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How a point of view can equip you for the hyper-critical media environment

Recently I spoke to the CEO of a leading NGO who was questioning the effectiveness of her performance in a televised debate and whether the point of view she had expressed was convincing or indeed appropriate. The fact is she was worrying needlessly; in the context of that debate, the merit or otherwise of the fine detail expressed in her point of view came second to the expectation that she air a point of view honestly and forcefully. The point is that leaders in every walk of life are expected to have a point of view – indeed it is demanded of them. You don’t get to lead people in any sphere unless you have something to say – and say it.

Many leaders I have interviewed talk of the importance of having views on issues long before they are called on to give them. As Moya Greene, CEO of The Royal Mail Group, says:

‘Being a leader in a transparent world can be very difficult. The media can be quite cruel and can be pretty indifferent to the truth at times. Whether you are talking to the media or talking on some public platform, you have to have thought through your position on issues before you get called on to give them.

These days, you simply don’t have time to think about formulating your point of view in the heat of a discussion. You must have done it beforehand. When you were at school, you’d be very foolhardy to walk into an exam without having cracked open a book. When talking publicly, you have to make sure that you have anticipated the issues and are not in a situation in which you urgently have to search for the answers that support the position you’re taking. You have to have it all mapped ahead of time.’

All of the leaders I spoke with were acutely aware of the demands placed on them by the modern media environment. They commented that they seem always to be on the defensive, and want to find more ways to get on the front foot. They know that they need to find more points of resonance with customers and shareholders and stakeholders, and tell them things that help them to understand better what they are trying to do and why they should be supported.

The media’s job is to represent the interests of their readers – their constituents, who support them by buying their publications every day, week or month. That means they will challenge you whenever they think you are not acting in the interests of their readers. Simple. So your job is to have a point of view that clearly identifies with the needs of their readers. The better you can argue your case from their readers’ point of view, the better a hearing you will get.

We hear a lot about bad leadership, about poor decisions and about mistakes and their consequences. But who speaks up for leaders, if not themselves? The fact is, there are many, many more great decisions taken, and great leadership displayed, than ever gets written about. We simply do not hear enough about why business is good for society, nor about how inspiring leaders enable progress in business, the public sector and the Third Sector, nor how leadership requires conviction and courage in a world where there are so many opposing points of view and so many baying critics.

The truth is, you simply cannot satisfy everybody. Not in a world where everybody has a point of view and everybody can express a POV on a blog or in social media, and be quoted in a voracious world of modern media. Most journalists now seem to believe that a ‘balanced debate’ is the articulation of two extremes, when we all know that the shades of grey in the middle are often where the real argument lies.

To win you have to make sure you satisfy your supporters, as well as those likely to support you, and give a convincing case to the undecided – the real audience most of the time. As I will show later, you are unlikely to be able to convert your opponents, so trying to persuade them is likely to be a waste of time.

You have to concentrate on the people who are still ‘winnable’, and reinforce the support of those already on your side, while not showing aggression towards your critics. Respecting their point of view while posing an alternative is assertive rather than aggressive behaviour. It also allows you to acknowledge their point of view, so that those watching you see a respectful but assertive person in command.

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