Getting Sticky: Four Ways to Make Your Leadership Last

Its challenging enough to cast a compelling vision or identify the right priorities in the midst of change, but the real trick for a leader is to do these things in a way that sticks in the minds and hearts of the people they lead. This is tough because people are busy, and distractions are constant. There’s always something more immediate, more personal, or just plain noisier competing for your team’s attention, and it’s easy for your ideas or priorities to slip away in the barrage. The trick is to make your leadership stick.

I’ve been mulling this over and working on my stickiness for a while, and I’ve learned that it takes more than simply meaningful content and a bully pulpit. In fact, stickiness doesn’t seem particularly correlated with importance or volume. I am constantly amazed at which things stick, and which things don’t.

I once had a conference room in my suite whose windows looked out through the branches of a large tree. When it was first built, I offhandedly referred to it as the “Treehouse”, and the name stuck (immediately and apparently forever!) Now, many years later, everyone still refers to it as the Treehouse. Something about the name or the moment it was invoked was especially sticky. It’s an odd reference that regularly confuses and misdirects outsiders, but I couldn’t change it if I tried. Contrast this with the times I’ve spent hours shaping and wordsmithing a vital strategic priority or devising a robust campaign for rolling it out to my organization only to find that its shelf life in the culture was less than three weeks!

This is an abiding riddle of leadership: some things stick like glue with no effort, almost accidentally, while others defy even your best efforts to keep them alive and in front of your people. I confess, I haven’t figured it all out yet, but here are four Secrets to Stickiness that will help you boost the staying power of your words and ideas.

1.  Images Are The Hooks On Which We Hang Ideas. 

Pictures really are worth a thousand words and they’re inherently sticky, so choose and use good ones. Images engage people differently and in a different place (literally, in a different part of their brains) than a logic or information-based pitch or presentation. So, show, rather than tell, people your point. Choose a story, picture, or metaphor that captures the essence of what you want to communicate and spend your time and effort to make it as vivid as possible before you share the rest of the details or other implications that might be on your mind. Once the initial image is strong, it’s surprisingly sticky, and the nuances and complexity of the additional ideas or applications you attach to it will have staying power too. However, if the image is weak, too complicated, or too diffuse, the ideas you try to attach to it are likely to slip off into the whirlwind of everything else that competes for your team’s energy and attention each day.

2.  Make It Personal, (but not all about you.) 

Things tend to stick when people identify with them, but even the most laudable ideas or meaningful priorities bounce off and slip away when they don’t seem pertinent to “real” life or personal experience. For most folks, jobs and the expectations of organizations and bosses are extra layers they’ve laid on top of their “real lives”. This means you need to connect to experiences beyond the bounds of the workplace if you want your words to last. It also means you often need to introduce organizational ideas, implications, and priorities outside the actual contexts in which you hope they will be applied if you want them to be at their stickiest. Draw connections or cite examples that invoke real life and allow people to appreciate and understand what you are promoting in a frame that is more personal. Pick examples drawn from family, free time, or fun. Open the door to your own “real life” by telling people why an idea matters to you personally or how a priority or practice has made a difference in your own experience beyond the workplace.

Don’t’ be afraid to speak in the first-person; your own example is compelling and very sticky. However, be wary of one thing: as powerful as it is to make things personal, it is also risky. If you overdo it, you can inadvertently make it seem like it’s all about you, and that’s one of the least-sticky postures on earth for a leader. People are like Teflon to narcissists. So, inoculate yourself against this by being humble and self-deprecating. Instead of portraying yourself as the good example or the hero, consider using your own foibles as examples. Share how the idea or strategy has helped you overcome your own challenges or realize a new opportunity. That kind of vulnerability resonates with people as undeniably “real”. It’s personal, pertinent, and very sticky.

3.  Laughter is Like Primer for Non-Stick Surfaces. 

Humor is magic, and at least as mysterious to me as stickiness. In the proper place, it’s more precious to your leadership than skills or brilliance because something about laughter disrupts people’s usual non-stick surfaces and allows new ideas and priorities to adhere. Sure, a joke at the beginning of a presentation might improve the stickiness of your point, but the real artists out there have a much wider and readier repertoire of good-humor. They manage to be playful and pointed without devolving into silliness or impropriety. Their words and ideas seem stickier not so much because they’re better words or ideas per se, but because their humor prepares people to receive them better. The usual personal baggage, private agendas, defensiveness, self-protection and posturing that clothe us all and compose our everyday force fields to the world are temporarily suspended when we laugh. In that moment, however brief it might be, things can get closer to the center of us and stick.

4.  When the Time is Right, Stick It. 

Sometimes I think being stickier isn’t about being more skilled as much as it is about being more opportunistic. Nothing sticks if the recipient isn’t primed or at least pervious, and some times are simply not sticky times. Generally, I’ve found that stickiness depends on the degree to which an idea can command someone’s full attention and be accorded full access. If the rush of life, or the call of other things leads people to entertain your words and ideas at only a cursory level, like just another piece of input to be managed, they are far less likely to stick. In this sense, eloquence, charm, insight, etc. are less to be prized than a good sense of timing. A word or two spoken at the right moment will be stickier than all the PowerPoint presentations and pricey production numbers in the world at the wrong moment.