Words Have Power

24 Apr Words Have Power

Click above to see Tsiodras: you may not understand the words, but his emotion is palpable

They are our mothers and our fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers…

When the bespectacled grey-haired figure hunches over these notes, his voice chokes up. He tries to carry on, swallows and tries again. It is the daily briefing at 6:00 pm on Greek television and Professor Sotirios Tsiodras is addressing the nation. As the lead medical officer in the Greek government’s coronavirus task force, Tsiodras, who studied infectious diseases at Harvard, is known for his calm, frank announcements. 

When asked why so “much fuss” is being made about the “elderly and those incapacitated by chronic illness”, he names the “elderly” for who they are: our mothers, our fathers…

Then, fighting back the tears, he says, “We cannot exist, or have an identity, without them.” 

Leading well, leading with compassion  
There are many ways to lead. But those leading with compassion will be those whose words we remember.

If there is ever a time to be real, now is the time.

Articles comparing the different styles of the chief medical officers from around the world — retiring scientists or public health statisticians — highlight how these individuals have risen to the occasion with a stoic forbearance. While they might not be comfortable with their media briefings, some, like Professor Tsiodras have shown a rare humility. It catches you unawares — and is the better for that. 

Words have power then there’s the New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, who instills confidence — even when the news is terrible.  And he does so by being human. By reminding us that these are not just numbers of those who’ve died, but that each number has a family and a legacy.

6 things Cuomo does well – that you can too: 

  1. He describes the process that leads to the decision. Leaders often skip that bit. They think people just want to know the decision at the end of it. Actually, how you make a decision — even the small details about where it was made, who was there — helps us make sense of things. 
  2. He prepares people for the worst. Most leaders avoid bad news. But in a time when the news is so bad, preparing people helps. As former Washington governor Gary Locke, puts it, Cuomo is, “not trying to gloss over things, the magnitude, the severity of the pandemic.” That makes us feel better because there isn’t the cognitive dissonance between what we know to be true and the truth. 
  3. He’s honest. While Boris Johnson did say, at the start of the COVID outbreak in the UK, that “he wanted to level with the British people”, his words didn’t touch me. That’s because he wasn’t really trying to level with us, he was still talking down to his audience — and we’re smart enough to know the difference. Contrast this with how Cuomo talks about the virus:  “I am tired of being behind this virus. We’ve been behind this virus since day one. Everybody wants to know one thing: when is it over? Nobody knows. ‘Well, the president said by Easter… nobody knows. But I can say this: it is not going to be soon.”
  4. Cuomo understands the power of words. He’s said so, publicly. He knows which words can instil fear, preferring “stay at home” rather than “shelter in place” because the latter expression is used during school shootings or during an “active shooting”. (I know, go figure…)  
  5. He favours shorter, verb-led phrases. Verbs are the engines of our sentences. They encourage action. In a tweet, he told New Yorkers: “Stay Home. Stop the Spread. Save Lives.” In seven words, he tells us a story with a clear beginning, middle, and end. The verbs are punchy and demand attention.
  6. And lastly, he shows his vulnerability. He admits he’s worried about his family — making it deeply personal. This shows he’s like us. I’m frightened for my brother… as everyone is worried about their humanity and everyone they love.

Trust ourselves
The intense levels of disruption can feel overwhelming on some days and perfectly manageable on others. I’m lucky as I still have work and exercise is allowed. It doesn’t stop me worrying about my 81-year-old mum, living on her own in the UK. But for all of us, we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t feel the waves of uncertainty crashing over us. 

You might be feeling right now that the values you thought were important, are no longer important. That the future isn’t clear. That you can’t even understand what the future is right now. 

That’s okay. If we can each stay connected to our deeper humanity, express it, write it, meditate on it, share it with friends, repeat it often to our children, we’ll get through this. We will. We can.