Look, Listen, Act: Communication skills for great leaders


Two truisms about leadership:

  1.  First, leadership is not management and management is not leadership.
  2.  Second, while not all leaders are managers, all managers should be leaders.

If you’re expecting your broader staff group to demonstrate leadership in their roles then those with greater authority and position absolutely have to do so first.

How do leaders communicate?

It’s a bit of a silly question really, since every leader will have a different way of communicating, depending on the circumstances, who they’re working with, and what sort of existing relationships they have with those people. So while no generalisations will really work at answering this question, consider three archetypes for communicating as a leader:

  • The Visionary Leader: Charismatic speeches and announcements are used to motivate and inspire their staff to do their jobs and do them well;
  • The Listening Leader: Spends less time telling everyone what they think and more time engaging people in conversations and listening to what others think;
  • The Active Leader: Focuses on getting work done or on showing everyone how busy they are. Believes that actions speak louder than words.

Let’s look at the strengths of each style and hopefully you can identify what sort of communication styles you’re currently using (or using too much) and what changes might help you be a better, more balanced leader.

Present a vision

What is your vision? Not your strategic objectives and certainly not the amount of ‘stuff’ you plan to do this year. But the “Why” – Why does your organisation exist? Why does it operate as it does?

A visionary leader understands their NFP’s ‘Big Why?’ and talks with people on an ongoing basis about how the ‘smaller whys’ and the ‘hows’ connect and contribute to the big one. Maintaining a focus on vision, and matching words with actions can be a powerful motivator.

At the same time, too great a focus on vision can result in missing or ignoring important details, especially if they don’t match the “big picture”.

Listen and learn

You don’t have all the answers. You will almost always benefit from quality conversations with other smart and creative people, and taking others’ perspectives seriously.

Listening is the first part, so make time to talk. Talk to your managers one-on-one and in groups. Talk to colleagues about their jobs and broader lives. Talk to board members outside meetings (if you have access to them). Listen and take notes. Feed your thinking.

A listening leader asks questions. Listening is good, but asking thoughtful questions drives conversations to the places they need to go. Be prepared to admit you don’t know things or that you need time to consider ideas. When you’re wrong, say so.

The extreme listener can however end up being indecisive, or can ignore a good idea because it’s not popular, or because others haven’t thought of it. Listen to gather as much data as possible, but in the end, remember to act on your own intuitions and experience.

Lead by example

It’s worse to be a non-managing leader than to be a non-leading manager – at least competent managers get things done.

Keep your words in proportion to your abilities and favour under-promising and over-delivering over the reverse. Don’t make rash promises and do let your actions speak louder than your words. That doesn’t mean you don’t speak, but don’t just speak.

Pay attention to detail. Don’t be afraid of tasks that are small or apparently unimportant – every detail can be important, and they can also communicate to colleagues that you care and are committed to a project or program.

Just make sure not to get bogged down in the details. Details need to be balanced with considerations like time constraints and where your attention can be best used.

Other tips

A few other tips for leaders who want to communicate well:

  • Celebrate both group and individual success: Make everyone feel part of team wins and recognise individual achievements where appropriate. Be both your organisation’s coach and chief cheerleader.
  • Acknowledge challenges: Staff know when things are going wrong and, even when they don’t, appreciate being dealt with honestly. Don’t be a gloom-monger, but manage expectations to avoid shocks to morale.
  • Know what not to say: Don’t use staff forums and informal conversations to vent. Don’t criticise others in public and don’t gossip. Talk about what you know and do it with conviction.
  • Match the means to the audience: Face-to-face always beats a phone call and a phone call always beats email. Being told something directly always beats finding out vicariously. Match the importance of each communication with a method that will do it justice.

Whether you are aware of it or not, as a leader everything you do and say is a communication. Make sure that what you’d like to be saying to your colleagues is really what’s being communicated.

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