To engage people more deeply, tap into the power of the senses.
When Duke University’s famed Coach K was turning around the 2008 Olympic USA men’s basketball team, he asked the players: Do you have a fight song?
Fight songs – rousing team anthems – are common in North American sports. Yet the players were at first puzzled. Coach K explained. “Yes, you do,” he said: it’s “The Star-Spangled Banner”. He wanted to help this group of NBA players – an elite line-up of highly skilled, highly successful professionals – to remember their love for their country and come together as a squad, to win for Team USA rather than for personal glory.
To that end, Coach K would play the Marvin Gaye version of the national anthem before every practice. It became Team USA’s fight song – and that group of superstar individuals came together to win gold. Coach K leveraged the power of music to evoke an emotion that aligned with the cultural values of the team.
As we reflect on this story, we remember that we lead human beings, not functions – and human beings have emotions, souls and brains. Today, we have to be more human than ever and enable our teams to bring all of themselves to work. How could we ever expect those deeply human parts to be left at home?
As leaders, we need to think about emotions and what drives them. It’s not about ‘being emotional’, but about leveraging emotions as a tool – which means thinking about our senses and how we respond to sensory experiences. This is an oft-neglected dimension of communication. Most often, we focus our communication on words. We pay attention to how those words are said and what those words look like on the page. But are we paying attention to what can be felt and how we can use the power of human senses to evoke those feelings? Are we leading through our senses?
Leaders can leverage visual and audio reminders in several ways.
To remind us of the mission
The CEO of a company that was focused on curing cancer asked everyone for a picture of someone they love who was a cancer survivor or victim. He had those pictures enlarged and hung throughout the offices as a daily reminder of the purpose of their work.
To evoke a feeling
If you want your team to feel energized, could you have them share their pump- up songs and compile them in a playlist that you put on before every brainstorming meeting?
To reinforce a strategic approach or ethos
A few years ago, I visited Mellody Hobson, then president – now co-CEO – of Ariel Investments at her company’s headquarters. The first thing I noticed in that office was the presence of tortoises: in pictures, in sculptures, even in a pin that Hobson wore. When I asked her about their meaning, she said, “Slow and steady wins the race – that is our motto for Ariel Investments.” The tortoises symbolized how the company would be intentional and strategic in building wealth for its clients.
As leaders we have to use every tool at our disposal to drive home the things we stand for, and the things that are meaningful for us and our organizations. We know our senses take us on an emotional journey. What are the non-traditional tools we could be bringing into play? Think beyond just words, and consider how you are leveraging what is heard and what is seen to tap into that which is most important.
Sanyin Siang is a Pratt School of Engineering professor and leads the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics at Duke University.