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More Leadership Lessons from Colin Powell - 7/13/2014

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Oprah’s Exceptional Communication Skills
by Steve Adubato, Ph.D.

Strong leaders step up when the heat is on and the tough questions are fired right between the eyes. Corporate America is littered with CEOs and other top managers who either duck, hide or try to sweep a serious problem or crisis under the rug. It never works.

Enter talk show queen Oprah Winfrey, who conducted a brilliant press briefing this week to answer every tough question about the sex abuse scandal at the elite South African school called the Oprah Winfrey Leadership Academy. Fifteen girls at the school claimed that they were sexually molested by a “dorm matron.” Given how proud Oprah was when the school opened, she was clearly distraught by these alarming reports, particularly because Oprah had been the victim of rape growing up. Yet, in that press conference, Oprah demonstrated that superior communication skills are a must in a crisis. Her words and actions proved how a leader should handle a serious problem. Some questions to consider.

Q—What specific leadership and communication skills did Oprah demonstrate?

A—On October 6, when Oprah Winfrey was informed of the sexual abuse allegations, she took charge and hired private investigators to find out what happened to the girls. She got out ahead of the crisis and dismissed school administrators who should have been more on top of the situation. She immediately communicated internally with all key stakeholders. She showed sensitivity and compassion for the girls involved. Instead of hiding behind a cadre of lawyers and PR types, Oprah was front and center—not only explaining the relevant details of the case, but unlike most executives, she allowed journalists to ask any question of her after her powerful opening statement. She responded in a direct, no-nonsense fashion. Clearly, the judicial process must play out for the 27-year-old woman accused of sexually abusing these young girls in Oprah’s school. Yet, leaders often cannot wait for the slow moving courts to dictate their communication and leadership time table in a crisis.

Q—How did Oprah communicate directly to the alleged victims at the school?

A—Oprah was candid and empathetic, which sent a powerful message to all of us who manage and lead. She also serves as a role model for the girls in South Africa who were in her leadership academy and who are part of a society that doesn’t always encourage women to speak out. Says Oprah, “They represent - those 15 girls - a new generation of youth in South Africa who fearlessly take back their voices to speak up about their concern about their fellow classmates…This is really what we're trying to teach. This is what leadership is all about - to use your voice, no matter what the personal consequences.”

Q—What communication and leadership lessons can others take away from Oprah’s handling of this crisis?

A—The fields of business, government and the media are inundated with case studies of people who got it wrong when facing a crisis or scandal. Whether it’s recent scandals involving Madison Square Garden and the NY Knicks, former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, US Senator Larry Craig or even the New York Times (think Jayson Blair plagiarism scandal); top executives consistently miss the mark when it comes to the communication game. Now we have a new case in crisis communication that sets the bar extremely high for all leaders. Oprah is more than just the queen of daytime talk. She is the most current CEO profile that will be included in any serious examination of how to handle a media onslaught and a huge potential public relations problem when something terrible happens to an organization that you lead.

Dr. Steve Adubato coaches and speaks on the subjects of communication and leadership and is the author of the book "Speak from the Heart." Write to him at The Star-Ledger, 1 Star-Ledger Plaza, Newark, NJ 07102, or click here to contact him through this web site.

Copyright© 2014 Stephen N. Adubato Jr., Inc.