Barack Obama

Q&A: Art of speaking essential for leaders

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 26 July, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 26 July, 2008, 12:00am

Starting out in the movie business, which early lessons were most useful? I still clearly remember my first day. I shot 4,000 feet of film and not even 10 per cent was useful, so I got a warning from the producer about not exceeding the budget. He taught me that, as a director, I had to know how to make money and how to save it. Of course, I learned by making mistakes, but soon realised directing a film is a kind of project management; you have a deadline and a budget and must be able to lead a team well. Some days on set, there could be 150 extras and altogether about 300 staff and, at first, I used to scream and swear to get them to carry out my instructions. But I gradually learned that if you scold and shout it doesn't make people better. You have to respect them, delegate, let them take on responsibilities and not give too many detailed instructions.

Which skill is essential for any leader? The art of speaking. Most people think we are either natural-born speakers or not but, in fact, it is a skill we have to learn. One part is to train the throat muscles, project the voice properly and adopt the right tone. The other is to recognise the element of performance, so you can inspire people with a story or let them see that what you have to say really comes 'from inside'. That is what makes the difference and lets people like Bill Clinton, Nelson Mandela, Wen Jiabao and Barack Obama stand out from other politicians and leaders.

What in particular do you try to teach senior executives? No matter how high-ranking you are, you have to be able to bond with people. Generally, that means strengthening your communication skills and understanding body language. I also tell managers that with so many things changing in the workplace, they must accept the need for 'servant leadership'. They can't just order people around, but should be ready to listen and interact. In a training session with a telecoms company, I once illustrated the concept by asking a senior manager to wash his colleagues' feet after telling the Bible story about Jesus doing the same for some disciples. The idea created quite a culture shock in the company but meant that they all questioned their attitude.

How did you change after becoming a restaurant owner? I had been a film director since the age of 24 and, in that environment, was used to exercising authority and giving instructions in a certain way. As a restaurant owner, I realised it was important to have the mindset of someone who, basically, was ready to serve. So, I thought about how to assume the role and fall into character in the way a professional actor does when arriving at the stage door. I studied aspects of customer service and learned to treat the restaurants as a different kind of stage so I could play my part well. When possible, I now observe the staff and try to get them to do the same, if necessary putting a little pressure on as well.

What are your main strengths in running a company? I think as an entrepreneur and a strategist, not as an operations person. Also, I am a very humble boss and tend to let staff do whatever they think is best. I've read many books on management and most of them say the biggest problem is pride because it causes conflict, which can easily lead to a company losing money.