One of the most difficult tasks for any leader — whether of a large organization or a small group — is to communicate frequently and effectively. Communication is not just important because it helps shape debates that lead to important decisions being made, but also because organizations need a sense of direction to keep the engine going. Leaders who don’t communicate frequently and effectively probably outnumber those who do. This is very noticeable when you take entire societies as an organized group, where the people are typically in constant distrust of their leaders because such leaders fail to communicate frequently and effectively.
Over the past two years, the importance of constant and effective communication has become so noticeable to me as I’ve witnessed different leaders employ very different strategies to communicate to the public. I want to focus exclusively on two very good government leaders to whom I can relate and whom I believe have very different strategies of engaging with those whom they represent. While I strongly believe frequent and effective communication is important for any leader, whether at the corporate, civic, or governmental level, I chose to compare two government leaders because of the impact their strategies have in shaping a nation.
The first leader, if you already guessed correctly, is President Barack Obama of the United States. Aside from having a highly successful electoral campaign in which records were set in terms of engagement, President Obama has made it a priority for his administration to communicate frequently and effectively to the public. Not only is he in constant communication with the public — from constant appearances on TV to town halls to news conferences to videotaped weekly addresses to Twitter updates — but his entire cabinet is fully engaged with the public through social media, conferences, and public appearances. It is arguable that this has been the most engaging administration in U.S. history, in spite of the anger some may feel regarding agenda items that have yet to be accomplished.
The Obama administration’s frequent and effective communication has not just helped achieve the most productive legislative Congress in many years, but has also helped rally a nation into debating issues previous administrations largely ignored. Although I feel some anger at the fact that the President has consistently taken a centrist approach towards many issues when they fully deserve and warrant a more aggressive approach, I admire how President Obama has used messaging — messaging that a majority of people can appreciate and understand — as a tool to achieve key goals. While words don’t necessarily translate into deeds, I think many people can agree that President Obama’s frequent and effective communication has helped his administration achieve quite a lot over the past two years.
Now, on the other end of the spectrum, we have President Leonel Fernandez of the Dominican Republic, my country of origin. Here we have a leader who not only understands how to keep an economy growing and is very capable of designing effective policies, but who has been elected three times in the last 15 years (1996, 2004, and 2008). While a majority of Dominicans agree that President Fernandez is one of the best leaders the country has witnessed, a majority of them will also say that they disagree with the way President Fernandez is handling the government. A sweeping 2010 election where the majority party (Partido de la Liberacion Dominicana) took almost full control of government can be used as evidence of the President’s popularity, but it doesn’t deny the fact that most Dominicans disapprove of President Fernandez, precisely a result of how infrequently and ineffectively he communicates to the people about issues that matter to them.
Unlike President Obama, President Fernandez only speaks to the public on rare occasions, such as for his annual address to Congress or updates on emergency actions. As a result, the people don’t feel like they need to follow their leader to get a sense of direction of where the country is going and what they should strive to accomplish. When President Fernandez does speak directly to the public, he does so in such language that people do not understand or feel interested in what he’s talking about, often focusing on statistics rather than telling a story to which people can relate. Not only is this a bad way to negatively impact what is in fact good leadership, but it’s also a waste of power, as President Fernandez squanders all the opportunities he has to get people to think and behave in ways that could help his nation race for a better future.
Good leadership is not just based on how well you can manage a team, but also on how well you can communicate to that team so it knows what it must do to accomplish its goals. All too often leaders fail to understand how valuable a position they’re in, where they can easily grab an audience’s attention and shape a debate, a decision, a common cultural problem, or even behavior. Clearly, some leaders tend to achieve goals from the top down regardless of who is alienated at the bottom or in the middle. Yet oftentimes it is better to achieve goals by having all people on board the ship rowing forward. Leaders who want to become better at what they do should understand the importance of frequent and effective communication if they want to add further momentum to their organization’s engine.