Five Lessons in Leadership Communications from Governor Chris Christie

Posted 02.25.2011

Cchristie If you’re looking for a brilliant piece of analysis and reporting on a leader who’s making waves, check out Matt Bai’s feature article in The New York Times Magazine on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie.  No doubt, you’ve seen Christie on TV over the last year delivering “can’t believe he said that” zingers about what it’s going to take to solve the fiscal crisis in his state. As Bai explains in the article, the Governor’s basic message is that his state and its municipalities cannot fund the pensions and benefits of public employees and retirees at the current rates of commitment and remain solvent.   That position has put Christie in a battle royale with the New Jersey Education Association. It has also made him a rising star on the national political scene.

Bai’s article provides the background of the mechanics of the fiscal crisis in New Jersey but it main focus is on what Christie does that makes him an effective communicator. You can agree or disagree with the substance of Christie’s message. Either way, there are lots of leadership lessons to be gleaned from Bai’s reporting on Christie’s approach to delivering it. Here are five that stood out for me:

Choose your antagonist carefully:  Bai makes the point that Christie understands that almost all good stories have a protagonist and an antagonist. He’s chosen the NJEA as the antagonist for his story.  He’s very careful to say though that he doesn’t  hate teachers;  he just can’t stand their union because they refuse to consider the sacrifices that other New Jersey residents have had to make.

Define the issue in simple terms that make sense to the average person:  Christie’s basic message is that most people in New Jersey have had to make sacrifices to get their families through the recession. People get that because they’ve lived it.  When he calls for the NJEA to make sacrifices, he’s positioning it as an issue of fairness. Fairness is a simple idea that makes sense to most people.

Test and refine your message over time:  Bai opens his article by comparing Christie to a comedian who’s out working the smaller venues as he refines his routine to learn the bits that are working and not working. Christie tests and refines his messages over time to get the content, pitch and timing right.  When he find something that works, he keeps using it.

Use humor that says, “I’m one of you.”:  Christie is often self-deprecating in how he refers to himself.  For instance, he likes to tell audiences that he’s not a rocket scientist who should be working at NASA.  He’s just an average guy pushing solutions that are just common sense.  By not holding himself up on a pedestal, Christie sets himself up to have a plain spoken conversation.

Use familiar metaphors to make your solution understandable: Christie connects with his audience by using metaphors that everyone is familiar with. For instance, here’s how Bai describes a favorite Christie metaphor:

“Take Christie’s choice of a somewhat mundane image, the “toolkit,” as a unifying frame for his proposals. As a metaphor, the toolkit works on two levels, depending on the audience. You can visualize it either in the sense of screwdrivers and hammers or, if you work in an office all day, you might envision it more as a software suite. Either way, the toolkit symbolizes flexibility and local control. It’s a way of saying that Christie isn’t putting unwieldy restrictions on towns and cities, as the cops and firefighters charge — he’s just empowering those towns and cities with a variety of implements and gadgets with which to attack their budget problems themselves.”

So, I’m not holding Chris Christie up as a paragon of leadership virtue. Reasonable people can agree or disagree with his positions. All I’m saying is he’s been very effective at getting his message across and Matt Bai has done a great job of explaining how. What’s your take on Christie’s leadership communications strategy? What lessons – positive or negative – do you take away from his leadership communications strategy?