“Did I wake you?”
“No, I’ve been awake for a bit,” I say. A friend is on the phone. He’s an attorney.
“Good. I don’t have court until 8 a.m., but I’m already here,” he says. It’s 7 a.m. “I’m catching up on my voicemail and writing a few notes to myself.”
We chat for a moment, toss a few project ideas back and forth, share an anecdote, and then say our goodbyes. Most of our early morning and late-night chats are like that.
The habits we form early in life stay with us longer than we could ever have imagined when we were young. My attorney friend formed the habit of showing up an hour ahead of an important meeting when he was very young, something he learned from his father; a show of respect, he said.
The leadership habit I want to speak about is communication. The messages we convey as leaders are far more enduring than we realize, but perhaps not in the manner we think, or hope, they would be.
Meaning in the Message
We speak them quickly, often without thought. But the weight of their influence, the tone with which they are stated and the subtle changes in meaning that occur as the listener processes them, make it vitally important that we spend more time considering the messages we are sending out. Not so much the words but the underlying message, the one that sticks around long after the words are forgotten.
You only need think back to the words spoken by a parental figure, a mentor at work or the very first boss you ever had to understand. You are likely to remember not so much the words as the meaning behind the words they spoke, the heart with which they spoke them and the emotions you felt at hearing them. They delivered instruction, yes, but they were also building upon a legacy called you.
The same phenomenon happens each day for those who listen to you now. Your words may or may not be remembered a year from now, but the deeper and more meaningful instructions you conveyed and how you conveyed them certainly will be.
Walking home from school one day, my father and I were on the subject of long-ago ancestors, those ancient fathers whose names we would never know. I was lamenting the loss of their names, their faces, their stories and their life-lessons. I began to imagine a distant future when my own face and stories would be forgotten (this was before the internet).
My father thought long and silently about what I said. Then, he replied, “We may not remember their names or their stories, but the heart and soul of who they were and what they believed lives on in how we were raised, how I’ve raised you, and how you will raise your own children someday.”
We live in a day when people spend either too little time choosing their words, or too much time. The former care little; the latter worry too much. Few leaders, however, focus on the heart and soul of their message. In the end, only the heart of the message, your heart, endures.
When the words are said, what will have been heard? What sentiment will I have conveyed? What will be remembered by the next generation of leaders?
These are the questions we should ask ourselves before we speak. The answers will determine whether the message will be understood today and be remembered tomorrow.