Actions speak louder than words … but words are a (good)* start.

GandhiWhen comparing the speeches of some of today’s world leaders, it’s interesting to consider what gives one person’s utterances more credibility than another’s. Interestingly, when seeking illustrations of this,  I unknowingly selected numbers 1, 2 and 4 from the World’s Most Powerful People List as compiled by Forbes.

Pope Frances (Forbes #4)
The Bishop of Rome hit the headlines just before Christmas with his seasonal address to the Cardinals and senior officials of the Curia – the Catholic Church’s Rome-based administration. His address, which highlighted 15 “diseases” that he believes are endemic across the Vatican was, not surprisingly, met with lukewarm applause from his audience. They are under no illusion that these words are anything but part of a swift and decisive programme of reform.

Pope Francis’s credibility stems from a multitude of sources:

  • Throughout his public life, both as an individual and as a religious leader, Pope Francis has been noted for his humility and frugality, values which strongly align to the philosophy of the organisation he leads
  • Since his election as Pontiff, he has pursued a simple, informal approach to the papacy, eschewing much of the lavish lifestyle traditionally associated with the role
  • He has consistently denounced the activities and reputation of the Curia and, most importantly, has already started making important changes.

President Obama (Forbes #2)
Two years into his second term and it’s noteworthy that three of what are generally considered to be Obama’s greatest speeches**  were given before his presidential inauguration in 2009. Obama is considered a highly accomplished orator. He is also characterised as a president who promised so much and yet has delivered very little.

On the campaign trail Obama promised to “… turn the page on the ugly partisanship in Washington, so we can bring Democrats and Republicans together to pass an agenda that works for the American people.” Arguably, after nearly 7 years in office, there is more sustained division and partisan politicking in the US Congress than at any time in living memory. There are a number of possible causes assigned to Obama’s apparent impotence:

  • The entirely unrealistic weight of expectation at his initial election
  • He was never serious about bringing everyone together or, more likely, maybe he doesn’t know how (Source:
  • An apparent inability to identify the best compromise or to get even persuadable people onside
  • He’s a ‘talker’ rather than a ‘doer’ and has failed to bring on board sufficient ‘doers’ to compensate.

President Putin (Forbes #1)
The Russian President would be delighted with the heading of a feature about him in the TLS: Putin: Russia’s action man (March 2014). It’s a persona he has carefully crafted and nurtured, from the clearly staged photo opps, to his seemingly instinctive response to regional affairs. It’s been said that his campaign strategy throughout his political career has been to present himself not as other men, rather as much more than other men. A feature in The Telegraph entitled Seven reasons to explain Vladimir Putin’s popularity cult highlighted that Putin’s popularity tends to spike when he makes bold moves.

Mr Putin seems strongly to believe that action denotes strength, therefore, lack of action signifies weakness. Famously Putin’s own description to one of his biographers was: “I realised that in every situation – whether I was right or wrong – I had to be strong”. Putin uses every opportunity to illustrate the justification for his action man approach such as his declaration following the rescue attempt by Russian Special Forces of 1,100 hostages captured at a school in Beslan by terrorists from Chechnya. The botched rescue resulted in the deaths of at least 334 adults and children inspiring Putin to declare: “we demonstrated weakness – and the weak get beaten”.

A leader’s ability to move from words to action depends on the political climate as much as on the individual….

For words to be a good start, a speaker needs to have established credibility to deliver. The form this takes depends greatly on the environment in which (s)he is operating.

The fact that no-one in the Curia is doctrinally opposed to the Pope is in stark contrast to the idealogical chasm that splits the US Congress – a chasm that Obama seems incapable of bridging.

The Pope is in a unique position of power. He is both infallible and an absolute monarch of the Vatican City and the Catholic Church. The surest sign of his strength and conviction of what needs to be done is identified by Raymond Flynn, former US ambassador to the Vatican: “He’s opening up a dialogue that never existed before and I think that’s a very healthy thing. Some people will get their nose out of joint, but in the final analysis I think this makes the church stronger.”

In a democracy, debate is a necessary prelude to action. The capable leader knows how to move the debate towards the desired objective and when there is sufficient consensus to enable effective action. Obama has shown an inability to obtain that consensus between legislators who are committed to contrasting political philosophies and his ability to deliver actions has been correspondingly curtailed.

In a dictatorship, which Russia is in all but name, debate is actively discouraged. John Wayne’s character in the film “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon” had a mantra that appears to have been adopted by Putin: “Never apologise and never explain-it’s a sign of weakness.” Putin’s increased domestic popularity as a result of sanctions against Russia seems to illustrate that, in the unique environment that is Russia, even the intelligentsia seem happy to back a strong President against interference in their affairs from outside. Thus, Mr Putin’s reputation and popularity rely on him being seem to continue acting dynamically in pursuit of the interests of Russia.

As a communicator you should consider your own organisation and its culture. Which combination of words, debate and action do you think will prove most effective in enhancing your leaders’ credibility and enable them to achieve the outcomes they desire?


* The annual and, for the most part, pointless exercise of New Year’s Resolutions, forced me to caveat my statement of support for words in the title.  Words, as a precursor of action, should be a resolute statement of intent. However, motivation for action has, not surprisingly, to be more than a fairly arbitrary date in the calendar.



About madeleinekavanagh

Internal comms specialist with a career spanning advertising, car sales and management consulting. My greatest legacy (so far) - my son!
This entry was posted in Authentic communication, Business Leadership, Culture, Leadership Behaviours, People management / motivation and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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