Alton W. & Lois H. Overton Graduate School of Business, Liberty University
Communicating for Change in Racial Conflict
Mitch Landrieu’s Speech: Motivation Through a Shared Vision
We often think of transformational change that includes an implementation of a new shared vision as something that occurs as an organizational change within a corporation. However, in the case of Mitch Landrieu’s, we see a leader uniting the New Orleans community, his organization, with a motivational and transformational speech. Landrieu’s speech came at a time when the people of New Orleans, and the United States, were divided over a controversial issue that included racial conflict and more specifically the removal of Confederacy monuments. His goal was to address his community as one of their own and motivate them towards a reconciliation where history is remembered in its entirety and not just through selective memory. To carry out this task, Landrieu communicated a changed vision for the New Orleans community that included coming together, healing, and building new symbols of what is possible when everyone embraces unity (Liberty University Custom: Heinz, 2021).
Landrieu’s speech is consistent with Kotter’s statement that a “shared sense of a desirable future can help motivate and coordinate the kinds of actions that create transformation” (Liberty University Custom: Heinz, 2021, p. 470). From the beginning of his speech, he sets a tone of oneness by describing the soul of New Orleans as being “rooted in a diverse people who have been here together every step of the way” and its people as a “melting pot” that “exemplifies the uniquely American motto: e pluribus unum – out of many we are one” (Liberty University Custom: Heinz, 2021, p. 491). He reminds his audience that it is the culmination of their diverse backgrounds that has enabled them to create what they hold most dear; an indivisible community that is better because they are one. Most importantly, he includes himself, a son of New Orleans, as he makes it clear that he is not judging anyone, as he too passed by monuments without a second thought (Liberty University Custom: Heinz, 2021). By making himself apart of the issue, he makes the hard truths he is about to share with his audience easier to accept because they know they are not being judge. As Paul tells us, “Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person” (English Standard Version Bible, 2022, Colossians 4:6).
The consistent messaging of togetherness, unity, commonality, and community is used to motivate his audience to join him as he seeks a new vision for the city of New Orleans. By reminding the citizens of New Orleans of what they have in common, there is the hope that they will rally around a shared vision. “This shared vision represents an optimistic view of the future” and is “a set of goals and purposes which energize the group and promote change” (Alvarado-Alvarez et al., 2021, pp. 12). Motivation occurs through Landrieu’s building of trust within his audience. He makes it known that they are in this together and that he too must change for the betterment of the city’s future. He ensures the community that this is not about statues, but “about our attitudes and behavior” (Liberty University Custom: Heinz, 2021, p. 493). Now they must go forward together and recognize the significance of this needed change.
Key Elements of Effective Communication Identified
Kotter states that there are seven principles strongly associated with effective vision communication (Liberty University Custom: Heinz, 2021). These key elements are simplicity, metaphor, analogy, and example, multiple forums, repetition, leadership by example, explanation of seeming inconsistencies, and give-and-take. These principles help leaders reinforce motivation of those who will be affected by the new vision. In the case with Landrieu, he is attempting to motivate the citizens of New Orleans to remember its city’s history but not revere it, and to take what they have learned from the past to better the future through inclusivity and diversity. Landrieu uses several of Kotter’s key elements throughout his speech and for those that he does not, there is a specific reason as to why.
While the topic of discussion in Landrieu’s speech is not simplistic, he speaks in a manner that is. Landrieu shows clarity of thought and sticks to his points without delving deep into history or politics. He is matter of fact when he states “the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity” (Liberty University Custom: Heinz, 2021, p. 491). He does not shy away from his main theme of unity and togetherness and he holds his audience’s attention by speaking to them as one of their brothers. Landrieu is clear and jargon-free from his beginning description of New Orleans’ history, to his final words that express a need for a better future. By keeping his speech simplistic, Landrieu can capture his audience at once and not only hold it until his final words but continues to have his words resonate with them for days to come.
Colorful language and imagery are also found throughout Landrieu’s speech. It is seen often as he describes the community of New Orleans as “a melting pot, a bubbling caldron of many cultures” (Liberty University Custom: Heinz, 2021, p.491). In his opening statement he shares several examples of the different nationalities and stories that are deeply rooted in the city’s history and later reminds his constituents of their amazing culture filled with jazz, Mardi-Gras and the Saints. “Well-chosen words can make a message memorable, even if it has to compete with hundreds of other communications for people’s attention” (Liberty University Custom: Heinz, 2021, p. 478). Landrieu makes sure that his message is clear amongst all the opinions, politics, and media. The best example of this is when he tells his audience to think about “an African American mother or father trying to explain to their fifth-grade daughter who Robert E. Lee is and why he stands atop of our beautiful city” (Liberty University Custom: Heinz, 2021, p. 492). He continues by speaking to them directly asking if they could convince this young girl that the monument is there to encourage her. As it is often stated, a picture is worth a thousand words.
Repetition is another key element of communicating effectively. “The most carefully crafted messages rarely sink deeply into the recipient’s consciousness after only one pronouncement” (Liberty University Custom: Heinz, 2021, p. 479). In Landrieu’s situation, he has this specific moment in time, as the last statue is being removed, to make his vision clear. He will not give several speeches throughout the coming days, so in order to be effective, he repeats his main points continuously throughout his speech. Such themes include inclusivity, diversity, truth, and opportunity. He also emphasizes the immediate need for change by repeating “now is the time” and we “must come together”. His message is never lost on his audience nor the media covering the moment. With the use of repetition, there is no doubt as to the vision he has for New Orleans’ future.
Kotter states that leading by example is another important part of communicating a vision effectively. “Often the most powerful way to communicate a new direction is through behavior” (Liberty University Custom: Heinz, 2021, p. 480). While we are only provided a brief snapshot of Landrieu as a leader, we do know that he is respected, well-liked, and that he and his family are “deeply anchored in New Orleans” (Liberty University Custom: Heinz, 2021, p. 488). Thus, he has the credibility and the trust needed to make a speech to this magnitude. While, we don’t know how Landrieu leads following making the speech, we do see elements within the speech that can predict that he will lead by example. The most notable example of this is when he calls himself to the mat regarding the monuments impact on his own life. He states that it took a conversation with Wynton Marsalis to see the truth and that prior to that he had "passed by those monuments a million times without giving them a second thought” (Liberty University Custom: Heinz, 2021, p. 492). Landrieu’s acknowledgment of his own faults proves that he not only sees potential in New Orleans to be a better community, but he also sees the potential to better himself. As Paul states, “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us” (English Standard Version Bible, 2022, Titus 2:7).
The remaining elements that Kotter encourages leaders to focus on when communicating change, are multiple forums, explanation of inconsistencies, and give-and-take. Landrieu’s vision was expressed in only one forum, but he chose a medium of communication that is most clear – face-to-face. He also chose the moment that the last statue was coming down as the perfect time to make his vision known. To continue to be effective, he will need to reiterate his message in other forums as he continues to move New Orleans toward their new future. The chosen forum is also not one that provides an opportunity for immediate feedback, or as Kotter describes, give-and-take, nor must Landrieu explain any inconsistencies with his behavior and attitude versus the vision he has set forth. Both final two elements of effective communication would come following his speech as the new vision is in place.
Effectiveness of Landrieu’s Speech
Mitch Landrieu’s speech on May 19, 2017 received national attention due to its eloquence and effectiveness. During a time of unrest across the country due to racial conflict and the specific topic of the removal of Confederacy monuments, Landrieu placed politics aside and focused on the importance of not rewriting history, but learning from it and choosing to right the wrongs of his city. “In order to effectively communicate an organizational vision, transformational leaders need to choose a medium for communication that enables more than simple dissemination of facts about the vision and its ‘mere’ existence” (Jensen et al., 2018, p. 351). Landrieu’s speech is the perfect medium because it provides face-to-face dialogue that shows his emotion and feeling behind the topic at hand and leaves his audience with a strengthened relationship between themselves and their community leader.
The authenticity of Landrieu’s speech is another reason as to why it is so effective. When he states his vision for the future of New Orleans, he is not doing so as a political leader, but as a fellow son of the community. He shares his knowledge of the city and lets his constituents know that he too did not understand the significance of the monuments in their city. “Bringing a personalized aspect to the communication of the vision provides leaders with a chance to make both themselves and their vision feel authentic to followers” (Jensen et al., 2018, p. 353). Ultimately, Landrieu’s communication of his vision is made clear through his follow through of Kotter’s key elements, his choice of medium, and his authenticity.
Suggestions for Making the Speech Stronger
To make his speech even stronger, I feel that Landrieu should have provided a few examples of next steps. Knowing that this communication was going to happen just once, he should have concluded his speech with not just the message of “We need to change. And we need to change now” but what he hoped for the city to change next now that the monuments have been taken down (Liberty University Custom: Heinz, 2021, p. 493). The speech is a short-term communication and now he must show his citizens how the vision will be obtained long-term. A speech does not afford a back-and-forth dialogue or an immediate ability for feedback. This means that there still could be some audience members who are not sure of how to follow through with the goals presented. In the days to come, Landrieu must continue to reiterate the message in his speech through his own actions and other forums. “Little children, let us love not in word or talk but in deed and in truth” (English Standard Version Bible, 2022, 1 John 3:18). As previously stated, the need for a new vision for New Orleans stems from more than just statues, and to right the city’s wrongs, Landrieu will need to make clear the attitudes and behaviors necessary to do so, and by adding these steps to the conclusion of his speech he would have communicated his vision most effectively.
Alvarado-Alvarez, C., Armadans, I., Parada, M., & Anguera, M. (2021, June 15). Unraveling the role of shared vision and trust in constructive conflict management of family firms. Frontiers in Psychology. https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.629730.
English Standard Version Bible (2022). https://www.esv.org/ (Original work published, 2008)
Jensen, U., Moynihan, D., & Salomonsen, H. (2018). Communicating the vision: How face-to-face dialogue facilitates transformational leadership. Public Administration Review. 78(3) pp. 350-361. https://doi.org/10.1111/puar.12922.
Liberty University Custom: Heinz, A. (2021). Leading Organizational Change. McGraw-Hill/Create.