The best leadership speech: Are you ready to lead?

Last week a client aggressively urged me to watch ‘the best leadership speech ever’. He’s a pretty good leader himself, with a world class creative team of over 100 people.

I watched it this weekend and it’s pretty good.

The video is long – 50 minutes – but here’s what you get: A unique piece of public speaking that is funny, heartbreaking, honest and motivational.

This leadership speech is by General Mark Welsh, Commander of U.S. Air Forces in Europe, speaking to 1,000 cadets at the US Air Force Academy.

It illuminates the life and death gravity of leadership in the armed forces, but it’s the opposite of what you might expect of a military speech. Rather than a tone of ‘You have to do this because it’s an order’, we are treated to an incredibly engaging and persuasive speech that awakens desire in the audience to be a great leader.

What makes this leadership speech great?

Watch for yourself. Or check out the Harvard Business Review assessment of the speech which highlights the key theme as “Leadership is a gift. It’s given by those who follow. You have to be worthy of it.”
My review is below the video. I took away an intimate, personal call to be ready for the challenge.

His audience

Men and women 20-25 years old who have a 75% chance of graduating the Academy’s four-year program, which is intended to give cadets the skills and knowledge that they will need for success as officers.

Informal tone to connect

His opening word: “Yo”.

The start is a bit slow but appropriate in that environment.

Pretty soon you see the speaker’s ability to combine life and death issues with personal humour and light-hearted approachability. The subject is serious, but the speaker regularly has a laugh. He seems friendly and welcoming, yet clear about what matters.

He isn’t ‘heavy’ ALL the time. The contrast of light and heavy make the important areas stand out.

Flexible structure

The speech is structured around the profiles of dozens of people under the General’s command. Their pictures are shown and their stories told. His messages are made concrete by the fact they follow a real story. Tell a story – make a point. For example:

‘Everybody has a story. If you don’t know the story you can’t lead. Learn the story.’

Clear, personalized messages

This leadership speech is worth watching just to see how the speaker makes all his messages personal. For example, instead of saying;

“Are you ready to lead”

He says;

“Are you ready to lead him” after explaining a person’s story.

Instead of;

“You are expected to be a great leader”

We hear;

He expects you be be ready to lead his people. In fact he demands it.’ After telling a story about the head of a division.

Here are some more messages peppered throughout the talk.

  • You better be willing to make decisions. Sometimes without all the information you want. Get ready.
  • You better be good. ‘Your job is to lead them… are you ready?”
  • You will make a difference.
  • We are a team. All the people are important.
  • Attention to detail is it important. You better have it.
  • Leadership is a gift given by those who follow.
  • Are you ready to lead? If not, rededicate yourself to the effort.

Great Explanations

There’s is nothing dramatic about his delivery skills, but he’s comfortable enough to act out a character (‘my son walked over like John Wayne…’).

He doesn’t rush.

This is vital. When information is rushed, it doesn’t seem as important. His pace allows the ideas to come alive. He appears calm, thoughtful, genuine. Present in the moment.

Do you connect with your team this way? Can you stand calmly on stage in silence – allowing your ideas to absorb?

Clear and personal ending

A good ending is important to deliver the key message and make the ideas feel complete (and therefore easier to remember).

“Thank you for being good enough to be here. Make sure you’re good enough to graduate. Take care of yourselves. I’ll see you out there.”

Do your speeches inspire people to follow you?

A great speech like this can strengthen a team or ogranization more powerfully than 10,000 hours of work. It can engender belief and dedication that lives on for years.
How powerful are your leadership speeches?
If you’d like to develop your leadership presentation, consider:

Want to be a great speaker? Get the kindle ebook from amazon.com: What’s Your Message?: Public Speaking with Twice the Impact, Using Half the Effort