the first message of a leader

The First Message of A Leader

Just under 3 weeks to the Superbowl. For most companies, that means it’s kickoff time in corporate America. Leaders are scrambling, dusting off decks and polishing presentations, focused on cramming in information to orient their businesses to a successful 2014. More than making the deck look good, making sure there’s a clear point, or simply practicing their ability to get better on their feet, there’s a nagging question that makes, or breaks, every leader.

Will [they] follow me?


To answer that question, check if you’re getting your first message right.


The “Where are we going? (and Why)” Message.


People need to know where, and why, otherwise they won’t go with you. When Patton was asked that question, he said,

“Berlin. I’m going to personally shoot that paper-hangin’ sonofabitch.”


One of the most famous examples of a where, was from JFK. For America and for NASA, it was the moon.

“But why, some say, the moon? Why choose this as our goal? And they may well ask why climb the highest mountain? Why, 35 years ago, fly the Atlantic? Why does Rice play Texas?

We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.”


The Where and Why define a shared purpose, one that everyone can get behind. Sometimes that where is very simple. For a fictional football team in Friday Night Lights, Coach Taylor summed it up in one word.



Businesses tend to be a little more complex, but the best ones are still clear.

“Our vision is to be earth’s most customer centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”

- Amazon.

The first and most powerful message of a leader is the answer to the where and why question. It orients people to an overarching goal, gives them a sense of purpose, and pride in that goal. Where are we going is a place that people can relate to and recognize.

The worst examples tend to be shrouded in corporate speak, and equally applicable to a host of companies.

“Guided by relentless focus on our five imperatives, we will constantly strive to implement the critical initiatives required to achieve our vision. In doing this, we will deliver operational excellence in every corner of the Company and meet or exceed our commitments to the many constituencies we serve. All of our long-term strategies and short-term actions will be molded by a set of core values that are shared by each and every associate.”


That message is not exactly Reagan’s shining city on a hill. It’s closer to corporate gobbledygook at its finest.


Take this simple test to see if your first message is up to snuff.

  1. Is it simple? Can I explain it to an 8-year old and they’ll get it.
  2. Is it mine? Can I authentically get behind it? Am I passionate about it?
  3. Is it emotional? Does it tug at the heart, not the head?
  4. Is it memorable? Is it audacious enough, scary enough?
  5. Is it concrete? Can your audience see themselves there?

Gavin_Animated-GifGavin is a founding partner at fassforward consulting group. He blogs about PowerPoint, Presenting, Communication and Message Discipline at You can follow him on twitter @powerfulpoint.

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