Leaders need support to be effective in a crisis
Written by Jim Walsh - March 2020
Photo credit: Independent.ie
It was a St Patrick’s Day like no other.
No parades, no pubs or entertainment venues open, no crowds on the streets. An eerie feeling in the air.
And as it drew to a close our Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, made what is generally accepted as a timely and perfectly constructed address to the nation. It was sombre, factual and at the same time emotional. It brought home the serious of COVID-19 virus to the country and yet offered hope.
As a professional communicator what struck me was the fact that while we see our leaders make sometimes outstanding speeches, as happened last night, we often forget those in the background who have helped craft that speech.
I don’t claim to know how much of the speech can be directly attributed to An Taoiseach. I am sure it was considerable, but I am absolutely certain that there were others, speechwriters, advisors and government colleagues who contributed.
His job was to present the words in a way that sent a clear message to the Irish people that we are living in dangerous times but together we will come through it.
“In years to come let them say of us; when things were at their worst, we were at our best,” he said.
The address was so well structured that it is hard to imagine it was the work of just one person. It showed that when a leader has the right support, they can be extremely effective in a crisis. This is not in any way to diminish the input or presentation of An Taoiseach.
The other lesson that stood out for me was the golden rule of public speaking. Be yourself.
Leo Varadkar’s public persona does not include being overtly emotional. He often appears to be a quiet and sometimes shy person. While he may not have appeared emotional in delivering his St Patrick’s Day address, his tone, delivery and the words provoked emotion for his audience. It was statesmanlike and full of empathy. While the economic and financial cost of the virus was included, the overall emphasis was on people. It had something for everyone. Children, whom he acknowledged were probably bored at this stage, were reminded to ask their parents at least once a day how they were feeling, encouraged to continue their school work and asked to phone their grandparents regularly.
He took a swipe at ‘fake’ news emanating on social media, which ignites fear in people. He asked people not to forward or share messages unless from trusted sources, health, government and national and local newspapers and broadcasters. Fear he said is a virus in itself.
As with all great speeches there were memorable lines. In referring to frontline medical staff he said, “Not all superheroes wear capes.”
I suspect that at various times during the address there were moist eyes and even tears in most Irish households. This was not an address just for Ireland. He told the world “We are all in this together”.
“We are with you” was repeated in relation to
- the people of China, Spain and Italy who have suffered untold heartache and loss
- all those around the world who have lost loved ones to the virus
- and all those living in the shadow of what is to come.
Overall a masterpiece which communicators, speechwriters and all those who support their leaders whether in business, politics or NGOs should watch at