Leaders, don’t be the tree in an empty forest

Question: If a leader falls in the forest, and no one is around to hear him, does he still make a sound?


I recognize I’m mixing my (metaphysical) metaphors, but the question does have two philosophical implications for leaders and leadership. Philosopher George Berkeley used the metaphor of a tree falling in the forest as a basis for raising the questions: “Can something exist without being perceived?”; and “Can we assume the unobserved world functions the same as the observed world?”

The questions are valid for leadership. If people hold a position of leadership yet their vision for an organization is never communicated in the right venues with the right messages, then how can there be evidence of leadership? I think you’d agree there is a difference between holding a prominent position and being a leader. Too often employees and constituents are called on to perceive leadership based on position rather than on evidence that establishes leadership ability. Effectively communicating vision begins to make leadership tangible and enables followership with heart-felt commitment.

My friend and leaderships consultant, John Kramp, co-founder of The Riverstone Group, wrote an excellent post yesterday titled, “Why Leaders Must Master The Big 3 – Blogging, Podcasting, and Speaking.” In his post he rightly identifies three key venues for where leaders need to actively communicate. Hey, if the people aren’t going to go to the forest to hear the tree, bring the tree to the people, and that’s what John is advocating. Leaders need to move toward their audiences if they want to maximize their leadership opportunities – even if it means leaders must first become learners.

But what should they say when they get there? John touches on a few, but here are three key communication “whats” leaders need to emphasize when they arrive at the appropriate “wheres.”

1. Vision

One reason men and women have been elevated to prominent leadership positions is because they see things others don’t. They have a vision for how things could be. Unfortunately leaders too often fail to understand the strategic need for constantly communicating a consistent, succinct and clear vision for where he or she is leading. Like former GE CEO Jack Welch says, the person in charge may be so sick of hearing himself repeat the vision but it is his job to repeat it often until everyone else gets it. Blogs, podcasts and speaking opportunities certainly create those strategic opportunities.

2. Direction

A lot of leaders have clear vision but they’re not so clear on direction, i.e. how to get to the vision. Often that is because visionary people aren’t so good with the details. However, that’s the purpose for having leadership teams and advisors. Vision is nothing more than a daydream if there is no map that tangibly moves the organization toward the vision. A leader MUST communicate both where the organization is going and how it is going to get there. Employees and customers get on board because a leader has made following easier.

3. Honesty/Authenticity

Every organization has its positives and negatives, and a leader should be honest enough to engage both. People need encouragement when they’ve done something well that advances the organization and they need correction when things haven’t gone so well. Unfortunately, things get out of balance because too often the negatives get more attention. Leaders who are honest about the state of the company and authentic in both their praise and correction gain a great deal of credibility.

Great leaders become great leaders because they’ve communicated the right things in the right places. Their effective communications elevates them from simply being people in key positions to being perceived as leaders whose actions become observable. They are no longer a tree in the forest; they are the tree from which people are most interested in hearing.


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