What Can Great Leaders Teach Us About Effective Advertising?

Winston Churchill, Abraham Lincoln, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Confucius would have made GREAT advertising directors.

leaders-vertChurchill kept an island of terrified Britons unified and determined in the face of a fierce Nazi offensive. Lincoln put down a national rebellion, preserved the unity of a young country, and liberated an enslaved people. Eleanor Roosevelt advocated for human and civil rights, upheld the morale of troops abroad, and elevated the status of women everywhere. Confucius collected moral and intellectual observations so deeply insightful that his very name has become synonymous with “wisdom”.

What the HECK do any of these people have to do with that radio spot, tv commercial, or newspaper ad with which you’re struggling right now?

They have everything to do with it. 

Since the dawn of civilization, every woman or man that has changed the world—for better or worse– possessed one common quality: they were all gifted communicators.

I didn’t say gifted talkers. There is a huge difference between just talking and effectively communicating. Communicators talk about their own ideas, but they do so in a way that also speaks to the audience’s emotions and aspirations. They understand that if the message doesn’t take hold of that audience, then it probably won’t be understood. And it definitely won’t be championed.

Leaders are communicators. And the same principles that can win a war or otherwise alter the course of history can be applied to your daily battle to secure loyalty, gain market share, and establish long-term success. Consider the way Kleenex (a brand name) is now an everyday word for “tissue”. Confucius probably didn’t set out to become a brand leader in anything, but he has great top of mind awareness when you think about people who are wise, right??

Here’s how you become a great leader


• Tell the Truth. When a leader is perceived as honest and truthful, people are more willing to invest time in/take risks on the ideas which are being presented. It’s a fact that people will forgive much where there is trust—but will rarely forgive anything where there isn’t.

• Make it personal.  Don’t have a monologue—have a dialogue. The more personal and engaging the conversation is that you’re having with your audience, the more convincing it will be. That could be stopping to speak to a customer in a store, making a personal phone call, being attentive and responsive with your social media, or simply having a no-holds-barred Q and A session after a presentation. There is a classic business theory that “leaders” must stay at arm’s-length from those whom they are leading. More often than not, staying at arm’s-length will keep you in the dark, receiving only highly sanitized versions of the truth from your employees or customers.

• Don’t be vague. Everyone is busy, everyone is moving fast. Learning to communicate briefly and clearly has never been more important. Leaders understand how to cut to the chase, weed out what’s not necessary, and make their words count. Specificity beats ambiguity every time.

• Give without expecting to receive. Great leaders approach every interaction wanting sincerely to help others before helping themselves. Mike Myatt, a contributor to Forbes Magazine, said it this way: “The key is to approach each interaction with a servant’s heart. When you truly focus on contributing more than receiving, you will have accomplished the goal.” By putting a priority on the other person’s needs and wants, you’ll learn and accomplish far more than you would have by focusing on your own agenda.

• Seek out those who disagree. A leader becomes a great leader when they willingly look for dissenting opinions—not necessarily to change those opinions, but to understand why a different point of view exists in the first place. Is your business brave enough to ask questions when you might not like the answers? A customer survey is one way to do this. A simple, inexpensive questionnaire will provide you with valuable insight about your customers—and establish trust by showing them that their opinion matters.

• “Don’t let your ego write checks that your talent can’t cash.” Great lead

ers don’t insist on control simply for the sake of being in control. They will listen when their chosen approach is legitimately questioned. They are able to communicate with their followers/employees/customers in a candid, empathetic, caring way that builds respect and trust.

• Know your stuff. Nobody wants to listen to a blowhard who doesn’t add value to a situation, and who forces themselves into a conversation just to hear their own voice. Leaders (including brand leaders) know their material, and make their voice heard in order to educate the people around them.

• Talk to people one-on-one, even when you can’t. Great communicators understand how to tailor a message to any size audience. Whether that’s 5 people in a board room or 5,000 people in a civic center, each person should feel directly, personally addressed. That goes for your advertising, too—if you create a message that speaks in a direct, relate-able way to your audience, then your audience will be engaged.

History’s greatest communicators understood that it was never about them. Always, it’s about helping others (ie, your employees, your followers, your customers) by meeting their needs, listening to their issues, and adding value to their lives.

Antoine de Saint-Exupéry was a French writer who, on the subject of leadership, once said, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood… instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

Are you a brand leader? Do you aspire to be? Then make sure that all of your communications (marketing or otherwise) are true and correct, well-reasoned, and supported by business logic that is specific, consistent, clear, and accurate.

You’ll muster up an army of loyal supporters.

Lincoln and Churchill (along with all the rest) would certainly approve.