The final film in the blockbuster Harry Potter series – Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2 – opens in London this week, in the U.S. on July 15th. I must admit some sadness as the saga draws to a close.
From the series’ birth 14 years ago, my family and I were enchanted with Harry, his friends and enemies, and their remarkable adventures. My kids were 12 and ten back then, and have literally grown into young adulthood following the unfolding dramas at Hogwarts and beyond.
We shared the books, went to the movies, bought the DVDs, made a pilgrimage to the train platform at King’s Cross Station, and impatiently awaited the next installment in the series. Seeing the end in sight leaves me feeling a little melancholy, though we’re sure to re-read the books and re-watch the movies as time goes by.
As an executive communications coach, I can’t help but think about Harry Potter in terms of my work, so here are the ten lessons I think Harry has left with me:
Tell the truth. It never failed Harry. Ignore this lesson and you will almost always pay. Recent examples that stand out in my mind:
- Former Congressman Anthony Weiner, disgraced and ruined in part by his bad behavior, but mostly by lying to cover it up
- Former Ohio State football coach Jim Tressel, a great coach and role model for his players, forced to resign because he lied about what were, at least in my view, fairly tame transgressions
- Former Yankee pitcher Roger Clemens, arguably one of the greatest hurlers ever, about to stand trial not for using steroids, but for allegedly lying to Congress about it
How different would these outcomes have been had they told the truth regardless of the consequences, as Harry did in The Order of the Phoenix when he was forced to scratch “I must not tell lies” on the back of his hand for sticking to his story about Voldemort’s return?
Confront the crisis. When difficulties arise, don’t be fooled into thinking you can wish them away. Throughout J. K. Rowling’s series, Harry confronted challenges, obstacles, and enemies when ducking, surrendering, or just not showing up would have been the easier path. In the very first book, The Sorcerer’s Stone, Harry, though terrified, readily admitted to the imposing Hagrid that he was Harry Potter, not his cowardly cousin Dudley Dursley – confronting the perceived threat, rather than dodging it. In a business crisis, being “unavailable for comment” won’t make the story or the damage it inflicts go away; it will just encourage opponents to fill in the blanks, and motivate reporters to dig deeper.
Have a plan. In Deathly Hallows Part 1, Harry’s lack of a plan for finding the remaining horcruxes drives Ron away and Hermione to despair. Only when Harry and Hermione plan a trip to Godric’s Hollow does the mission get back on track. In corporate communications, having a crisis plan is an absolute must for any organization hoping to survive to fight another day. Practicing that plan at least annually is even more important.
Build the skills. Barred from learning defensive spells in their classrooms, Harry and his fellow students formed “Dumbledore's Army” in The Order of the Phoenix to learn defense against the dark arts. At story’s end, the students – including seemingly unlikely combatants Ginny, Luna and Neville – used these skills to overcome the Death Eaters. In a corporate setting, building executives’ communications skills – their ability to deliver presentations, conduct media interviews, communicate with their subordinates, and other skills – can help otherwise smart and capable people achieve even greater success.
Know your stuff. And know people who know the stuff that you don’t. There is no substitute for having the right knowledge at the right time. In The Goblet of Fire, Neville knew that you can eat Gillyweed to grow gills, enabling Harry to save Hermione and Ron, and advance in the Triwizards Tournament. In a corporate crisis, command of the facts is critical. Get as familiar as you can with them, and make sure you have people at your side who are a) knowledgeable in the areas beyond or outside your expertise and b) trained and effective communicators.
Use the tools. Don’t ignore new technologies or techniques because they are unfamiliar or seem trivial. In The Prisoner of Azkaban, Hermione used a Time-Turner – a device capable of time travel – to take more classes than time permitted. In the end, however, the tool proved pivotal in rescuing Buckbeak and saving Sirius Black. Similarly, wildly popular social media such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube may seem new and exotic, but they can be powerful weapons for and against your cause. If they’re not in your arsenal, they should be.
Speak their language. Clear communication is always the responsibility of the speaker, not the listener. Effective communicators know this means using language their audiences understand. Effective communicators follow Harry’s example when he spoke Parseltongue to snakes and other characters in all seven of the adventures. Address your audience in a language they don’t understand – like the industry jargon you use every day – and they’ll tune out in the middle of your show.
Remember body language. In The Prisoner of Azkaban, Harry had to use his body language (a deep and respectful bow) to approach the Hippogriff Buckbeak – who later defended him from Lupin and Snape, and joined in the Battle of Hogwarts. In any face-to-face dialogue, the body language of both speaker and listener play pivotal roles in communication. Learn the dos and don’ts and you’ll increase your effectiveness dramatically.
Allies are critical. Harry almost never succeeded alone. Having Ron, Hermione, Dumbledore, Hagrid, Sirius and a host of other friends and supporters helped him navigate virtually every calamity. The lesson for all of us: before a communication crisis occurs is the time to forge alliances with industry experts, non-profit organizations, reporters and others who can provide support when trouble raises its head.
Respect the media. While some real life reporters may resemble The Daily Prophet’s Rita Skeeter – using her Quick Quotes Quill to record sensational, if inaccurate, interviews – the truth is that most news outlets are pretty responsible and interested in accuracy. Treat them fairly and with respect – and they just may do the same for you when it matters most.
What lessons would you add?