Let’s be real here: communication is often a make-or-break skill for an aspiring leader.
The first two segments of this series on core leadership skills explored two critical starting points for a growing leader. We started with self-awareness, which is a very internally-based component of leadership. Then we moved to how to develop relationships with followers/reports (which is often done on a small-but-intense scale). With communication as the focus of this post, the size of the stage that we play on as leaders is takes a major jump!
Communication and leadership
When you imagine a major leader in any walk of life, what comes to mind? I think about the politicians that speak on TV, or CEO’s that are featured in online articles and magazines.
I see them show up and communicate their messages, and then I wait and see how their followers respond. How people react to these communications is the effect that these leaders have. It’s the extent of their influence and effectiveness.
Effective communication can lead to extraordinary results for a team or organization, or it can end up in uninspired, disorganized chaos.
Outstanding leaders who communicate their messages well can have drastic positive impacts on the people and organizations they’re responsible for.
Leaders that don’t communicate well regularly risk leaving people “in the dark” about what’s happening in their environment. This is not a motivating place to be in!
What gets communicated between leaders and followers determines what actions get taken. How the communication is made determines the quality of that execution.
A case study from the history books (and Hollywood!)
King George VI was the monarch of England at the dawn of World War II. On September 3rd, 1939, he gave his famous speech to the people of the British Empire, expressing the nation’s decision to enter the war.
It wasn’t an easy feat for the man!
King George had struggled throughout his life with a significant speech impediment, something that became the focus of a very successful movie, The King’s Speech.
Fearing that the British Empire wouldn’t respect a man who could barely string a sentence together, King George VI was aided by a speech therapist named Lionel Logue. Logue didn’t let his king down, helping George manage his stubborn stutter, and Britain began its move into the conflict against Nazi Germany.
The rest of the war story is pretty well-known: Britain and the Allies won over the Axis powers and the war wound down in 1945. Britain, a major contributor in the global fight, helped halt the eastern advancement of Germany. Had it not, it’s possible that World War II might have had a very different outcome.
The successful delivery of the King George’s speech brought a cautious optimism to the Brits. What would have happened, however, if they’d felt that their leaders weren’t up to the greatest challenge ever presented in their country’s history?
What was communicated in the speech was important. How it was communicated was even more so.
A brief overview of key communication skills
I mentioned a number of different communication sub-skills when I first presented the core leadership skills. While all of these areas will eventually have their own respective posts that go more in-depth, let’s revisit these five key spots that you (the aspiring leader!) can focus on right now.
This was King George VI’s greatest area of concern – would he able to clearly state his intent in a way that was clear, confident, and lead to positive results? How a leader writes communications to large groups of people has just as much of an impact on how confident their followers are in them. Both of these aspects of communication are critical starting points when growing as a leader.
This is skill that often takes considerable time to master, as giving direct feedback to someone requires a high degree of emotional intelligence. It’s not enough to simply state your opinion on something you want changed – you need to deliver your message in a way that your “feedbackee” will understand, and hopefully accept. It’s not a public service announcement: it’s a clear, honest and personalized message.
Objective and Intuitive Listening
Most people listen subjectively. They weigh what they hear from others against their own points of views, and form their responses from there. Objective listening removes that judgement, keeping their biases out of the picture. Intuitive listening goes one step further – think of it as “reading between the lines” of what your conversation partner is saying to hear what their true concerns are.
A leader who can resolve conflict is a valuable one indeed. Instead of a workplace battle going unsettled for months or years, wouldn’t it be nice if two colleagues could simply release their tension, let go of their grudges, and get back to working together productively? The leader that can facilitate this kind of discussion is worth their weight in gold.
Selling a Vision
Visions are the images in our heads that guide us toward our goals. They are the thoughts that you attempt to bring to life. Napolean Hill wrote in his famous book, Think and Grow Rich, that all things created by humans effectively start out simply as ideas. If you can get your followers to become excited and buy in to your visions and ideas, you can create almost limitless change in your world.
Coaching Question: which of these five areas would you say is your greatest strength?
What does great communication look like?
Great communication is an exchange; it is rarely ever a one-way encounter. There is almost always an element of response that comes into play.
If there’s a question, there’s a proceeding answer. If there is tension, there’s a resolution and the tension is released. For every call, there’s a response.
Even in the case of the King’s Speech monologue, where everyone in the country fell silent to listen to one man, there was still another side to the speech. That other side was the way in which the country reacted – the positive belief that the British could win the war swayed the actions taken by millions of people.If there's a question, there's a proceeding answer. If there is tension, there's a resolution and the tension is released. For every call, there's a response. Click To Tweet
The people’s actions reflected their understanding of the King’s intentions, they bought in to his message and, over time, the British would proceed to help the Allies take back continental Europe. Had the King’s message fallen on deaf ears, it’s likely that the British Empire wouldn’t have rallied around his cause. The map of today’s world would look very different!
The King’s Speech hit on its desired goal – it brought everyone in the nation together and instilled a sense of calm confidence in Britain’s chances of winning the war. If uncertainty and chaos had arisen throughout the country, it would have been the mark of poor communication skills.
Where a lot of people get it wrong…
A lot of people communicate without seeing their efforts from the perspective of their listeners, viewers or readers. They assume that they’re always being understood.
They might believe they are talking up an amazing storm, when in reality everyone on the receiving end feels like they’re living in a storm of confusion and frustration.
Where does this issue stem from? Typically (and not surprisingly if you’ve been reading this series up until now), it comes from a lack of self-awareness. It comes from not knowing how you’re really showing up as a leader, and not appreciating the concerns and viewpoints of your followers.
What can you do about this potential miscommunication snare?
Ask questions of the people you’re communicating with. If you’ve just explained a particular tactic or strategy, explore how they might use it when confronted with an appropriate situation that might require its use.
Whether it’s on a small- or large-scale, get feedback from your followers. See if your message is being reflected in what they are telling you – that’s when you know you’ve successfully planted the seed of a new idea, or that your point-of-view is being seen on their end. Do you hear your own voice or language in what they’re saying? If you have, you’ve influenced their beliefs. Remember, leadership is influence.
Signs that you’re communicating effectively
There are a multitude of signals that will show you that you’re communicating with others effectively. Here are some examples:
- Coworkers and peers come to you with their questions, because you have created a track record of giving helpful answers.
- People around you share their concerns with you because they appreciate your non-judgmental objective and intuitive listening skills.
- You are asked to weigh in on a decision because your feedback is often beneficial.
- Others want you to go over their presentations or documents as you have distinguished yourself with your strong written communication skills.
- People can’t wait to rave to you about how great your recent speech was – you really moved them with your message.
- Occasionally you get direct feedback from someone you write to often, and they take a moment to compliment you on the quality of your emails.
- Coworkers want you working on their team because of the value you bring as a clear, communicative team member.
The better you get at communicating, the more the signs of your success in doing so will show up.
Communicating your way forward as a leader
As with any skill, time and conscious practice is required to become truly proficient. Communication is no different. It helps to see every interpersonal moment as an opportunity to get better in the specific skills mentioned earlier.
Creating a great mass communication experience, either verbally or in writing, is a process that involves many small but crucial steps (eg. addressing your audience, asking clear and concise questions, stating a personal opinion versus sharing a fact, etc.).
Giving direct feedback and resolving conflicts are skills that challenge most people’s ability to remain objective and unattached to the outcome of the conversation. The less judgmental you are in giving feedback or mediating a conflict, the more effective you’ll be.
Objective and intuitive listening are demanding your attention span, as they force you to think about what’s really being said without letting the focus bounce back to your own point of view.
Selling a vision and creating buy-in is a high-stakes game, because if people refuse to buy in or your vision doesn’t turn out to be as rosy as you initially thought, your credibility as a leader will take a serious hit.
All of these different elements are what make communication such a key ingredient in any leader’s recipe for success. Now go out, and spread your message!
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