Archive for September, 2014

President Obama’s speech to the United Nations was an impressive, far-reaching and complex statement that ranged from Ukraine to extremism in every corner of the Middle East. He challenged governments to act, and young Muslims to resist extremist recruiters.

Words can influence, but actions often speak much louder.

My long-standing fear has been that even when warfare eliminates an extremely ruthless group, fighting violence with more violence will only inspire the appearance of still another group that is just as violent, or even worse.

Many in the Middle East think that well-intentioned past initiatives of Western countries to export their cultural values seriously backfired. Referred to now as imperialism and colonialism, they argue that there has been a naive belief that one country’s democracy can be transferred to another. And while it may be true that there is widespread desire for freedom, justice and opportunity, many around the world believe there is more than one way to achieve it. They argue it must grow more naturally out of local traditions and ways of doing things. The process can only be supported by the West, not imposed.  Apparently, selling American democracy as “exceptional” all along has been perceived by Islamic cultures as arrogant and naive.

When Western imperialism and colonialism failed there was no democratic system relevant to the culture  ready to fill the void. When dictators also failed, the resulting chaos paved the way for the strongest extreme group to develop and flourish. And when it became a real threat, the warfare necessary to eliminate it began a never-ending cycle of violence. When one extremist group fails, another takes its place.

If all this is correct, what now can break this cycle of violence?  Educating globally savvy leaders, getting people together to experience and enjoy each other’s culture, and focusing research and expertise on solving the world’s problems, may be the only hope we have. Thankfully, all this is both the short and long-term potential of the expansion and globalization of higher education.

So we better get on with it. Given current realities, the airstrikes that began this week might be necessary.  But the cycle of violence will also likely continue. And we may be running out of time!


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I continue to be asked about the wisdom of Obama’s communication approach. Last week I offered much of my thinking about leadership communication in general, both in “normal” and crisis times. But a question came up this week about the president’s reaffirming over and over that there will never be American “boots on the ground” in Iraq.

My experience suggests that at times of crisis it is rarely helpful to announce what you are not going to do. This limits future options, introduces a negative tone, invites your critics to respond with all kinds of opinions, and gives adversaries valuable information for their tactical planning.

It usually is best to simply say, “Here are my objectives, and this is what we intend to do.” When questioned about more details, it also usually works just fine to repeat your objectives and add that you are fully prepared with action options when the situation calls for them. But it is premature to talk about alternatives now, and you will not do so.

It’s also fine, and sometimes essential, to explain why this approach is necessary in this situation. Explanation of “why” is often pecisely what’s missing. And when issues of legislative participation are involved, it’s helpful to add that those “needing to know” have, and will continue to be briefed in a classified and confidential manner. And here again, an explanation of  “why” is often missing. The media already knows why, to be sure, But they won’t report it unless the wording is in a newsmaker’s statement.

With respect to Obama, the phrase “boots on the ground” is another one that has different meanings for different people. Special forces, advisors, trainers, etc. are already on the ground, and they could get drawn into actual fighting at any moment. Military advisors get nervous about their credibility in situations like this. Disagreements surface, and the administration publicly appears in turmoil. This should never happen.

It seems that Obama may be trying to rationalize his current actions in light of his campaign promises. But in a crisis situation, all bets are off. The need to act decisively trumps the need to justify past statements. That was then, this is now. Once again, explaining this is important. Most people will understand.

He may also be thinking that if he lets countries with reasons to have boots on the ground believe that he is actually willing do it, they will just wait for him to act. But the US deals with those counties privately, and so White House public statements could be a bit more ambiguous.

No doubt, managing all this every day is extremely difficult in a 24/7 news environment. But telling an enemy specifically what he is not going to do, and giving critics at home daily opportunities to generate obstructive noise, is something Obama and his staff should be working harder to avoid.

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“I would have written a shorter letter but I did not have the time.”  This is an often quoted phrase that contains a large measure of truth. Both research and experience strongly suggest that successful communication requires that complex issues be reduced to only a few major points. And this takes deep thought and great care to accomplish.

But this insight coincides with the latest internet rage… the concept of “big data.” Today’s technology enables the processing of volumes of data more rapidly and efficiently than ever before. This big data, it is argued, will enable more efficient problem-solving than ever before. Some see it as the breakthrough that can revolutionize our understanding of most everything.

It certainly is a wonderful breakthrough for marketers who want to know more about us. And it can load communicators with a depth of information they never before had. But the challenge will be to reduce that big data to understandable simple language. Otherwise this deluge of data and metrics will prove counterproductive to understanding.

Many of us have been through complex strategic and communication planning exercises where countless people spent countless hours making plans detailing objectives, tactics, and who does what by when. But such plans ended up on shelves because the press of daily events required a more simple and practical approach. The more data we had to deal with, the less likely those plans would get implemented.

More than ever, in these big data times we need to take the time and care to write those shorter letters, make more simple plans, and use more carefully crafted and simple message points.

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Weeks ago I mentioned here that I was writing another book about how those involved in advancing institutions will need to help prepare their constituents for dramatic change. As I was developing my ideas about changing government roles, the influence of technology, and internationalization, I found myself also taking a fresh look at the role leadership plays in effective strategic communication.

I urged that professionals in this field should be fine tuning their own leadership talents because they will need to use them to find support for what they can do, as well as to take advantage of the new opportunities that change can bring. But I also came to see even more clearly that the behavior of chief executives can make all the difference in the results:

1. CEO behaviors become a symbol of an institution’s brand identity. CEO words and actions both model and protect it. But they can weaken it as well.

2. Listening to constituents is an important overall CEO characteristic… but a firm and timely response is even more important when addressing urgent issues and crises.

3. The visual presence of the CEO in urgent situations is simply expected.

CEO’s certainly are entitled to their recreational activities, vacations, and to attend unrelated events. This applies to presidents of institutions… and countries. In fact, photo opportunities at the right time can humanize the person and the office.

But timing in a threatening situation is everything. People demand to see that their leader is present and in charge. And how the CEO behaves becomes a symbol of either a strong institution, or of one that is uncertain and vulnerable.


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