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Letters From Leaders
If you're a leader of any stripe, your communication matters deeply
“Anyone who idolizes you is going to hate you when he discovers that you are fallible. He never forgives. He has deceived himself, and he blames you for it.” — Elbert Hubbard, 1901
Did you ever send a fan letter to someone?
Maybe you were just a teenager with a crush on a TV star. Or a Sherlock Holmes fan who addressed a letter to 221B Baker Street. Or perhaps you were a member of the ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic fan club: Close Personal Friends of Al.
Did you get a response?
If you wrote to that TV star, you might have gotten back an autographed headshot.
For a number of years, if you wrote to Sherlock Holmes, you received a reply from a secretary that Abbey National had employed just to answer his correspondence.
And while Weird Al may not be the best correspondent, he creates opportunities to engage with his biggest fans (or “Close Personal Friends of Al”) at V.I.P. sessions at his concerts and wherever else he finds them. According to a must-read New York Times Magazine feature:
“Weird Al’s bond with his fans is atomic. He will stop and speak with them anywhere — at airports, outside the tour bus — for so long that it becomes a logistical problem. The fans approach him like a guru, and Weird Al responds with sweet, open, validating energy.”
That level of dedication and personal communication is what separates great leaders from others.
When Lyndon Johnson was 46 years old and elected as the youngest majority leader in the history of the U.S. Senate, he suffered his first heart attack. That landed him in the hospital for an extended stay, which itself cast him into a deep depression, resulting in him just lying there day after day.
Then one day, he miraculously got moving, hopping out of bed, shaving, and assembling an ad hoc secretarial pool with typewriters, stenographers, and activity. According to Doris Kearns Goodwin, who was on Johnson’s staff during his presidency, the “crucial tonic” was something other than medical care:
“What animated him was the spate of more than four thousand letters of concern, condolence, and love… Just as he would answer constituents immediately, so he rose to action now to reply to every single letter.”
As a leader, Johnson knew how important it was to maintain a connection with people, whether they were his constituents or not. As a young man who went from farm to farm in the Texas hill country to canvas for votes, he understood the power of the personal.
Can you imagine a revered figure treating his fans like they don't matter? In 1960, John Updike wrote a piece for The New Yorker about Ted Williams’ last baseball game at Fenway Park in Boston:
“Our noise for some seconds passed beyond excitement into a kind of immense open anguish, a cry to be saved. But immortality is nontransferable. The papers said that the other players, and even the umpires on the field, begged him to come out and acknowledge us in some way, but he never had and did not now. Gods do not answer letters.”
Are the leaders we admire really that untouchable? That much unlike us?
I like to think of leaders showing the same kind of empathy and interest that we do. They’re the kind of people who make you feel like you're the only person in the room. That you really matter to them.
If there’s one celebrity whose reputation hung on telling us that each of us is special, it’s Mister Rogers.
Every day, Fred Rogers would rise at 5:00 a.m. and go through his morning routine, which included answering every letter children sent to him. Hundreds of letters arrived every week, and Mister Rogers made sure that he replied to each.
Mister Rogers took care to answer what the letters were asking, never responding with a form letter. The children who wrote to him wrote about their fears, their hopes, their lives, and dreams.
He was a firm believer that every question a child asked was important, and he treated children just as he would want to be treated. When it came to their correspondence, it deserved Mister Rogers’ attention and respect.
A written letter or note is the ultimate form of attention and respect.
When you show attention and respect, you earn it—and more —in return.
Sheldon Yellen, the CEO of BELFOR Holdings, writes a personal birthday card to every one of his 9,200 employees. Why? He initially wanted to encourage people to stop by his desk to talk. It worked:
“It got people talking, we started to communicate more, and I like to think it helped me earn respect within the company.”
By taking the time to write a card for every single employee, he has done more than earn respect for himself. Along the way, he created a culture of compassion that resonates throughout the company.
Your employees and team members will want to communicate with you over the course of your tenure. The way you decide to handle your own correspondence will set the tone for the kind of leader you’re perceived as.
As a servant leader—whether you’re a CEO, a new manager, or a parent—your job is to serve your people, helping them grow, become wiser and healthier, and ultimately transform them into leaders themselves.
Corresponding with them with a good old-fashioned letter will leave a deep impression.
They’ll have a valuable souvenir of your compassion: a deeply personal communication that’s also a physical manifestation of your concern.
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the Internet.