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June 2007
ISSN 1834-4933. Published by Geoff Kelly, Kelly Strategic Influence

Wisdom to lead minds:

“Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate, and doubt to offer a solution everybody can understand.”

General Colin Powell

Seven secrets Bill Gates knows about selling his ideas

Every day leaders with important ideas attempt to win support for them from people important to their success. Most fail most of the time. Whether at the podium or the water cooler, worthy ideas die early because their champions neglect to do what it takes to earn support.

This month one of Australia’s leading CEOs stood before an audience of 190 influential executives to share important ideas on how the community could better understand and manage risk. He came to this event with a reputation for action in this area and was respected for his authentic commitment to issues beyond
his company’s immediate self-interest.

He opened by describing his company’s unique position to contribute to this area, then spoke in generalities about community risk, spiced here and there with interesting statistics and vignettes. Despite his obvious enthusiasm for the subject, audience members remarked how company-centred and disorganised his ideas had been, and were disappointed.

CEOs are among the busiest members of any society. Too often even the most capable leaders are tempted to go in under-prepared in the dangerous belief that they know their material well enough to carry it off with any audience on any occasion. Sometimes they get away with it, and content themselves with what they achieved and ignore the squandered opportunity to do better. Mostly they don’t succeed and are frustrated that their ideas didn’t stick. Or worse, they kid themselves that because they said it then everyone heard and accepted it.

Remember the story of the emperor wearing no clothes? That’s a common modern day tale too.

To lead means to share meaning with others that directs them to act in support of a shared vision. If the leader fails to share that meaning and earn support, there is no leadership on that occasion.

Another leader who spoke this month was Bill Gates. He spoke to graduates at Harvard University’s Commencement ceremony, but his theme and intention was broader than that group. Gates gave a speech that was remarkable both in its content and immediate impact. History will judge its long term impact, but his intention clearly was to achieve a long-term reframing of how elites and the rest of us think about inequity in health, wealth and opportunity around the world.

What distinguished this speech from many was his ability to share meaning on a universal theme with his unique and engaging perspective.

He was personal in that he shared the journey to understanding that he and his wife Melinda had taken. Gates described how he had left Harvard without understanding the “awful inequities” and “appalling disparities of health, wealth and opportunity” in the world. He recounted the shock he and Melinda had had to realise that millions of children in poor countries died each year from diseases that were preventable – and were prevented in countries like the USA.

He shows what needs to be done, what corporations and countries can do, and what individuals can do.

Even before his 7 June delivery, print and digital media were anticipating something special. He intended them to.

After he delivered it, the story was covered by The Wall Street Journal, Time magazine and countless other outlets. And thousands of blogs, web sites, and digital newsletters carried extensive commentaries and criticisms.

Being one of the world’s richest men preaching a parable of equity obviously helped develop interest in this speech. But Bill Gates didn’t rely on that.He took several crucial steps that made a huge difference.

  1. He intended to make a difference. Bill Gates thought deeply and long about the change he wanted to see in the world and how he would articulate it to make the most impact. He honed this intention until it was focussed like a laser beam

  2. He prepared early and well. In December last year Bill Gates started a series of six brainstorming sessions with a staff member and wrote several drafts to start shaping his ideas. In January he asked trusted staffers to contribute their thoughts. And he read historic speeches by people who lead with their ideas, including Albert Einstein and George Marshall, even referring to the Marshall plan in his own speech to illustrate that world shaping is possible.

  3. He tested his ideas. In May he flew to meet Warren Buffet to test his ideas, and continued to bounce concepts off those he trusted.

  4. He grounded his thinking in values that would resonate widely. For example, he revealed that his sense of obligation came from the wisdom of his dying mother. He related his deep belief that because he had received much from the world, then the world had a right that he give back more than most. And in the same way this was his message to others who had received much in terms of money and talent.

  5. He used simple language to convey important ideas. Not baby talk, but words and phrases that people can hear and understand. For example, he structured a large chunk of his speech around the following cornerstone statement: “To turn caring into action, we need to see a problem, see a solution, and see the impact.” Simple, but profound. And he goes on to explain how complexity blocks each of these three actions and addresses how to cut through that complexity.

  6. He dramatically addressed big issues. He recounted how he and Melinda had asked themselves how could it be that the world had let millions of children die when each could have been saved for the investment of a dollar. He continued “The answer is simple and harsh. The market did not reward saving the lives of these children, and governments did not subsidise it. So the children died because their mothers and fathers had no power in the market and no voice in the system.” And he continued “But you and I have both.”

  7. He issued a challenge that anyone can take up. He did not hide behind the complex or the abstract. Bill Gates issued a challenge that each member of both his Harvard and wider audiences could take up. He makes it possible for people to act, and less possible for them not to.

Bill Gates leaves Microsoft next year, and clearly sees this as his relaunch as a billionaire activist. But more than that, he used this speech to promote an idea of lasting merit and major significance. And he didn’t trust that this would just happen because it was a profound idea and he was one of the world’s richest men. He knew he had to work hard and smart to plant this idea within the hearts and minds of millions of people whose support it will need. It was a spectacular launch, and it will be fascinating to see how he continues a campaign that has attracted so much early attention.

For a PDF of the complete speech, email [email protected]

More next month...


Geoff Kelly works with leaders who are frustrated that others don't fully support their ideas and strategies. He mainly works with corporate leaders around the world, but also leaders in Government and Not for Profit. He is also a popular speaker on this and related subjects. See www.kellystrategicinfluence.com.au, email [email protected] or call +613 9678 9218 for more information


© 2006 Geoff Kelly All rights reserved.
You are free to use material from the Leading Minds eZine in whole or in part, as long as you include complete attribution, including live web site link. Please also notify me where the material will appear. The attribution should read: "By Geoff Kelly of Kelly Strategic Influence. Please visit Geoff's web site at www.kellystrategicinfluence.com.au for additional articles and resources on earning support for your ideas and strategies." (Make sure the link is live if placed in an eZine or in a web site.)



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