Toyota CEO Nails Communication during Global Pandemic

Updated: May 4, 2020

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Governments around the world are communicating with their citizens in very different ways.

The Italians are yelling:

The Australian's are carrying a big stick:

The Americans are saying it will be over by Easter:

Nearly all neglect the most important element of leadership: hope. Yes, transparency, integrity, passion, confidence, empowerment, and decisiveness are all very powerful traits but surveys and research consistently reveal hope to be the foundational requirement from any leader.

The Private Sector Shows Us How It's Done

CEOs of businesses large and small are exemplars right now. Their warm and caring responses to both employees and customers are grabbing headlines but nothing compares to Akio Toyoda, CEO of Toyota, who in less than 2 minutes gave us a masterclass on crisis communication.

He uses a 3-Step Crisis Model that we should adopt as leaders in business, family and anywhere people look to us for hope:

1. Acknowledge, validate and empathise with people's fears.

2. Show the light at the end of the tunnel.

3. Map out a path through the darkness.

This echoes the old leadership maxim: know the way, show the way, go the way.

1. Acknowledge, validate and empathise (know the way)

In an effort to ensure compliance it can be tempting to use fear and threats.

This works for the angels amongst us but risks inflaming dissent and protest in a large percentage of the population.

Instead, we should take the time to meet people where they are at and acknowledge their fear, uncertainty and anxiety. Akio does this for the first 25 seconds (half the video!):

'I am thinking about all of you, all around the world...I'm sure that all of you are worried about what lies ahead and how this pandemic will impact us.'

Secondly, validate and empathise: the people we lead need to know that their fears are valid and that we are putting ourselves in their shoes. Akio accomplishes this in just 8 seconds:

'I wish I could tell you when it will end because nothing feels worse than uncertainty.'

2. Show the light at the end of the tunnel (show the way)

Having a leader next to you in the trenches of fear and dismay is comforting but that is not a leader; that is a comrade. A leader gets into the trenches with us and then points the way out.

Akio uses juxtaposition to contrast the uncertainty of the fallout to the certainty of the pandemic ending. In just 17 seconds, he shows us the light at the end of the tunnel:

'But what we do know for sure is that eventually this crisis will end and we will get through it! One day at a by day we will reach the end of this crisis.'

3. Map a path through the darkness (go the way)

Optimists can see the light at the end of the tunnel but leaders devise a plan to get there. Akio does this next, asking us to do our part, follow the directions of our governments etc:

'Stay healthy, stay positive. Remember that this too shall pass and never forget that together there is nothing that we can't overcome.'

He skillfully blends his call to action with a reinforcement of hope - that we will get through the dark tunnel emerging victorious in the light.

Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Follows the 3-Step Model

Today, Boris Johnson (Prime Minister of the U.K.) left hospital and immediately gave a rousing speech using this exact model. In a time when the U.K. is suffering the most extreme and unprecedented house arrest laws, Boris Johnson has been M.I.A. fighting for his life in intensive care while community leaders antagonise and berate the public:

In contrast, the P.M. followed the 3 Steps which ultimately leads to higher compliance than simply yelling at people:

Step 1 - Acknowledge, Validate, Empathise

'when the whole natural world seems at its lovliest and the outdoors is so inviting, I can only imagine how tough it has been to follow the rules on social distancing.' '...have been doing the right thing...millions going the the hardship of self isolation' 'I do believe that your efforts are worth it and are daily proving their worth.'

Step 2 - Show the Light at the End of the Tunnel

'We are now making progress in this incredible national battle.' 'So that is how I know across this country...that is why we will deafeat this coronavirus and defeat it together. We will [the UK] is unconquerable.'

Step 3 - Map a Path Through the Darkness

'Let's remember to follow the rules on social distancing. Stay at home. Protect our NHS and save lives.'

Respect the Order

The order of the model is paramount; each step relies on the previous step. If you fail to build credibility and trust in Step 1, it doesn't matter how well you execute Steps 2 and 3.

Many leaders rush Step 1 and focus on Step 3 without really defining what the light at the end of the tunnel is (Step 2). Have a look at the Australian Prime Minister above (of whom I am usually a big fan) - most of his press conferences focus on telling Australians that they are irrational for panic buying or naughty for going to the beach. [Edit 4May20: he even now claims that we are being awarded 'an early mark' for good behaviour!] Constant chastisement undermines compliance to any plan laid out in Step 3.

Separate Hope and Discipline

There is a reason leadership groups exist. Sometimes it is not possible to bring hope and discipline at the same time and from the same person. The primary leader should be focused on the 3-Step Crisis Model - just as Akio was - with other leaders bringing the discipline and nuance where required. It would have been better for the Home Affairs Minister or the Minister for Biosecurity to chastise the population. Instead, Australia's Prime Minister diluted his influence when he confused hope with discipline.

In a small business setting where there is only one leader the solution is easy: separate your communications. The first should follow the 3-Step Crisis Model, only giving a broad overview of the call to action. The second communication can detail all of the difficult measures, referring to the grand idea laid out in the first.

I used to work for the CEO of Yamaha, another Japanese company, and I saw them implement this model well. It was very rare for the CEO to publicly lay out detailed plans. Instead, he empowered his managers to lead those discussions even when he himself came up with the detailed plans. This preserved his function as a lightning rod of stability and hope whilst elevating the profiles of his colleagues as capable leaders in their own right.