The CEO As Chief Change Motivator

by | Feb 27, 2012 | Board Capacity Building

Experience has taught me over the past quarter-century that nonprofit and public organizations that succeed in leading significant – out of the box – change are always led by a strong CEO serving as “Innovator-in-Chief.”  In this capacity, one of your CEO’s most important roles is “Chief Motivator.”  Your Chief Motivator’s primary tool is direct communication — preferably oral and whenever feasible, in person. The written word is a much more distant, less direct tool that is a notoriously weak motivator, not only because many people tend not to pay close attention to the written word, but also because it involves far less of a commitment on your CEO’s part and so makes less of an impression on people. As you no doubt know, the spoken word really can make a powerful difference, no matter how weary, scared or even cynical the audience you’re speaking to, serving two important, closely related purposes in the out-of-the-box change game:

1. Education – Explaining to staff and volunteers:

  • Why it makes the best of sense for them to participate in the out-of-the-box change process — in terms of need (for example, to deal with such threats as increasing competition, declining governmental support, a dramatically changing membership composition) and benefits (for example, a more secure and competitive organization that is growing).
  • How  they are being asked to participate: the key elements of the planning process, the roles that staff and volunteers will play, and the timing.

In my experience, anxiety and fear go hand in hand with ignorance, and people who know in detail what to expect are much more likely to buy into a process than people who feel in the dark.

2. Inspiration – Building emotional commitment by appealing less to the head than the heart, raising people’s sights above the proverbial trench and infusing the change process with higher meaning by interpreting current events in terms of fundamental values and overarching vision.

At the national level, two of the most effective Chief Motivators in American history were Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan, and their success at leading significant out-of-the-box change in their very different eras undoubtedly owes much to their being masters of oral communication. Strolling through the FDR Presidential Library at Hyde Park a few years ago after facilitating a board retreat at the Henry A. Wallace Visitor and Education Center, I stopped to listen to a recording of one of FDR’s radio fireside chats. If I recall correctly, he was explaining why it was necessary for the federal government to close banks around the country temporarily as part of a national bank holiday. What an effective teacher he was, calmly — sounding like an older brother or kindly uncle — describing complex economic matters in simple terms easily understood by the average American. As I listened, I recalled my parents telling me how frightened they’d been in the early days of the Great Depression — newly married and living on the handsome income of $10 a week. The economy had ground to a halt, the future looked bleak, hope was in short supply. FDR’s educational radio chats were a godsend to my parents and millions of other despairing Americans, a wonderful example of the power of carefully chosen words to allay fear and restore a sense of hope and optimism in even the direst of circumstances. As president, Ronald Reagan presided over a rebirth of American optimism and pride, after the dark years of presidential assassination, the Vietnam War, and a disgraced president who’d been forced to resign. President Reagan spoke to a nation less frightened than dispirited, and his words, eloquently spoken on many occasions, told the inspiring story of America as a beacon on the hill, radiating the promise of democracy throughout the world.

I could talk about many other master communicators whose words have had tremendous influence on the course of human events. There is Lincoln redefining the fundamental meaning of the Civil War in his brilliant address (under 300 words!) at Gettysburg on November 19, 1863, asking his fellow American to resolve “that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”   And there is Dr. Martin Luther King in his stirring, unforgettable “I have a dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial on August 28, 1963, envisioning an America that will one day “rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal.’ “

Adapted from my new book, Leading Out-of-the-Box Change (

About the Author: Doug Eadie

President & CEO of Doug Eadie & Company, Inc., Doug Eadie assists CEOs in building rock solid partnerships with their boards.

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