Last week we explored how to make our leadership communication radically more effective. We will now turn our attention—as we so often do at The Aperio—to the inner workings of the leader. This week we’ll explore the internal development of the leader that precedes and enables radically effective communication. In the 1989 movie Dead Poets Society, the late Robin Williams played the role of school teacher John Keating. Keating teaches poetry and English in an all-boys preparatory school. His teaching methods would have been considered unique in any school but, in the buttoned-up world of a traditional boarding school, they were scandalous.
In one of the more famous scenes of the movie (and one of my favorite scenes ever in any movie), Keating marches his students into the hallway of the school. There they looked at the photos of past classes; old black and white photos of boys who “…are now fertilizing daffodils” as Keating put it. Keating instructed the boys to lean toward the glass case that held the photos. He asked them to listen hard in order to hear what the voices of the past were saying to them. Then, as the boys physically moved close to the glass, Keating leaned over their shoulders and whispered in a raspy voice as if from the grave, “Carpe. Carpe. Carpe diem. Seize the day, boys. Make your lives extraordinary.”
Though that scene is exceptional, it is what happens next that teaches us about communication and leadership. The scene shifts to the boys walking to their next class. One boy says of Keating’s hallway exercise, “That was weird.” Another boy responds by saying, “But different.” A third boy says, “Spooky if you ask me.”
Last week we talked about the opportunity to make our communication radically more effective by creating experiences for those we lead. This is precisely what Keating did in the hallway. But his students didn’t respond with effusive praise and enthusiasm. Instead they held a guarded intrigue with two of the three comments that followed the event having a negative tone.
The Courage to Try
If we are to be leaders who communicate in radically effective ways, we must first have the courage to try unique methods. We need to be ok with being misunderstood and judged negatively. We need to be able to focus on the bigger picture of our endeavors more than our momentary popularity among those we lead.
If we aren’t willing to risk some of our personal credibility—that piece of us that wants to be accepted much like the movie’s teenage boys—we will limit the effectiveness of our communication as leaders. We simply can’t achieve extraordinarily effective communication without taking some personal risks.
Some of you might be thinking, “But I’m the head of my division. I can’t be creative in my communications. If I try and fail, their trust in me and our leadership in general will wane. The entire organization will suffer.” These thoughts, if we’re really honest with ourselves, are more about protecting our egos and power than leading and communicating well. To pretend otherwise is to fall prey to the same buttoned-up thinking that limited the educational effectiveness of Keating’s peers and administrators.
Seizing More Than Just The Day
Is it easy to create experiences that make our communication radically more effective? No. It requires creativity, forethought, and planning. But before those things it requires courage; the courage to attempt it. There is no way around that fact. But there is a silver lining: One of the unique qualities of courage is that it reproduces itself. It is self-regenerating. Try it once and you become more courageous nearly instantaneously.
Keating did more than communicate effectively by creating an experience for those he was leading. He didn’t merely ask his students to “Seize the day.” He did so himself through the very risks he took in how he communicated. Through his courage to create experiences that communicated extraordinarily well with those he led, Keating turned “Carpe diem” into "Carpe his followers." It's a leadership example from which we can all take note.
Watch below to see the courage and creativity Keating brought to his communication. Unfortunately, there are no legal copies of the movie online that show the boys’ reactions as they walk to their next class after their "carpe diem" experience. Nonetheless, here is the famous scene.
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