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.
Congratulations, you’re now in charge. Maybe you’ve been promoted to sales manager; or maybe you’re now a general manager or even CEO. With all that newly-issued authority, things are going to be much easier—no more selling for you; now you can just tell people what to do and it will get done, right? You get to set the vision, craft the strategy, and make the big decisions; everyone else’s job is to get on board and make it happen.
If so, you’re making the same mistaken assumption that Dwight Eisenhower did. After a lifetime in the military, he was used to issuing orders and being reasonably confident that they would be followed. As President, he found that the order was only the beginning, not the end. If so, you’re making the same mistake that I’ve seen in some sales organizations I work with. When I warn sales leadership that implementing a new sales methodology can be difficult, most of them confidently tell me that they will mandate its use, as if that is all that needs to be done.
Authority is like a life jacket. It will keep you afloat in a pinch, but if you need it, you’re already in trouble. And when you’re not in trouble, it just slows you down. Although safety experts recommend that you keep an actual life jacket on or nearby at all times while on the water, leaders should reach for their authority only as a last resort.
The old “Because I said so” model just does not work anymore. It might have worked when managers did the thinking and employees did the manual labor (and even then it had its limitations), but today almost everyone is a knowledge worker, and often they know more than you do about their jobs. Smart bosses surround themselves with even smarter people, but smart people don’t want to be led by you or anyone else—they want you to create the conditions where they can do their thing without being bothered.
There’s also a big generational shift going on. Millenials are much more likely to question why they should do something. With jobs being scarce, they might keep their questions to themselves, but you can be sure that if the question is rattling around in their minds it can drag down their performance.
Finally, in today’s business environment things are too complex, and are moving and changing too fast for any one person to know and control everything. You simply can’t be there to exercise your authority when people need to decide and act; you have to trust them to act on their own initiative, in line with your strategies, intentions, and values.
Authority may in the short run get you the performance and effort you demand, but only persuasion gets you discretionary effort, where people do more than asked because they want to, not because they have to. Only persuasion works when you’re not around, or when you run out of sticks and carrots.
So, what does this mean to you? In short, you still need to sell, explain, and inspire. The tools that you use to persuade are more important than ever.
Listening: If you’re the boss, you need to listen more, not less. Research shows that people in authority tend to discount others’ advice, and 360° feedback programs show that leaders rate themselves as much better listeners than their subordinates do. Are you learning from others, or do you think you know it all? Are you making it safe for others to disagree or to bring bad news?
Asking: Are you immediately solving problems, or are you asking questions to help people solve the problems themselves? Are your questions driven by genuine curiosity, or are they directives dressed as questions? (Leading questions are bad, don’t you agree?)
Telling: Are you communicating frequently? Are you framing your communications in terms that tap into intrinsic motivation? Are you clear? Do people know where they stand with you? Are you consistent?
Acting: Do your actions match your words? Are you setting the example that you want others to follow? Do you follow up on what subordinates tell you?
There are hundreds of books written on leadership every year, most of which claim to analyze and isolate the traits that make someone a good leader, as if there is a secret formula for leadership that can be bottled and sold. The fact that each book’s secret formula is different does not seem to deter the writers or their readers.
There is no secret formula or combination of traits that will make anyone the best leader, and an excellent illustration of this can be found in Walter Borneman’s new book, The Admirals, which chronicles the careers of the four American admirals who achieved five-star rank while leading our nation to victory in WWII.
The highest ranking (by design, he was the first promoted to the new five-star rank, so that he would have seniority), most influential, and least heralded was William Leahy, who served during the war as FDR’s personal military adviser.
I generally try to post new articles on Tuesdays and Thursdays, but as of last night I had no clue what I was going to write about today. That quandary was resolved when I woke up about 5:30 after a series of very vivid dreams with a clear idea for today’s topic, in fact for a series of topics. My dream actually involved sharks, and my reluctance to dive into murky water to retrieve something I had lost because I suspected they were waiting to snack on my bony body.
I think the reason I woke up convinced that it was time to write about pathos is that the dream reminded me how reluctant we sometimes can be to dive beneath the surface of logic and explore the sometimes dangerous passions, feelings and sentiments that lurk below.