Winston Churchill was a master of word-pictures. All great leaders have this ability, to one degree or another. This is well documented in Martin Gilbert's book, Churchill: The Power Of Words. But Churchill’s most powerful and effective word-picture did not come from his own mouth.
Churchill knew in the early 1940s that he needed the United States to enter World War II as his ally. But there was great resistance to this in the U.S., as the average American farm boy couldn't understand why he needed to leave his plow to pick up a gun. After all, Europe’s problems were for Europeans to solve.
To gain sympathy for his cause and to stimulate interest in his plight, Churchill made a deft move. He enrolled 14-year-old Princess Elizabeth and her younger sister Margaret to record a speech that was aired to a global audience, including American children. The effect was palpable. Children all over the U.S. were suddenly sympathetic to poor Elizabeth and Margaret; the peril that children of Great Britain faced from bombing raids was suddenly real for people a continent away. Letters of support poured in from around the world. They had a reason to care.
This is what great leaders do to inspire action and coordinated effort – efforts which people may initially resist. Leaders create word-pictures that others can believe in. These word-pictures speak to their deepest motives and desires and compel them to take action, even when the going is rough.
Word-pictures are more than clichés, mission statements and inspirational sayings. They are short narratives, stories that communicate on several levels. The best word-pictures use imagery to convey values, unite listeners and simplify complex ideas.
Why Business Leaders Need Word-Pictures
Let’s be honest about something here: The average office worker’s daily job is often a grind. Many people feel no sense of connection between what they do and what really matters to them. Work is often merely a means of earning income. But is it meaningful? Does it inspire and fulfill? Is it done to achieve a higher goal? Can it lead to self-actualization?
To some, work is a series of endless tasks that just keep piling up no matter how many you knock down. According to a 2017 Gallup report, "only 33% of employees are engaged in their job."
This is not a worker problem. This is not a task problem that can be re-engineered with a better assembly line. This is not a people problem that can be fixed with a new human resources program.
This is a leadership problem.
At its core, this is about connecting the tasks that comprise a majority of your day to a larger vision of why you work in the first place. The most passionate – the self-starters and the go-getters – already know this and live it every day. The top performers in any organization are driven by a sense of purpose, competition and achievement. They thrive on it. They don’t need word-pictures.
But the rest struggle to get to work on time, struggle to do more than just clock in, struggle to think original thoughts and solve problems where we may not be asked to tinker. It is risky for workers to care, especially when soulless work is the norm. Why be passionate and take risks when going with the flow is so much easier? Why question the system when the system works just fine?
For any organization to achieve its full potential, it must have people who are in hot pursuit of their full potential. Companies need risk-takers. The more engaged and dynamic the work-force, the more exciting, profitable and fun the company. The inverse is true as well. Flat firms have flat profits, flat growth and flat people.
Connecting The Grind And The Vision
How can leadership help fix this problem? Leaders like Churchill created a connection between little things and big things, between tasks and visions. The vision is what makes the little tasks matter. Vision gives the grind meaning.
For Churchill, the vision was simple: victory and nothing less. For modern workers, the vision is more subtle and nuanced. Why should we care about the victory of corporations?
Staff don’t commit because they don’t believe. They often don’t trust their leaders or believe those leaders will act in their best interests over time. There is plenty of evidence to support their case. So putting in the minimum effort necessary to keep one’s job becomes the norm.
The most dangerous thing you can do as a leader is to give people a reason to believe. Once that seed of hope is planted, it must be carefully nurtured with consistent speech and action. Starve that seed, and the future of your business is starved. Yet staff will give it their all and go the extra mile – if they believe.
I experience this daily. For my clients to realize their full potential, they must work hard. Our mutual success will be defined by executing a thousand little tasks with precision, gusto and a willingness to learn what is and is not working.
When the grind gets tough, I tell my clients stories about the way their work has improved the lives of their clients. I’m no Churchill, but the stories I tell do seem to make a difference. When learning about how their work helps others, staff members seem to take more pride in the work they do and feel more connected to the company's mission.
Committing to the grind, to measuring, to tweaking and trying again – this is what it takes to succeed. When leaders tell the right stories with compelling and simple word-pictures, they breathe life into the future. The best word-pictures stimulate action that seeks far more than financial rewards; they inspire hope.