In a civic organization, a business or a government engaged in global affairs, what the leader says makes a world of difference.
Never has that fact been such a topic of passionate discussion and debate as in the last 10 months, since President Donald Trump took office. The president acknowledged early on that his love of Twitter and his affinity for frank talk would give him a very different style from his predecessors. But in recent weeks, even some of his political supporters and personal friends have admitted that President Trump’s brusque style sometimes makes matters more difficult than they need to be.
When I interviewed my father, Ermon K. Jones, for my upcoming biography on his life, his comments helped me to identify three rules that should always guide what leaders say. My dad, a civil rights pioneer who made strides against housing discrimination, served as president of the NAACP branch in Asbury Park-Neptune, New Jersey, 1967-1970. He taught me what effective leaders should remember when they speak to the public.
- Stay Focused on the Issue
“I attempted with most of my endeavors to keep focus on the specific issue and not drift away,” Dad said. “I think that’s a basic responsibility for a leader, in order to have any type of success. . . . Most of my strategies were developed with the recognition that social issues can get out of hand. Therefore, my goal was to stay focused.”
- Keep Cool — Control Your Emotions
“There were incidents when I spoke before a governing body or any civic group – and experienced emotional moments,” Dad told me. “It’s very difficult to restrain your emotions, but you have to do it. That’s one of the attributes of a good leader. Keep the peace, stay calm and focused, and encourage others to do the same.”
- Never Forget That it’s NOT About You
My father always kept his position in proper perspective. “In my role as president of the NAACP, I made sure that everyone understood that my words and actions were on behalf of thousands of people who mattered, citizens who paid taxes and voted,” he told me. “When I went before any governing body or any group, I used the name and the influence of the NAACP. That was very important. I may not have had a crowd there, but as president of the NAACP, I represented an important constituency. My work took me into areas where I felt there was a need, because I could see it in the community. I focused on housing, education and employment. I wanted to develop some proficiency in addressing those issues and have some impact on them.” In other words, his goal was not self-promotion or popularity – it was community progress.
Bottom Line: As I mention in my upcoming book, Justice on the Jersey Shore: Ermon K. Jones’ Epic Battle for Civil Rights, my father “always confronted a problem in a disciplined, refined, soft-spoken manner that emphasized a peaceful resolution of a problem.” What leaders say and how they say it really matters.