When a CEO complains that he wants his life back after a disastrous oil spill, is that a leadership problem or a communication problem?
When a copilot fails to speak up after noticing ice build-up on the wings, is that a communication problem or a leadership problem?
When a coach delivers a pregame speech that inspires the team to play better than they thought they were capable of, is that leadership or communication?
I was recently asked by a client to develop a talk on leadership communication, which I delivered last week for the first time in Tokyo. I don’t usually “do” leadership; I leave it to my friend John Spence and to all the other experts who study leadership traits, skills, strategy formulation, etc. I don’t consider myself in their rarefied circles—all I study, teach and write about is clear thinking, persuasively communicated.
Yet, as I worked on my material for the talk, I realized that clear thinking, persuasively communicated, is basically all that leaders and managers do. Their subject matter may be strategy and organization, they may have to know how to arrange and pull the right levers for profitability and growth, but those are just the content they work with. They need clear thinking to give them an accurate understanding of the situation and to use their judgment to make good decisions; they need persuasive communication to make sure those decisions get translated into action by others.
Even top leaders (with the possible exceptions of Kim Jong Un or Donald Trump) need to communicate persuasively to get things done in today’s world. No one has absolute authority and even if they did, command and control is not the best way to get the best effort out of knowledge workers. That’s why CEOs spend about 85% of their time communicating and only 15% of their time working alone. And it’s worth it: there is a clear link between internal communication effectiveness and business performance, and as the first example at the beginning of this article demonstrates, words said externally can have a multibillion dollar impact on a company’s market share.
It’s ironic that leadership communication is not seen in a better light, considering that persuasive communication is the primary reason that leaders achieve their positions in the first place. I’ve always said that people who can communicate persuasively, who can influence others even if they have no formal authority, who can command a room while delivering a presentation, are leaders. In fact, the very first post I wrote to launch this blog was entitled “Your Leadership Moment”. The best salespeople lead their customers’ thinking by bringing fresh ideas and challenging the status quo. The most brilliant engineers or scientists won’t get the recognition they deserve if they can’t sell their ideas.
Persuasive communication skills can make you a leader regardless of your role, and supply the reality without the title. But that ability gets you noticed, and the title may soon follow. When top managers decide whom to fast-track for promotion, they look for the ability to clearly articulate good ideas and to get things done through others. So, they equate persuasive communication skills with leadership. The ability to communicate propelled a junior senator from Illinois to the most powerful leadership position in the world.
So, to be a good communicator, you have to think clearly and transfer your belief to others. Is that any different from what it takes to be a good leader?
While the skill may lead to the title, it’s possible that the title can weaken the skill. You may be tempted to use fewer of the skills that got you there. Research shows that people in power are less likely to listen to others’ opinions, although they will tend to overestimate their communications ability. One study showed that only 31% of employees rated their internal communications as effective.
One reason for poor leadership communication may be that its nature is much different today than it has traditionally been for business leaders. In the old days, the most important communication skill was the ability to convert your decisions into clear directives that others could understand and follow. Whether they agreed with you or not did not matter. They definitely did not need to understand the reasoning behind your decisions, and any attempt by a subordinate to do so was seen as borderline insubordination. The ethos of the follower was “ours not to reason why”.
Clear speaking, or “transmission” is still important, but it is no longer enough. People who get paid for their brains rather than their hands have to be led differently; they have to be persuaded not just told, and their opinions and ideas must be solicited. Leaders have to spend much more of their time in communications, and they have to use a much richer variety of skills: asking questions, listening, negotiating, cajoling and even pleading. Listening and questioning are hard to do, especially when you’re in charge.
So, if you want to be a leader, study and practice the arts of persuasive communication. If you want to be a good or even a great leader, study them even more.