Friday, December 6, 2013

When he spoke the world listened

Nelson Mandela. We all mourn his passing. He was a great man, and, like President Obama, I "pause and give thanks for the fact that Nelson Mandela lived, a man who took history in his hands and bent the arc of the moral universe towards justice."

What has struck me about the broadcast coverage of his life and legacy is how many audio clips I am hearing of the man himself speaking. There is a very good reason for this: he spoke about his vision more eloquently and dynamically than anyone else could. Most of the news stories I have heard or seen in the past day have included tape of him speaking, because the power he communicated is easier to experience than describe. NPR put together an amazing special: Nelson Mandela: an Audio History, which excerpts many recordings of Mandela. It is amazing to listen to. The print media has also devoted many column inches to the fact that Mandela's considerable speaking skill was often his strongest weapon.

All leaders strive to express their vision with such authentic voices. Most of them fail. To be a leader requires a bold vision, and an ability to be clear-eyed about how you embody that vision and how you will implement it. And a strategy for communicating that vision to your followers. It all takes time--and a lot of thoughtful effort. Sometimes people on the "leadership track" are looking for quick results. So they like shortcuts, like modelling themselves on leaders they admire. I can foresee that soon I will have new clients asking me to teach them to "speak like Mandela." Yes, that really happens... Ask any speaking coach, we have all had that experience. The desire to "sound like Obama" has waned a bit, but we still get it. I am sure--now that she has finally developed her own reliably powerful voice--I will soon hear "I want to speak like Hillary."

But to be an authentic leader you need to find your own voice. Then you should ask a professional to help you refine it. And you need to really do your preparation. There is no shortcut for that. Even leaders with speechwriters collaborate on the writing process and then practice the heck out of the text to internalize it. Again, Mandela offers an instructive example: his four-hour speech at the 1964 Rivonia Trial set him on the world stage. He spent a great deal of time crafting that speech, then asked for expert help. As the Washington Post reports: "For weeks he worked on his public statement, which was polished and edited by novelist Nadine Gordimer and British journalist Anthony Sampson at Mandela’s direction." That article also asserts that "He read from a script, slowly and deliberately in a flat voice — the drama was all in the content and the circumstances."  I have heard recorded excerpts, and I would not say his voice was flat at all. He words were a stinging indictment of the government, but his delivery was simplicity at its best. He trusted that his dramatic text would be best served by such openness and honesty. 

We should be thankful that this most authentic leadership voice, though silenced, lives on in recordings for all to hear and cherish.

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