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Become a Contagious Leader

A client of mine remembers not long ago she was asked to deliver some really tough news to an entire division of her company (Fortune 500). Let’s call her Fran because that’s not her real name. Some employees would have different roles and additional responsibilities and others would be out of a job. This type of situation is an all-too-familiar one for many of us in recent months, but Fran handled it with aplomb. 

Here’s how:

When Fran delivered her message it was well received because she had done her due diligence. Simply put, she knew what she was talking about both in terms of the details and the big picture vision. She had confidence and it showed. When questioned by the audience she was positive but frank. She shared how she engaged business partners and colleagues in the process that lead to this decision and explained the necessity of downsizing for the survival of the company in this economic environment. This created a compelling message, even though it was a hard one. People were engaged; they felt that their voices had been heard. Afterward people wanted to know what they could do to help. The success of Fran’s delivery was not just the message and the verbal construct; it was how she showed up as she delivered the message.

She was: sincere, clear and decisive. She showed great eye contact, she leaned in as she delivered the message, and her body language was congruent with her feelings of concern. This demonstrated in-the-moment consistency between what Fran was saying and how she was saying it. And, as you can probably guess, Fran didn’t deliver this message once and consider her job done. She was consistent in the days and weeks that followed in managing communication around this dynamic, hearing individual concerns, and communicating with people on a one-to-one basis.

Fran is a contagious leader.

Contagious leaders have several important qualities in common:

They have a grounded confidence in themselves that allows them to be authentic, vulnerable and real.
They communicate this confidence in a compelling fashion, drawing attention not only to their ideas, but to their leadership itself with their crisp, clean communication.
They are consistent in their communication. There is congruency between what contagious leaders say, how they say it, and what they ultimately do as leaders. They are also consistent in the frequency of their communication: you won’t see a ‘download and disappear’ type of leadership from a contagious leader.
It’s simultaneously that simple and that profound.

Think of these critical components as the three legs of the stool you will use to step up to the next level of leadership. You need all three to be truly contagious. A leader who is consistent and compelling, but lacks confidence in themselves eventually generates doubt and loses credibility (“You know yourself best, so if you don’t trust in yourself and your ideas, why should we?”). A confident, consistent leader who can’t convey their message in a compelling message goes unheard and their true value to the organization and its people unrealized. And finally, a confident, compelling communicator who isn’t consistent is like a flickering lighthouse beacon—people recognize your value, but don’t feel they can rely on you to move forward, so stop looking to you for direction.

Notice there is nothing magical in these three components, nor any concepts like the illusive charisma here. I’ve seen leaders of all different personal styles become contagious, all in their own way, and all by fully embracing and living out these three components on a daily basis.

This means two things:

1) You, too, can become a contagious leader; and 2) you have no excuse not to.

Building your Confidence, Compelling Communication, and Consistency

Let me offer some practical tips.

• Confidence. True confidence in oneself requires deep effort and working through anxieties, fears, and concerns that may be getting in the way of your truly shining. For years I have recommended to my clients the very practical book, Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway by Dr. Susan Jeffers. For those of you focusing on building your confidence to up your contagiousness, I would recommend the same. This book is a fast, practical read that highlights useful exercises like visualizations and affirmations to help you push past mental roadblocks that impede your success.

• Compelling Communication. The next step in developing more compelling communication is to determine what takes away your power in communication. Perhaps you use filler words (ums, ahs) that detract from your message. You may talk in a circular fashion to an audience that wants the headline and must-make points to your idea. Or you may discredit your own ideas out of habit before you suggest them (“you’ve probably already thought of this, but … “). If you can’t articulate what gets in the way of your being more compelling, seek feedback from those around you. Once you know what you want to curb, focus in on it for the next two weeks. Keep a log of filler words you use, and set small milestones for yourself (e.g. I will put forward my ideas without apology at the next staff meeting we have” or “I will remember that my boss is a regular person too and I can communicate with her without fearing her response”). Celebrate your successes in moving forward on a daily basis and don’t get discouraged by a few set-backs either. Research shows breaking habits takes time and requires practice.

• Consistency. There are two types of consistency we are talking about here: in-the-moment consistency—a consistency between what you say and how you say it—and longitudinal consistency—the reliability and frequency with which you communicate your key messages.

Being congruent in what you say and how you say it is essential. Therefore, the work you have to do may be quieting your nervous body language, creating a wardrobe that is consistent with your message, or learning to leverage your body through gestures and intentional movements to convey your message in a compelling fashion.

With consistency in terms of frequency, you know what you need to do: continue to get out there and communicate your message, so the real question here is: what is getting in the way? If you underestimate the importance of consistency, you may just not be making it a priority, and hopefully will now move it to the top of your To-Do list. Other times, though, you may catch yourself doing things like communicating to ‘safe’ colleagues or the proverbial ‘choir’ and not communicating your key messages to the people who need to hear it most. If that is the case, I would encourage you to write down the top five people you need to communicate with this week and make a point of reaching out to one of these people each day.

Becoming a contagious leader is neither an art nor a science, but a practice. It begins with you believing in yourself and your potential, and then communicating this in a compelling and consistent fashion to those around you. Do these three things and you will get recognized for your contributions to your organization, and you will succeed as a leader.

So now only two questions remain: what will you commit to in order to build your contagiousness? What, beginning today, will you start or stop doing to up your contagiousness? Write down these actions on a sticky note, attach it somewhere visible on your desk, and start moving forward on your commitments to contagious leadership each and every day.

This article was written for by Charmaine McClarie.