What Leaders Can Learn From Governor Cuomo About How to Communicate During a Crisis
New York's governor has been exhibiting what leadership looks like: authority, vulnerability and the right tone.
When we think of great oratory in times of crisis, for most of us, a couple moments come to mind: Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s stirring “All we have to fear is fear itself,” and Winston Churchill’s rousing “We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds…”
In the midst of crisis, we look to our leaders for guidance, assurance, information and a sense of safety. Their ability to communicate and keep the populace calm, while also motivating them to make personal sacrifices for the sake of public health, is paramount. Crisis communication — whether you’re leading a country, city or business — requires three key elements: the authority you exhibit, the warmth you convey and the energy you exude and bring out in others.
Make your authority evident
Governor Cuomo provides a perfect example for how to communicate in the face of an unprecedented challenge. Over the past few weeks, many of my fellow New Yorkers (and Americans everywhere) have been moved by his words, which are both scary and comforting at the same time. Cuomo knows the stakes are very high for his constituency, and has spoken with incredible authority when telling people what is required to avoid the worst-case scenario. He has communicated by reciting the facts in as strong and stark terms as possible to convince people (especially younger ones) to heed the warnings. He also punctuates and highlights certain words to emphasize the serious details of the threat. Cuomo reinforces this by reciting the staggering numbers in an almost detached way — by speaking softly while maintaining the seriousness of his message. This detachment makes it clear to people that the crisis is so evident to him that he’s not trying to sell them on what he’s saying.
Find strength in vulnerability
Cuomo has balanced his authority with a surprising degree of warmth — communicated through vulnerability and empathy. On several occasions, he answered a question with a flat “I don’t know.” While this vulnerability could be seen as a sign of weakness, he has turned it into a strength. Cuomo is forceful on so much of what he does know that his openness to admit what he doesn’t know — instead of trying to convince us otherwise — has led people to trust and connect with him much more than in normal times. He has also resisted the temptation to tell people what they want to hear — in this case, that it’s under control and that everything will be OK.
Last Monday, when asked about shutting down the entire state and putting so many out of work, he said: “I’m sure there will be political consequences, I know people are very angry about it.” When one man told him he will never be reelected, he responded: “Frankly, I don't even care about that. I did the right thing, and I'm proud of it.” That level of candor takes enormous vulnerability. He’s putting the well-being of others over his own career. We haven’t seen such magnanimity from other leaders. My hunch is that even those who have been displaced and are struggling to pay bills respect him because they believe that his decision is not politically motivated and that he did what he truly felt was the right thing. He has also repeatedly acknowledged the challenges homebound people feel by sharing his own experiences. He has been unusually personal and revealing — discussing his own mother, his dog and his loneliness in what seems to be a virtual group therapy session, a necessary and welcome catharsis for many. That empathy makes it more likely that people will heed his message to stay home.
Match the tone of the moment
While demonstrating authority and warmth is key — particularly striking the right balance between the two — it’s also crucial for leaders to energize their audience. Good energy isn’t necessarily high energy. It’s more about matching the tone of the moment. In Cuomo’s case, he has adopted a relatively low-key, methodically slow delivery. If you close your eyes while listening to him, you can almost picture him speaking as if he’s reading a children’s book aloud. When you listen to Cuomo speak in this slow and gentle tone, you can feel that he is listening to you even while he is speaking. His steady and calm energy is quietly invigorating to his audience.
Business leaders can learn from Cuomo. Businesses are in crisis mode and employees are overwhelmed with fear and uncertainty. They are worried about their own health and the health of their loved ones. They are worried about job security and their ability to weather the storm financially. They are filled with anxiety about what the future holds for their country, community, family, friends and organization. Uncertainty is deeply unsettling, and more than ever before, people need their leaders to communicate about what is happening with authority, warmth and energy. It’s critical to speak with deep authority about what you do know — the information you have, what needs to be done. But you must balance that authority with warmth, which includes admitting what you don’t know and showing empathy for what they are experiencing. And finally, you must bring a level of energy that shows your emotional commitment — to them, and to what it’s going to take to pull through this together.
There is no single way to effective communication. Churchill won over the British citizens with a more overtly energetic style. Cuomo has been effective with a dramatically different tone and tenor. The key is to ensure you communicate with a mix of authority, warmth and energy that feels authentic to your personal leadership style, and to the challenge of the moment. Cuomo is not only leading by example to other politicians; he’s also demonstrating daily that the elements making him so effective are easily replicated by anyone who needs to connect with their people and ensure that they trust and believe in you and what you’re asking them to do.
At the Gettysburg address, Abraham Lincoln famously said, “It is for us the living, rather, to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us — that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion — that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain."
He’s also known to have loved the adage “this too shall pass.” We would do well to remember these words. And leaders must keep us focused not just on the crisis at hand, but also with an eye toward the better future that will surely come.
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