The scene is atop Breed’s Hill outside of Boston on June 17, 1775, two months after the American colonial unrest graduated to fully armed insurrection at Lexington and Concord. The command of Colonel William Prescott given to his 1,000 militiamen is the kind of iconic detail that tends to stick with the child who learned about the American Revolution in grade school, long after that child forgets most of what he learned upon reaching adulthood:
Don’t fire until you see the whites of their eyes!
The point of the command was brutal practicality: sacrifice the safety of distance for the effectiveness of accuracy. The infantry weapon of the time — the smooth-bore musket — was notoriously inaccurate, and the colonial force was holding a defensive position against a British force more than twice its size. Supplies of powder and ball were limited, so every shot needed to count, even if that meant waiting until the world’s most powerful army was within spitting distance before firing. The tactic worked: even though the British ultimately won the battle and drove the Colonials off the hills overlooking Boston, they did so at great loss, leading British General Sir Henry Clinton to later write: “A dear bought victory, another such would have ruined us.”
Communicating to the people you lead is not as different as you think. Like those smooth-bore muskets of old, communication across an organization is hard to do effectively … especially at distance. Leaders too often treat communication as a low-priority task that just has to be done — a box-checking exercise whose importance is simply in the doing in and of itself:
- I sent out an email about that.
- It was in the company newsletter.
- We talked about that during our all-hands conference call.
To communicate well is to combine art and science, intention with execution, message with thoughtfulness. Communicating one’s ideas in a way that the hearer can understand them is hard enough in an interpersonal context; it is exponentially more difficult to pull off in a public or organizational setting. To do so in those circumstances requires conscious effort to close the gap and make the audience feel as if they are in an interpersonal discussion as much as possible. That means getting closer to your intended audience, in ways both physical and emotional. It means stepping out from behind the org chart and interacting with your people face to face — if not in literal, then in spirit, through communication that is transparent, genuine, sincere, empathetic, and personal.
Instead, the temptation is to keep a safe emotional distance from the people we lead. Through communication channels, the abstraction of language, and the speaker-focused planning of “positioning” the message in ways that sound good to the leader’s ear, organizational communication is often fired off like a modern “stand off” weapon: a “fire and forget” missile that is thrown at its intended target well out of reach of the messiness that comes from interacting closely with that target.
If you want your people to hear what you say, care about what you say, and (most importantly) believe in what you say, then look them in the eyes — proverbially if not literally — when you talk to them. The emotional risks of connecting like this are greater, but so, too, are the rewards and your odds of achieving them.