How Leaders Communicate


Aristotle’s foundational ideas in On Rhetoric identified ethos, pathos and logos as the keys to persuasion and influencing.

Ethos refers to ‘values’. What values underpin your proposal? What do you stand for? What is the moral basis for action? What principles guide your direction? What social norm operates in this context? What is the right thing to do? What do you believe in? What is your cause?

Ethos is an out loud declaration of what you care about. It is your moral compass. Values aren’t just found in the leader. To be sustainable, they must resonate with the group.

Values may include concepts such as rights, responsibilities, ethics, fairness, justice, transparency, accountability, precedent, compassion, efficiency, community, environmental protection, safety, a code of conduct and reasonable expectations – to name a few.

Violating these principles may damage reputation or trust. The advocate needs to identify what values apply and state them in their argument.

Pathos is about ‘emotions’. The biggest things in life are emotional in content. Love bonds us to our families and friends. Emotions soar when we experience beauty, art, music, the environment. Emotions go ballistic in support of our footy team in a grand final. Emotions start and finish arguments. Emotions drive actions. Emotions spark wars and conflict. Emotional sympathies are stirred by the sight of a sick child or animal. Emotional hungers drive us to satisfy our needs and wants. Emotions are the essence of how we feel about ourselves and our lives. Emotions often tip us to act one way or another.

Psychologists such as Robert Plutchik have identified a range of emotions. In 1980, his wheel of emotions identified eight basic bi-polar responses that act as triggers of behaviour. Anger/fear; anticipation/surprise; sadness/joy; trust/disgust.

Leaders play a crucial role in tipping the balance towards hope. Napoleon said leaders are dealers in hope. Winston Churchill mobilised the English language on the eve of the Battle of Britain; Mahatma Gandhi symbolised hopes for a free India; Nelson Mandela’s strength of character led his nation towards reconciliation; Barack Obama emboldened America with the message, “yes, we can”. Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generation of Aboriginal people in early 2008 was the high water mark of his period in office.

The persuasive communicator displays empathy to make sense of the emotions, perceptions and motivations felt by others. This is sometimes called “perspective taking”. Being ever mindful of what drives people to act, the leader then crafts a message of hope for the future.

Logos means ‘reason’ and ‘logic’.

If your proposal or plan is driven by impulses or energies of pathos, prescribed by the value-based principles of ethos, the question remains what logically should be done? What is the best answer? What is the solution to the problem? What are the rational arguments in favour of action or inaction? What are the costs and benefits or rational gains and losses that may be incurred? How do we weigh the evidence? Why is one solution better than another? What is the fix? How can the logical objections to the proposed course of action be answered? How do we assign weight to the pros and cons? What is the right thing to choose as a practical choice or action? What should be the practical criteria for acting on our values? How do we order and organise and prioritise our actions? How do we optimise our choices? How do we get most bang for the buck?

Logos orients us three ways. It leads us towards practical problem solving. It prompts decision and action. And, it helps us plan for the future with vision and strategy.

If the leader’s pathos ignites hope, their ethos stirs faith, then their logos deals in reality.