Why

The “How”

How do people begin to judge their leaders? They do so by watching how they communicate – the character of their content – and asking themselves questions about their leaders, such as:

  • Do they give the topic the attention it deserves?

  • Do they take the time with their people to make sure they understand the message?

  • Do they choose the appropriate communication vehicle?

  • Does their communication vehicle look professional, reflecting the care that went into preparing the message?

  • Do they communicate in a tone appropriate to the message?

  • Do they appear to be sincere when they’re communicating?

  • Do they use long, complex sentences, ambiguous terms, and clichés or simple, straightforward, human language?

  • Is their body language appropriate to the message being delivered?

  • Do they pick an appropriate day and time of day to communicate the information –

  • or, if a lot of people are about to be let go from the company, do they wait until a Friday afternoon to communicate it?

  • Are they open to live questions from the audience, and not just prepared ones?

  • If they don’t have the answer to a certain question, do they commit to getting back to the audience with the answer – and then actually do it?

  • When they’ve communicated in the past, did it turn out to be accurate? What’s their track record on truthfulness?

The “What”

People also watch to see what their leaders communicate – the content of their content – asking themselves questions like the following:

  • Do they clearly address the topic through easy-to-understand content?

  • Do they let employees know how they fit in the content?

  • Do they explain the possible impacts of the content, and connections to other content?

  • Do they answer the questions that the content brings up?

  • Do they address other more informal items, like major rumors in the company?

The “Why”

People also listen carefully to hear if the leader communicates the “why” behind the “what.”

To address the “Why,” leaders explain the background and business case behind the content, what led up to it, why the change is happening at this time and what the intended outcomes are. They then connect that content to the daily work and lives of their people.

Because, in the end, the “How,” “What” and “Why” help create that personal connection, which is really what their followers are looking for. They want to know why they’re being communicated to, if there’s anything to be worried about and, of course, what’s in it for them or, as we more commonly know the phrase, “What’s in it for me?” The infamous “WIIFM.”

Why infamous? Because many leaders seem to believe that anything that’s good for the company or organization will be seen by the employees as a WIIFM. For example, a plant manager may say that her employees on the manufacturing line should be motivated to build a new product more quickly because doing so will lead to increased market share for the company, which will lead to the company’s ability to do more R&D and expand to more locations. This, she’ll explain, will then lead to job security, raises and advancement for her employees. But is that enough to motivate them right now?

Well, how can I put this delicately.


I’m sure Maslow would agree with my “no” on this, too. In fact, he’d probably say, “Are they crazy, James? Do they really think an employee’s going to hear the words ‘increased market share’ and say to themselves, ‘Great, that should immediately put more food on the table and pay for my son’s braces!’”

No, most people need a more immediate reward than that for motivation. They need something that will touch them here and now, instead of there and then. As Maslow hypothesized, people want their basic needs met quickly – meaning bodily comforts, safety, acceptance, etc. Then, and only then, will they even begin to think about the future.

Looking back at our manufacturing plant example, increased market share isn’t close enough or immediate enough to get these employees excited or motivated. Maybe it will work for the leaders in the company, like the plant manager, whose bonuses are tied directly to growth, but not for the line employees who might not have that privilege.

What will get the plant workers excited is if their plant manager uses a WIIFM that means something to them in their daily lives. For example, this could be giving each line employee a $1,500 bonus if the product is introduced to the market ahead of the original implementation date, offering them a percentage of the profits gained by increasing the market share or offering the top performers leadership positions in the new locations. Or, best of all for the most powerful motivation, all three.

Really, we need to coin a new phrase, a “WIIFMRHRN” – “What’s in it for me right here, right now?” Only WIIFMRHRN’s will get the action you want, and the results you need. Not the catchiest acronym, I admit. But it works. I promise.

As you can see, a lot is riding on the “How,” “What,” and “Why” of a leader’s communication. These three categories greatly influence how followers judge whether a leader is sincere.

Why the “How,” “What” and “Why” Matters

Overall, with our performance and engagement, we continue to tell our leaders something critical. Namely, that we want to be communicated with and listened to. And we’re evaluating our leaders based on not only whether they communicate, but also whether that communication appears to be sincere.

The “How” tells us something about our leaders’ trustworthiness. That, with them, we’ll be getting pretty much the same person every time they see or talk to us. Of course, people have good days and bad days. But, at their core, they’ll still have integrity.

The “What” tells us what’s coming, what’s going, and what’s here for good – with no spin spun. We want to know the facts, the opinions, the perspectives, and whether the rumors are just that, or something more. Or maybe less.

The “Why” tells us why we should care, and how much trust we should put in the direction we’re going, and, in the leaders, who came up with that direction.

What will our leaders get in exchange for communicating content in a trustworthy way, the reasons behind the content, and why that content matters? They’ll get better engagement, exceptional results and more loyalty. More on that later.

So, if followers are saying what they want and need from their leaders, why wouldn’t our leaders give it to them? What possible reason would they have not to?

Well, honestly, it can be hard – real hard. Hard to commit to communicating sincerely and effectively on a regular basis. Hard to maintain our integrity. Hard to put in the work of making sure we have the “How’s” and “What’s” and “Why’s” clear ourselves before sharing them with our followers.

But, as we know all too well, just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it – usually it means we should. It also means we must take our game up a notch. Quite a few, in fact.

We do that by understanding that everything communicates something.

Everything Is Communication

In looking at how a leader typically communicates, we’re conditioned to expect the “usual suspects” like memos, letters, PowerPoint presentations, emails, voicemails, newsletters, and videos and blogs, among others. In the past, these suspects were telegraphs, smoke signals and lanterns in a Boston church. In the future, they could be billboards on the International Space Station. It’s just a matter of time – and innovation.

But, right now, I want you to come with me on a journey, one in which we’ll begin to expand our definition of what constitutes a communication “vehicle,” and what else besides these traditional vehicles can communicate a message.

Because everything is communication, and it’s important that we both know that.

Yes, everything you do and are and say and write and believe and feel and drive and wear and put on your wall and pick from the menu and even the way you ask for a date communicates some message to some person at some time in some way.

Then, couple that with the observation made by Nobel Prize-winning scientist Daniel

Kahneman that we all experience approximately 20,000 individual moments each day. 20,000 moments. 20,000 individual communication opportunities in which messages are being sent and received – whether intended or not.

Messages like the one sent when a manager lets a ringing phone ring while conducting a performance review meeting with an already anxious employee, letting the employee know they are the top priority without saying a word.

Or the message sent when the holiday party is canceled due to cost reductions while the CEO still gets a large bonus. It leaves employees wondering how important they are and why the company’s being hypocritical.

These moments are opportunities to build deeper and stronger relationships with people or weaken them to the point where these relationships begin to decay. These moments are opportunities to inspire loyalty and motivate employees, or if not handled well, leave them feeling uninspired, demotivated and updating their LinkedIn profiles.

Now, these moments – the boss letting the phone ring and the holiday party being canceled while the CEO gets a bonus - are not inherently good or bad. They just are. But the unintentional messages sent in these moments can have negative consequences. Leaders simply need to be aware of as many of these consequences and unintentional messages as possible. Of course, with 20,000 moments each day, they’ll struggle to even catch a few.

But a few is better than none. And a few can become more in time.

Then, once leaders become aware of the fact that these messages are being sent and what the consequences of these messages might be, they can better manage the messages in a sincere way.

Messages in the Moments

To better understand how every moment and everything can communicate a message, let’s put a few examples under the microscope:

  • How long someone’s been with a company. What message could someone’s tenure at a company communicate to others? What judgments will people make about that person’s career, background, and knowledge based on the length of time they’ve been at the company? Will they make comments about the person’s ability to handle change? Might they offer observations that the person in question has been in their present position too long because they want job security or don’t have the talents to find another job? Or that they’re newly hired so they couldn’t possibly have much to offer on a large project? Another message may be sent when a recruiter looks at the person’s amount of tenure on a resume – too short or too long sends a message?

  • Does someone have an office or are they in a cubicle? What messages do both send? Who has more status? How is each person thought of by the senior leaders? If the person from the cube and the person from the office go into a meeting, who sits at the head of the table? Who walks out of that meeting with more work to do? Who’s taking the minutes during that meeting? How do people in cubes feel about people in offices, and what do people in offices think about the people in cubes? Who has a door to close and who doesn’t? What message do all these things send? And we haven’t even touched on the messages sent in open-space offices.

  • Who gets promoted and who doesn’t. This sends a message – about the individual and the company. What are the values of the person who was promoted and do those values fit in with the values of the company? Who do they know or who knows them? What’s their reputation for how they treat people and how much work they do – or don’t do? What about the person who wasn’t promoted? Why weren’t they? Is it a valid reason or do they simply not golf with the boss enough? What does it take to make it? And, in the middle of all of this, we can still have the questions surrounding promotions about politics, personalities and hidden agendas.

  • Who golfs with the boss. Those who regularly golf, or eat lunch, or take part in other activities, exclusively with the boss may be seen as favorites. What message do they send when they golf or eat together? What might their career opportunities be after the round or the entrée? Why aren’t other people from the department asked to golf or eat with them?

  • Team-Building Events. Everything sends a message. Where the event is held. Where it’s not. Who’s invited. Who’s not. What’s spent. What’s not. Is it canceled if the company has two bad quarters in a row? Or is it still held – to show employees they’re appreciated? Each decision, each factor, every detail – sends a message to someone.

  • A manager forgets to ask their employee how they’re doing on their first day back at work after one of their children was in the hospital for a while. What message would that send about the manager? How would the employee feel about working for that person? How would the employee feel about the company? How distracted would the employee be during that day as they tried to work? Then, if a recruiter happened to call the following month, would the employee be more inclined to stay on the phone and listen?

  • The annual performance raise is 1.3%. How much will 1.3% motivate the typical employee? Will they decide to not hit the snooze button because they can’t wait to get into the office to make that extra 1.3%? In the middle of the night, will they lie awake wondering how to shave more days off the implementation date for that new product, knowing it might just get them an extra 1.3%? Now, granted, some leaders believe their employees should be happy with any raise, saying that simply having a job in an uncertain economy is the real reward. But, really, is it? Is that enough to motivate people? And what will people think of a leader who says that, while getting large bonuses themselves every year? What would you think?

  • What results you spotlight in your quarterly update presentation. We choose which results to show and which not to. That sends a message. We choose what and how to measure. Another message. The format in which we share the results, the media we use, the colors we use if we use slides, the clip art we choose, the size of the font, the paper we use if we use paper, the clothes we wear on the day we make the presentation, the way our hair looks, which lights we turn on in the room, where everyone sits during the meeting. Messages, messages, messages.

  • The things your body does and doesn’t say. The tone of your voice during a meeting. If you look away when your manager asks for volunteers on a new project. Is there a slight sheen of sweat on your forehead as you wait to present to the Executive Board for the first time? Does your foot tap along the side of your chair as you listen to a presentation? Did you sigh or yawn or smile or simply look puzzled? Each sends a message about how involved you are in what’s going on, where you are emotionally, and what you think of the topic.

  • Your stuff. And the stuff you don’t have. As a leader, all of your stuff sends a message. What you drive. What you wear. What cologne or perfume you use. What you choose not to wear and what cologne or perfume you don’t buy. What business “toys” you have on your shelves in your office, like Zen gardens and meditation fountains. The electronic gadgets that line your desk. And what all that stuff says about the salary you make, where you shop, how much you spend, and what matters to you. It all sends a message.

  • What you do and don’t do. Do you keep your promises? Do you say one thing in a meeting and something else afterwards in the hall? Do you speak up during the director’s speech to point out where the flaw is in the new strategy, and how to fix it? Do you leave early every day because no one confronts you about it? Do you work late every day and on the weekends, even though you have a wife and two young kids?

  • Your letters and memos. How do you write about employees being let go? Do you use the terms “rightsized” or “flattening of the organization”? Your choice of words and ways of sharing those words cue others into exactly who you are and exactly how much you care. Is your use of email and memos appropriate to tell people someone’s leaving the company? Then what does the length of the email say about whether they’re leaving on good or bad terms? Long good and short bad?

  • Vision and Mission Statements. Were the statements created just to go up on a wall and in a wallet, or are they really lived? Do people have the statements memorized or do they still have to ask where to find them? Are the company values valued and do they show up when the rubber and the road finally meet? Or are they simply on the best quality paper, sandwiched between other documents in binders sitting on a back shelf in the supply closet?

  • The Company’s Brand. Does the name of the company say anything about what they do or make? Or is it some abstract, neutral word that only looks good on a sports dome? Do they have a slogan filled with clichés or real words that inspire action? Will it connect in a real, human way with real, human people? Does it make a promise about what the company and its people will deliver and how it will differentiate itself from the competition? Does the brand stand for something – e.g., quality, service, price? Or does it try to stand for everything, ultimately standing for nothing?

  • What’s on a resume and what isn’t. The verbs used, the success metrics cited or not cited, the formatting on the page, the font used, the amount of white space, whether there are typos, whether there are periods after all the bullets or only some. Where you graduated from. Where you didn’t graduate from. Whether or not you tell us that your hobbies include bowling, gardening and speaking in tongues. What color’s the paper? What color paper did you avoid using? Did it come through a website or email? And, after you got a second interview because of it, did you send a “Thank you”? All of it – messages.

  • Engagement and wedding announcements, and obituaries. Today, engagement and wedding announcements look more like resumés. We learn where the engaged couple works and make judgments based on that knowledge. We read where the bride and groom are going to honeymoon and decide whether or not we’re envious. In obituaries, we see that the deceased person used to write for television and read on more intently. We look to see how they died, and who survived them. We also note the obituary’s length. A longer one, filled with facts and brushes with fame, could mean a more successful life. Messages being sent everywhere, whether intended or not.

  • Advertising. You’re watching television and there’s a commercial break. In the first commercial, there’s a car driving next to the ocean on a winding road. In the next, an elderly couple walks on the beach as life insurance is discussed. Following that, a family celebrates the new frozen waffles that Mom brought home. What messages do these commercials send? How does the fact that they’re cliché make you feel about the products and the advertisers who created the ads? Will the ads make you jump off your couch, grab your coat and run for the door, yelling, “I must save for my retirement while driving in my new XJCS3, while eating a frozen waffle!”

  • Acronyms. ASAP, FYI, SAP, CMI. Letter after letter, acronym after acronym. Piled higher and higher, deeper and deeper, so overwhelming that we can’t breathe.. What message do acronyms send? In a meeting five years later, when someone asks you what the acronym originally stood for, will you know? If not, why not? If so, why? Again, no wrong or right answer – just be aware of the messages they could be sending. Both because of what they mean, and the fact that they exist in the first place.

So, there they are – examples of how everything communicates something. And every time something doesn’t happen, that communicates something, too.

Before this, we thought communication was important. We just didn’t know how much.

And, now that our perspective of what constitutes communication has expanded and know that followers begin to base their decision about a leader’s sincerity in large part on the leader’s communication, let’s learn how these same followers make their final decision about whether to follow a leader.

Decisions, decisions

Once people have seen the “How,” “What,” and “Why,” and understand that everything a leader does, is and says communicates something, they have a decision to make. They have to decide whether or not their leader is sincere and worth following. They have to decide whether they want to commit to the leader’s vision and values.

People will make that decision and then take action based mainly on how they feel.

Now, that’s not to say we don’t also take into account the logical and rational arguments, statistics, percentages, and data. Or that we won’t run a few quick calculations or create a macro-heavy spreadsheet. Or that there won’t be a few engineers, lawyers and actuaries among us who’ll want to believe we’re making our predictions and decisions based only on the cold stone facts.

But, in the end, in leadership, as in love, the heart rules.

John Kotter, a Harvard Business School professor and author of numerous leadership books, spoke to this observation, “Behavior change happens mostly by speaking to people’s feelings,” he said. “This is true even in organizations that are very focused on analysis and quantitative measurement, even among people who think of themselves as smart in an MBA sense. In highly successful change efforts, people find ways to help others see the problems or solutions in ways that influence emotions, not just thought.”

In an Academy of Management Journal article, researcher Cecilia Falbe and Gary Yukl noted that the “most influential strategy for gaining a person’s commitment is through inspiration (90%) and one of the least influential strategies is through rational persuasion (47%).”

This reinforces the concept that people make decisions based mainly on their emotions. In this way, the decision they make about their leaders’ credibility will also be based significantly on their emotional reaction to them.

What will they emotionally react to about the leader? Almost everything that communicates a message. They’ll react to what the leader says and does and writes. What they drive and wear. How they nod and cross their arms and listen or glance out the window while you’re talking to them. Whether their office door is closed all the way or left slightly open. All of it. Now, they won’t usually be aware they’re reacting, but react they will. They’ll react because it all communicates much about that leader, including their courage, credibility and compassion.

Action then follows reaction. First, the followers make their decision to follow a leader based on their emotional reaction to them. Then, they begin to act upon that decision. So, let’s look at what getting followers’ buy-in will ultimately mean to the success of the leader and the organization?

Not Just Nice to Do, But Need to Do

Yes, it’s nice to care about your people and communicate to them sincerely and effectively. But, at the same time, it also makes smart business sense. Because when we’re talking about business, unless you’re working for a nonprofit, “nice” doesn’t often factor into why people make decisions, no matter how much we’d like it to. “Nice” also doesn’t tend to impress analysts or shareholders unless the word is followed by “profits.”

Which is where the following research comes in, research that points to one overwhelming finding: Companies that get it – that communicate to their people in a clear and engaging way – get better results and retain more employees.

The previously mentioned 2019 Harvard Business Review study revealed that companies wanting to strengthen trust are smart to begin with their own employees. As the study noted, “trust has become a source of competitive advantage.”

According to Harvard Business Review’s 2017 piece, “The Neuroscience of Trust,” people in “high trust” companies report less stress, higher productivity and engagement, and less burnout.

The previously mentioned 2019 Edelman Trust Barometer also supported the important connection between trust and performance, finding that “Employees who have trust in their employer are far more likely to engage in beneficial actions on their behalf—they will advocate for the organization (a 39-point trust advantage), are more engaged (33 points), and remain far more loyal (38 points) and committed (31 points) than their more skeptical counterparts.”

According to the 2018 “State of Employee Engagement” survey by, one of the largest online communities for human resources professionals, “about three-quarters of respondents believe engagement is highly linked to supervisory relationships, leadership trust, and organizational culture… To be engaged, employees must trust leadership. This includes building a trusting relationship with immediate supervisors, of course, but it also implies trust in other organizational leaders, including those at the top.”

What’s this all mean? It means the next time a leader tells you that communication isn’t a big part of their job, share these findings with them. Show them that their followers are starving for communication. And that, if they communicate sincerely and effectively, there’s very little they won’t be able to do.

Finally, Give it a “Gut Check”

Now that we’ve seen the research and rationale, we can put everything we’ve learned into perspective. Then we can decide whether we really believe that a leader who communicates sincerely and effectively will get more loyalty and better results? To do so, we’ll draw here on our own personal experiences with the leaders in our lives.

For me, I’ve seen how everything a leader does and says and is communicates something.

I’ve learned that how I react to leaders is based in many ways on how they affect me emotionally. And, I know that sincere leaders inspire my loyalty and make me want to work harder for them.

I’ve also seen the effect of good leadership communication on others around me. And I’ve seen what happens when a leader isn’t sincere and doesn’t appear to value communication – which translates quickly into them not valuing their people.

And, ultimately, I’ve watched people walk back to their desks after having attended meetings led by both types:

  • After meeting with a leader who appears to be a sincere communicator, people tend to get back to work more energetically. There are more smiles in a more relaxed workplace. There are fewer rumors and politics. The grapevine’s withered because it just isn’t as important. More people feel that someone’s got their back, someone who’s looking way out in front of the bumper for potholes. Even if the meeting was about an impending “restructuring,” people will still feel they’ve got a supportive leader, who is committed to sharing whatever facts she can, as soon as she has them, and looking to have a say at the top about how her organization will be impacted.

  • After meeting with a leader who appears to be an insincere communicator, people tend to stall in the hall, not wanting to get back to their work as quickly, because they don’t know how or if what they’re doing fits in and whether it’s seen as valuable. They’re not sure if their leader didn’t smile much during the presentation because tough times are coming, or if he’s just having a bad day. They don’t have a leader who appears to care that much about them, so it’s harder for them to care about the company. More rumors. More politics. More hidden agendas staying hidden, yet strongly influencing what happens in the office.

Two groups of followers thinking and behaving in two completely different ways based on how sincere a communicator their leader appears to be, a judgement by their followers based on the leader’s reputation and the current environment. A judgement further fueled by what messages the leader is sending in the things they say, the ways they say them, their body language, and so on.

So, now, there’s only one person left to ask – you.

After all, you’ve seen the research.

You’ve heard my take.

Now, it’s up to you to evaluate your own experiences with the leaders in your life, and how their perceived sincerity, their ability to communicate, and the messages they were sending, both at the surface and in the subtleties, affected you.

How did you feel if you worked for leaders who communicated well and who cared about you? How hard was it to work for them? Did you put in the extra effort? Did you keep them in the loop? Did you tell others how great it was to be in their organization? Did you spend your lunchtime checking out or simply eating your tuna sandwich?

And, have you also worked for someone in the past who was more aloof, who didn’t take the time to let you know how the company was doing and where it was going? Who didn’t let you know how you were doing or where you fit in? Who didn’t listen to your concerns or recognize your contributions, even with a simple “Thank you”? Did you put in the extra effort for them? Did you volunteer to come in on a Saturday every so often or work later than normal? Did you defend them if other employees questioned their management style?

Then, after looking back at your history of bosses, I want you to do one last thing: check your gut about what you need in a leader.

Then make your decision.

To do so, simply answer two questions about a leader who communicates sincerely and well, and one who doesn’t.

If you were with your family at the store and saw them, would you go out of your way to say hello and introduce them to your kids?

Or would you just find the nearest exit?

The answer will tell you everything you need to know.

Wait, another book on leadership?!

If you walk into many leaders’ offices in any organization, you’ll find them.

Leadership books – like this one. But not like this one.

They’ll be lined up on bookshelves, or strategically placed on a small table in the corner. They could be next to the framed “As a Team, We’ll Succeed” poster, or the sculpture of metal figures helping each other up a ladder from the most recent company-sponsored event.

At least one book. Likely more. Along with the monthly newsletter from the leadership association the owner of the office belongs to. And it makes you wonder?

Why are so many people reading so many leadership books?

What are they searching for?

Is it simply that they love the topic of leadership, or is there something missing, something they’re not sure of? Are they looking for a quick fix of inspiration in the middle of another crazy day?

Well, I believe I know some of what they’re looking for.

And, I also know it’s not something they’re going to find in those books, newsletters, or magazines. Or on any leadership posters, notepads or calendars.

They’re looking for the one true secret to leadership.

Which is, wait for it…

… that there isn’t one.

No secrets.

No quick fixes.

No tricks.

Instead, the real answer is that leadership is hard. It takes vision and commitment and the ability to go it alone, if needs be, because sometimes leaders must lead for a bit, sometimes a long bit, before others decide they’re ready to follow.

But, most of all, it means you must care about the people you lead, and about what you’re trying to get them to do. And the willingness, no forget that, not the willingness… the downright, burning want to lead others to a better place.

It means you must be sincere. You can’t fake it.

It means you must be more aware, more of the time. You must notice the trees while describing the forest and remember the forest while explaining the trees. You must know how your followers are generally doing without having to ask them. You must understand what issues most need addressing – and which would simply worsen through further conversation.

No secrets. No shortcuts. No cheat sheets or cheat codes.

Just be aware and sincerely care.

If you do these two things, you’ll be the person they mention twelve years from now, when they’re at a conference breakout session and one of the people at their table asks them to describe the best leader they ever had.


That, my friend, is what they’re looking for in those books.

And what you’ll find here.

Ok, so who’s this book for and what’s in it?

Who is this book for?

This book is primarily intended for leaders and managers in corporations and other organizations, such as nonprofits, healthcare systems, government agencies, and academic, community and religious institutions. At the same time, it will also be valuable for graduate and undergraduate college students who are taking courses that include elements of communications, change management, organizational psychology, and leadership and management. You’re Being Watched can expose all these readers to challenging situations either before, during or after they’ve faced them for purposes of assessment, preparation and learning. Finally, communications, change management and Human Resources professionals will find the book to be beneficial, as it will serve as a guide for coaching executives and other leaders.

Chapter Structure

Everyday Business Situations – Following this Introduction, the subsequent 20 chapters will each spotlight an everyday business situation or topic that demonstrates how leaders can be more aware of the unintentional messages they may be sending, and sincerely and directly manage more of these messages.

Each chapter is divided into the following sections:

  • Quotation Relevant to the Situation – Two quotations, linked to the subject, that introduce the theme of the chapter.

  • “The Real Question” – The question at the heart of the matter. After initially thinking about and then answering the question for themselves, the reader will be more prepared to see the chapter’s business situation from a new perspective.

  • Situation – An objective description of an everyday business situation or topic that every leader has experienced or likely will.

  • Unintentional Message You May Be Sending – Leaders may be aware of the obvious messages they’re sending. But what about the not-so-obvious ones, the messages being sent below the surface, picked up differently by different people according to millions of variables, including their backgrounds, experiences, agendas, biases, beliefs and values? It’s important to know what these unintentional messages are to see if they conflict with the message a leader really intended to send.

  • Is This the Message You Want to Send? Consequences of Doing So? – Leaders need to give careful thought to the effect of the unintentional messages that might be sent. How will they help or harm what they’re trying to accomplish? What impact could those messages have on their followers? Unintentional messages can also have unintentional, and unfortunate, consequences.

  • How Can You Change the Message? Consequences of Doing So? – If a leader is comfortable with the unintentional messages they may be sending, then they can better know what to expect in terms of feedback and results. But, if they’re not, then this section will look at how a leader can send a different, more intentional message – the one they really want to send – by handling the situation or presenting themselves in a different way.

  • Your Role as a Leader – A leader has a key role in each of the situations. This section will help them identify their responsibilities and what is expected of them.

  • How You’ll Know It’s Working? – At this point, the leader has made changes to send the messages they want to send. But, since the best communication is two-way, an effective leader will want to know if the message had its intended effect. This section will give leaders ways to check if it did, from online surveys to focus groups to using their intuition during hallway conversations.

  • First Steps – A handful of initial steps to take to begin applying the lessons from the chapter back to real life. Starting small is important so that a leader gets some “quick wins.” It will also help them avoid getting so overwhelmed trying to make bigger changes right away that they give up.

  • Get Real! – There’s nothing more frustrating than attending a seminar or reading a business book, getting great new ideas and techniques, and then coming back to work and finding you can’t use them in the real world for any number of reasons. This could include the fact that it takes too long to implement the changes, the budget isn’t big enough to support the changes, the politics are unrelenting, or “To Do” lists filled with other priorities are now running over to a second page. This section will help readers apply the lessons to their real, day-to-day business lives longer-term, and not lose patience or faith along the way.

  • “Yoda was Right, too” – In this chapter, leaders will take what they learned and then learn how to “forget” it, relegating it to a level of subconscious competence, so that they don’t think about doing it while they’re doing it. Because, in leadership, what you forget is often just as important as what you remember.

  • “What messages could you be sending?” Activity Section – This section will help readers in two primary ways. First, by giving them a chance to practice presence, and, second, by looking at their own actions and behaviors through the prism of that presence. In doing so, they’ll get a better idea of what messages they could be sending and then decide on whether they want to send them based on what they’ve learned in the book.

  • Go Forth and Broadcast – In this closing chapter, readers will be reminded of the main premise, that they’re constantly broadcasting messages, as we all are. But, because they’re leaders, their broadcast is often louder and more noticed than most. So, with that, comes a great responsibility. To lead well and sincerely, something dearly needed in this world now.

One Last Thought Before We Go

We’re about to go on a quest – you and me. But, unlike other quests, we won’t need to carry much. In fact, the most important thing we’ll need is awareness and the “want to.”

In these pages, I’ll ask you to be more aware of everything around you. For instance, can you tell me what color the sky is today without looking? Is it bright blue, or is there some grey and white at the edges? Maybe there’s orange and violet in the sunset or a storm coming in, dark brown with churning clouds.

What color are the eyes of the person you last talked to? How did the laughter sound around you at the theater last night? What does the autumn wind smell like? How does a skinned apple feel? In all, I’ll ask you to be more aware of more. To look at your hands every now and then and notice the ridges in your knuckles and the lines that line your skin.

I’ll also task you to be more aware of the people in your life. When you pass them in the hall and say, “How are you?” they may answer, “Great!” But are they really? Notice their faces when they say it. Do their eyes avoid you? Are their shoulders slumped? Or are they lit from within, smiling like they just learned how? This goes for family and friends and your colleagues. Because, people are people, wherever they do what they do and are who they are. Notice it all… because, to be a leader, you must be more aware of everything.

I’ll also ask you to be more aware of what’s inside you, and to ask yourself if you’re being sincere. Because being sincere is sometimes the toughest thing we ever need to do. We want to run from the pain and get back to being comfortable. Unfortunately or fortunately, though, leadership won’t let you. Your followers won’t let you. If you’re insincere, you won’t have followers for long, if at all. If you are sincere, though, there’s little you won’t be able to do. Or be.

Because leadership and comfort don’t just live in different time zones – they’re on opposite sides of the world. If you’re one, you won’t be the other. Guaranteed.

Finally, I expect that you may want to ask me a few questions when this quest is over, or simply want to share a few thoughts or your own stories. If you do, please email me at

I will get back to you.

After all, this is about connection, isn’t it?


So, let’s begin. And from time to time, it’s okay if we stop, take a breath, look around, and have a quick sip of water out of those water bottles I suggested we bring.

After all, leadership’s sweaty work.

But it’s also one of the best things you’ll ever do.


Ready… set…. lead.

James Warda, Gurnee, Illinois (40 miles north/northwest of Chicago as the crow flies, a very large crow), 2019

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