‘MELODY LINES’: A Tool for Effective Communication in Leadership

“…without exception, all [leaders possess] word gifts… More than anything else, they [use] their gifts of communication to lead their people… Having a message doesn’t matter if leaders don’t communicate clearly and motivate others” (Maxwell, 2002).

The currency of effective leadership is communication. It is with this currency the battle of persuasion (which is at the heart of authentic and virtuous leadership) is won or lost. Defiant and compliant leadership brands, on the other hand, depend on coercion and manipulation respectively to get their people to do something. For those operating within these latter brands, edifying communication with motivating words is a non-issue. They will get their way anyhow.

However, authentic and virtuous leadership brands depend principally on persuasion, namely integrity-based messaging that moves people to voluntary action, to achieve great results. That is the essence of ‘melody lines’ in leadership communication.

In my book, Audacity of Leading Right: An Odyssey Towards Virtuous Leadership (2015a), where I outlined the core elements of these four leadership brands, along with their strengths and weaknesses, I showed that communication is crucial to advancing any vision that a leader of any brand wishes to convey. Your personal calling to a vision and the values/principles with which you profess that vision are essential.

Yet, until you communicate it successfully, you cannot move the relevant community towards owning or buying into the vision for the desired results. In other words, you will not be able to pull any community to the point of seeing in the vision a stake to live and, if necessary, die for. As we see in Maxwell’s statement at the beginning of this piece, “having a message doesn’t matter if leaders don’t communicate clearly and motivate others”.

I cannot emphasise the point enough: without communicating persuasively, you cannot release in your organization the ‘resonance’ – a reservoir of positivity – with which all stakeholders can go on to accomplish excellently.  The test of all this, as Jinkins and Jinkins (1998) had observed, is that the people become active participants and not merely recipients, spectators, or victims of your leadership.

The cost of communicating to create a sense of ownership of a vision among the relevant community and, by that fact, move the people to act voluntarily, can be high. Reflecting on my own experience at building a university from the scratch as the pioneer Vice Chancellor some years back, I would say it involves a lot of ‘travailing’. Most of the time, it is not just a hard or difficult task; the experience can be unpleasant. Yet a leader must travail, if need be, again and again until the vision is accomplished.

Apostle Paul did this, and stated his arduous experiences in a few but loaded words: “My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ is formed in you” (Holy Bible, Galatians 4: 19). In all of this, though, one fact remains. When the travailing is over and the vision is accomplished, the reward can be overwhelming. As Jesus put it: “… a woman when she is in travail has sorrow, because her hour is come: but as soon as she is delivered of the child, she remembers no more the anguish, for the joy that a man is born into the world” (Holy Bible, John 16: 21).

That’s why leaders persist. And, in such persistence, it behoves them to use tools that can ease the burden or facilitate the delivery of their visions. Of the several tools that can be used to achieve effective communication with minimal effort, ‘melody lines’ show unique advantages. Hence, my focus on them in this piece.

‘Melody lines’ are the lines (a word or string of words) of rising and falling notes that give a message its recognisable and memorable point. In another book, Lead For Life: 7 Essentials For Upright & High-Impact Leadership (2015b), I made the point that melody lines are used to touch people’s inner aspirations, speak to their values and needs, and draw them into a common journey (see also Cohn and Moran, 2011).

“Without a strong melody line”, says Smith (2010), “a [message] is rarely going to make it on to someone’s iTunes [or memory] playlist”! Deployed effectively, melody lines help the message to linger in the minds of the receivers. More significantly, well-crafted and effectively delivered melody lines create a momentum for action which every leader needs to be effective.

Melody lines carry rhythm, stick around in your mind or heart and pull you towards certain actions. Mahatma Gandhi’s vision of ‘liberation for India through non-violence’ was shared with a lot of melody lines, e.g.: “be the change you wish to see in the world”, “Where there is love there is life”, “My life is my message”, etc. And, he succeeded in getting his Indian people to own the vision of obtaining freedom without violence. India gained independence from British colonial rule in 1947 bloodlessly.

General Yakubu Gowon, in the heat of a civil war in Nigeria popularised this melody line: “To keep Nigeria one is a task that must be done”. As Atofarati (1992) noted, this was an effort “in mobilizing the people of Nigeria… to make the war look a just cause to stop the disintegration of the country”. Soon, General Gowon’s name was turned into an acronym GOWON, conveying that melody line: “Go On With One Nigeria”.

Then came what I call ‘the clincher melody line’ with which General Gowon soft-landed the war: “No victor; no vanquished”. This helped Nigerians from the warring parties to buy into the post-war policy of the 3Rs – Reconciliation, Rehabilitation, and Reconstruction, which was then embedded in the Second National Development Plan (1970 – 1974). Nigeria has remained one from the time of his leadership and it is still going.

Nelson Mandela had stated, at his trial in 1964: “I have cherished… an ideal for which I am prepared to die”. Twenty seven years later, he came out of prison and told his fellow Black Africans and their white colleagues that forgiveness was the most potent weapon to achieve the ideal he foresaw nearly three decades prior. Knowing how difficult this message would be to convey, he used appropriate ‘melody lines’. “It always seems impossible until it is done”, he declared continually to a successful end. He pulled his country from the brink of catastrophe, and apartheid gave way in South Africa in the early 1990s.

The task we had of building a new university with a vision of raising Godly global leaders in a decadent society, was arduous. In fact, a member of the University Governing Council once remarked: “the task we have given the VC and his management team is like asking them to raise Saints in Sodom”. The task had ‘impossibility’ written all over it. Yet, we committed to getting it done!

To get the necessary buy-in by staff and students alike, we crafted melody lines to convey the difficult message in an accessible manner: ‘the change we must have’, ‘you are called to be change agents’, ‘you must free the leader with you’, ‘leaders show the power of positive live wires’, ‘my soul had a birthday’, ‘excellence announces leadership’, ‘time is a resource’, ‘leadership is performance not position’, the ‘pain and thrill of leading right’, ‘leadership is destiny’, etc.

In the end, we achieved a level of engagement so much so the University community lived in a constant sense of social or moral re-engineering – precisely what the melody lines were designed to instigate. Several years have passed since I completed my tenure and departed;  still, today, some of the staff and students of the University community who reveled in those melody lines quote them back to me even at chance meetings.

The right communication, in the right way, at the right time and for the right reason, will inspire acceptance, action, change, and high impact. Herein lies the core lesson about melody lines. In this ‘executive wisdom’ equation of doing right things rightly (see Kilburg 2006), ‘melody lines’ constitute a powerful method as an element of “the right way”.

The capacity of people to capture and communicate their visions in effective melody lines, is a measure of their maturity in leadership. Crafting ‘melody lines’ is an art. It can be taught; it can be learnt!




Atofarati, A.A. (1992) The Nigerian Civil War, Causes, Strategies, And Lessons Learnt. http://www.globalsecurity.org/



Cohn, J. and Moran, J. (2011) Why are we bad at picking good leaders? Jossey-Bass, San Franscisco. USA.


Jinkins, M. and Jinkins, D.B. (1998) The Character of Leadership: Political Realism and Public Virtue in Nonprofit Organisations. Jossey-Bass Publishers, San Francisco. USA.


Kilburg, R. R. (2006) Executive Wisdom: Coaching and the Emergence of Virtuous Leaders. American Psychological Association, Washington D.C. USA.


Maxwell, J. (2007) Maxwell Leadership Bible, NKJV. eBook https://books.google.com.au/books?isbn=1418587311


Omaji, P.O. (2015a) Audacity of Leading Right: An Odyssey Towards Virtuous Leadership. Createspace, Amazon, Charleston, USA.


Omaji, P.O. (2015b) Lead For Life: 7 Essentials for Upright and High-Impact Leadership. Createspace, Amazon, Charleston, USA.


Smith, J. (2010) “Seven Steps To Writing Memorable Melodies – Part 1”. http://music.tutsplus.com/tutorials/seven-steps-to-writing-memorable-melodies-part-1–audio-6527.

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