Willie’s Blog Posts

The Power of Communicating Without Words

“Action expresses priorities” – Mahatma Gandhi

Humans have the gift of language. But words are inefficient and often used to shield our real intentions. As social animals, we communicate more powerfully with our actions, although we are often not aware of this. When our words and deeds come apart, so does our integrity.

There are times when leaders are tested by devastating upheavals – when our very way of life is on the line. The current pandemic is a crisis of this kind. The prospects of a life-threatening illness combined with crippling economic hardship are our daily companions. We are also coping with the psychological consequences of prolonged social isolation, and more recently, with protests in the streets. At this crucial moment, everyone will be watching what their leaders do.

A few years ago, I visited Robben Island off the coast of South Africa where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned prior to his ultimate release and election as South Africa’s first black president. During his incarceration, he and his fellow prisoners were subjected to daily cruelty and humiliation, but Mandela conducted himself with courage, forbearance and dignity. His moral fortitude was a beacon not only to his fellow prisoners but also to his jailors.

Mandela was inspired by his favorite poem, Invictus, by William Ernest Henley. The final verse reads:

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishment the scroll,

I am the master of my fate,

I am the captain of my soul.

These reflections were churning in my mind while touring the prison. Our guide was a modest, matter of fact man, who had himself been a prisoner at the same time as Mandela.  We peppered him with questions, and he gave straightforward, unadorned answers.

“How long were you a prisoner here?” “Thirteen years.”

“Did you suffer a lot?”  “It was very unpleasant.”

“Are you angry?” “There is no point in that. I try to put it behind me.”

We were not going to get any histrionics from this man. Finally, I walked out front beside him as he led the group and struck up a more personal conversation. “I am interested in the idea of forgiveness,” I told him. “Usually we think of forgiveness as a response to a single injustice. But you were subjected to cruelty every day for 13 years. How on earth did you manage forgiveness in the face of that repeated onslaught?” He stopped, looked at me steadily, and said simply, “Mandela was here.” What was life-changing to this man was not what Mandela said. It was what he did.

Mandela, of course, was an icon. But the power of example is as true in our personal leadership roles as it is for our national leaders.

My father was a steady, deliberate man with a sturdy moral foundation. He was a man of few words and he lived by his values without fanfare or self-righteous declarations.  

In a prior article I wrote about my father’s patriotic act during World War Two. There was no conscription in my native South Africa, yet he decided to volunteer for the Allies and leave his young family to serve a cause he believed in. I vividly remember, as a young boy, watching the train pull out of the station as he started off on his long journey to Europe. Even then, I was aware that he was doing this for the simple reason that he believed it was right.

One great lesson endures for me. Watching my father’s quiet example taught me the crucial difference between purely physical courage and moral courage. The former can be done as an adventure, such as sky diving. The latter involves acting resolutely on principle and accepting the risks involved.

The power of communicating without words played out in an interesting way during my time as a CEO. I had occasion to appoint a new director of financial planning – an important role requiring a high level of critical thinking and analytical rigor. The HR department put forward two outstanding candidates, both of them women. Let’s call them Mary and Isabelle. During the first interview, both candidates showed they had superb professional qualifications and great experience. I could flip a coin and not go wrong. Afterwards, my assistant, Joanne, asked me, “What did you decide?” “I just don’t know,” I said. “Both would be excellent in the job. I need more information. Please arrange a second interview.”

In the second interview, I asked the candidates a different question: “Why do you want this job?” Mary folded her arms, sat back in her chair, and eloquently expressed her wish to make a meaningful contribution to the department’s priorities. When I posed the same question to Isabelle, she leaned forward eagerly, while voicing sentiments similar to Mary’s. But by sitting forward her whole body communicated enthusiasm and commitment. This gesture was totally in tune with what she was saying. That clinched it for me.

After the meetings, Joanne asked again, “Which one did you choose?” “It’s Isabelle,” I said. Joanne asked why. “Because she sat forward,” I replied. For a minute, Joanne looked perplexed. Then she smiled as she understood the significance of Isabelle’s body language.

As a CEO, I learned that there are other deliberate gestures that speak more loudly than words. One is deciding what goes to the top of the agenda in progress review meetings. We emphasize that there is nothing more important than our company’s priorities. But a speech is not enough. My golden rule was always to place the review of these priorities as item one on the agenda. This fortifies the message, “There is nothing more important than these.”  Items at the bottom of an agenda convey a silent message downgrading their importance, “We will get to these if we have time.” Another is the critical communication role of an organization’s measurement and reward system. There is a simple formula that spurs action without words: what gets measured gets done; what gets rewarded gets done repatedly.

A leader’s reactions speak volumes when confronted with bad news. Organizations can learn and improve only if they address reality and don’t bury their mistakes. It is vital that the unvarnished truth travels swiftly to decision-makers. Of course, it is natural to feel disappointment when bad news is conveyed to us. But we underestimate the impact of our non-verbal cues. Gaping with astonishment, rolling our eyes, scowling – these all project disapproval, even if we don’t say a word. The result is that the messenger feels personally indicted and discouraged from delivering bad news again. This habit of “shooting the messenger” through our gestures can lead to a breakdown in organizational learning.

At a recent workshop with a global company, I noticed how the CEO practiced the habit of asking probing, non-threatening questions that yielded more insightful discussions. His energetic curiosity was remarkable. In subsequent workshops, the participants followed the CEO’s example of pursuing questions to enrich their dialogue, even though the CEO was not present. The art of learning through questioning had become embedded in the culture of the firm. There were no instructions from the CEO to do this. An inspiring example motivates us to embrace change in ways that words alone cannot accomplish.

Navigating the current crisis requires leaders at every level to take tough, well-informed decisions that call on people to endure harsh sacrifices in the common interest. To succeed, leaders must serve as an unwavering role model for the behaviors they are advocating. Only then will they earn the credibility to deliver a message that will calm, fortify and unify their followers.

In the final analysis, what all this boils down to is authenticity – a seamless connection between our expressed values and our actions. To quote Ralph Waldo Emerson, “What you do speaks so loudly that I cannot hear what you say.”

Posted by Willie Pietersen at 5:16 PM | 0 Comments

Leading Through A Crisis: How to Learn Our Way to Success


“Darwin asserted that if anyone or anything is to survive in this world, it must learn to adapt.”
 – James Simon

Human progress depends on our ability to learn and adapt. All the major advances in history have involved a process of discovery, much of it based on trial and error. The graphic below describes the four revolutions that have ushered in the modern era. *

four revolutions in history

The agrarian age lasted for about 10,000 years, the industrial age for 200, the information age for 50, and the conceptual age is a mere 20 years old. We can sum up recent progress in one word: acceleration. Our challenge is to cope with increasing disruption and change. As Virginia Rometty, the former CEO of IBM, put it: “In the future, the most important quality any worker can possess will be the propensity to learn”.

Learning in a crisis

At times of crisis our ability to learn rapidly becomes the overriding factor for success, and often of our survival. However, the specific learning techniques we apply must match the situation we face. In other words, we must learn strategically. Crises fall into two basic prototypes – Episodic Crises and Emergent Crises. As described below, each demands its own unique method of learning.

Episodic Crises

These are sudden, catastrophic, and short-lived events, but they leave an aftermath of destruction. Examples are natural disasters like hurricanes and earthquakes, or occurrences like the terrorist attacks on 9/11.

The main form of learning required in these situations is the After-Action Review (AAR). It is a simple but powerful methodology, responding to these questions: What was meant to happen? What actually happened? Why did it happen? How can we prevent it from happening again?

The US military has perfected this technique and applies it rigorously after every engagement or simulation. I have participated in a number of simulations at the US Army War College and have been struck by the unwavering ability of the facilitators to arrive at “ground truth,” which is often painful to acknowledge. The process requires intellectual and moral honesty, a relentless pursuit of root causes, a “no blame” mentality and delivery of specific plans to address any problems. The learning is then disseminated across the entire military system, thus producing a shared process of improvements over time.

Some years ago, on a visit to Tokyo, I woke up in the middle of the night in my hotel room with my bed shaking. It was pronounced but unthreatening, and in a way quite pleasant. Some beds have vibration as a feature, and I wondered whether this bed had been activated by mistake. After a few minutes the shaking stopped, and, undeterred, I went back to sleep.

The next morning, I heard the dramatic news. Tokyo had been struck by a major earthquake the night before. But my hotel, apart from some broken crockery, was unscathed. So were the vast majority of buildings in Tokyo. Japan has learned systematically from a long history of earthquakes and has devised creative methods of constructing virtually “earthquake proof” high-rise buildings that have saved thousands of lives.

It is chilling but noteworthy that every time there is a plane crash, aviation gets safer. The industry is relentless in its quest to identify the root causes of failures. Once the diagnosis is complete, the learning is rapidly shared across the industry. The statistics on airline safety testify to the success of this approach. In 1959 there were 40 fatal accidents per million departures in the US. Today, there are 0.1 per million, despite the vast increase in air traffic.

 After the appalling tragedy on 9/11, an AAR was conducted by an impartial national commission. The investigation revealed a harsh reality – the failure to synthesize early warning signals that had been identified in different parts of the sprawling US intelligence system. With the benefit of a holistic picture, this catastrophe could potentially have been prevented. The result of this finding was the creation of the Director of National Intelligence, whose job it is to coordinate information picked up in the numerous intelligence agencies and thereby keep the nation safer.

Every organization can master the AAR method of learning from its successes and failures. This is, after all, how science learns. The task always is to ensure that the value of the learning is bigger than the cost of mistakes.

To bring this down to earth, we can draw inspiration from a farmer’s homespun philosophy when his cow falls into a ditch. First, get the cow out of the ditch; then find out why the cow fell into the ditch; and finally ensure the cow never falls into the ditch again.

Emergent crises

These crises involve a relentless flow of escalating harm, where both the cause and the solutions are uncertain, and where there is no clear end point. The current pandemic is a prime example. Emergent crises differ from episodic crises in fundamental ways and require a totally different kind of learning.

The challenge in these cases is to make rapid choices in a fast-moving environment, with incomplete information. If the growth of the crisis outpaces our ability to adapt, chaos would ensue. This demands a process of dynamic learning and continuous recalibration as events unfold.

Learning our way through the crisis

Here, based on the best evidence, are the key learning methods to apply at both the governmental and organizational levels in an emergent crisis:

Frame the challenge

The springboard for shared learning is to frame the challenge in a clear and honest way, so that everyone can understand the nature of the problem and “the reason why” for the tough choices that will follow. Vivid metaphors and examples help to simplify the issues. Statements like, “The virus respects no boundaries,” and “When you keep yourself safe, you keep me safe,” help shape the right behaviors.

Create a dynamic measurement system

To successfully navigate a fast-moving crisis, our learning methods must involve a process of continuous assessment and re-assessment. Such iterative learning loops help us interpret ongoing changes and calibrate our decisions in real time. The goal is to adapt to new circumstances as they emerge. This kind of fast learning is fueled by a measurement system with the following attributes:

It is selective

Measurement performs two essential functions: it communicates to everyone what is important; and it tracks progress. Good measurement systems are highly selective. They concentrate on the four to five critical drivers of performance. To measure everything is a declaration of confusion – an admission that we don’t know what is important. Think of the gauges in the cockpit of an aircraft. There is limited space. The key is to select the critical measures of performance that the pilot can absorb at a glance. Cram too many gauges into the cockpit, and you will muddle the pilot and endanger the passengers.

It is simple and consistent

Good measures make sense to everyday people and become a source of learning for them. Consistency ensures that we are always comparing like with like. Constantly changing what we measure not only causes disorientation, it arouses suspicion that we may be practicing deception.

It tracks both leading and lagging indicators

Leading indicators are our early warning system. Lagging indicators look back and tell us how we have performed. A key leading indicator in the pandemic is the rate of infection – the so-called R factor. A rate below 1 means the infections are declining and we can continue to open up. If the rate climbs above 1, this tells us an outbreak is occurring and that we need to apply the brakes and increase suppression. Watching the R factor helps us rapidly implement remedial actions before being overwhelmed. The hospitalization and death rates, on the other hand, are lagging indicators. They reflect the results of our inputs.

It measures trends, not snapshots

Snapshots tell us nothing. They are not comparative. A graphic depiction of a trend can show us at a glance whether we are heading in the right or wrong direction. Trends tell a story, reveal the need for action, and underscore the urgency of proposed initiatives. They help everyone feel part of the journey.

It disaggregates the data

Aggregated data provide nothing more than an average, and averages have only one role in life – to disguise the truth. Furthermore, it is impossible to manage an average. We can only manage its component parts, and then the average will move. To deal effectively with a pandemic, disaggregation is essential. The data needs to be classified by factors such as demographics, location, co-morbidity, behavior patterns, etc. This breakdown enables us to determine causation, isolate problems, and solve them at their source.

We tend to glorify leadership and relegate management to a secondary role. Of course, good leadership is always necessary. We need a sense of direction, clear priorities, and an inspiring message. But in an escalating crisis, that is not enough. Given the complex analytical and logistical challenges such a crisis brings, one reality emerges clearly – the need for sheer management competence. This involves not only analytical rigor, the ability to cope with ambiguity, navigate trade-offs, and make tough decisions; it requires effective project coordination, relentless follow-up, and the ability to manage messy ground-level operations.

This pandemic will inescapably cause immense health and economic damage. However, we have been forced to invent new, ingenuous ways of doing things, particularly working more effectively at a distance. Many of these benefits will endure and serve us well in the future.

Twitter has already advised its employees that most of them can continue to work from home indefinitely. This will save commuting time and office expenses, reduce pollution and, based on their experience, preserve efficiency.

We have discovered more effective ways of delivering healthcare via telemedicine. We have now seen that routine medical evaluations can be efficiently conducted via Facetime and the like. Speaking for myself, this has been a boon. To enable this, I simply needed to purchase a blood pressure monitor, a pulse oximeter, and a device that can measure my heart rhythm via my smartphone. With the aid of these inexpensive tools, my physician can monitor my vital signs without my needing to travel to a medical office and sit in a crowded room waiting to be seen. My guess is that I save about half a day by having these examinations done online. Telemedicine methods will no doubt improve even further over time and hold the promise of transforming the delivery of medical services.

Those of us who teach have had to adapt to the virtual method during this prolonged “stay at home” period. This has compelled us to reexamine our entrenched assumptions about how students learn. We have found new ways to enhance the social connections and interactivity that enrich online learning.  Of course, online methods are not the same as in-person education. But we have learned that they offer benefits such as flexibility, variety and reach. The choice between the two models is not binary. I believe these methods will prove to be mutually beneficial. Education faces an exciting future in which we discover how to harness a dual channel approach to create a more creative and stimulating educational experience than traditional methods have been able to deliver.

* Section headings titles courtesy A Whole New Mind by Daniel Pink

Posted by Willie Pietersen at 3:12 PM | 0 Comments