Leadership sometimes seems like a shape-shifting concept that lives just beyond our grasp. We know that effective leadership is important, but there is little agreement on exactly why, or what, great leadership looks like in action. If you read multiple articles about leadership, you likely will come away with a jumble of lists of key qualities. This confusion should not be surprising, considering that leadership is exercised through communication — and everybody communicates in unique ways.
My personal communication style leans toward playful and, I hope, creative, so my most recent thinking about how great leaders communicate is in the form of a mnemonic that might be particularly valuable for training purposes. (Note that although this formulation suggests static verticality, it will become clear that these leadership processes are actually circular and repeat in a loop.)
My focus is on observable communication practices in organizations rather than on the types of internal psychological styles or processes so commonly featured in discussions of leadership. We can never know with precision how another person thinks, but we know from experience that how that person communicates has a clear impact on other organizational members and, therefore, on the entire organization — particularly when the person has a leadership role.
There is convincing evidence for the critical importance of effective listening skills for leaders. A 2020 study found that “active” and “respectful” listening by leaders was strongly associated with employee satisfaction and long-term organizational commitment. However, we do not need empirical data to understand the significance of listening to conversations in organizations — the elemental play between what the late-19th-century German philosopher Martin Buber called the “I and Thou.” We are storytellers, and storytelling requires listening. Great leaders listen authentically and strategically, because they care about the long-term success of their organization and the people who make that success possible.
Great leaders give voice to others by listening, but they do not only listen. The best leaders listen, identify actionable insights, formulate coherent stories that give form to those insights, and then engage people to work with passion and commitment toward goals that reflect organizational values.
In a previous article for TrainingIndustry.com, I describe how “engagers are inclusive, passionate, strategic, ethical and caring storytellers and connectors of people, ideas and possibilities.” Ethical engagement is critical, because history teaches us the dangers of leaders who engage followers for destructive or negative purposes. To engage with integrity is to shower others with support and vision and to model honesty, inclusion, equity and transparency in all communication and actions. To engage strategically is to frame engagement as an evolving series of stories that align organizational members to work collaboratively toward goals.
Great leaders understand the importance of aligning engaging, mission-focused stories with enduring organizational values and with the present and often shifting needs of team members. Effective alignment processes are never static but, rather, morph and pivot as the organization reacts to environmental inputs and pressures, revises or creates performance goals, or adjusts to changes in personnel.
“Leadership” in this context is not restricted to the chief executive. At least one study concluded that the alignment of strategy between division managers and the CEO is required for the managers’ success as a leader. The key mandate for leaders in any role is to attend continuously to alignment needs and to drive alignment transparently and collaboratively.
When we learn to drive a car, we are taught to scan continuously for potential changes in the orientation of other vehicles, to check the rear-view mirror for approaching vehicles and to maintain a state of awareness. The basic formula is to drive toward your destination with purpose, tempered by agility and sufficient risk reduction.
Great leaders are driving dynamic and complicated organisms, not machines, so in addition to finding and navigating the road with vision and awareness, they must listen, engage, align, motivate, and model for others the passion and integrity that will make organizational success possible.
Great leaders identify and activate meaningful evaluation metrics and processes to gauge the success of their leadership efforts. Then, they know what to continue doing, what to recalibrate and what to change completely. Employee engagement surveys are only one option. Other leadership evaluation tools include employee turnover data and exit interviews, revenue and other financial performance metrics, product and service innovation assessment, and share price trends.
Regardless of the tool they use, what’s important is for leaders to collaboratively identify the specific organizational processes they want to measure. Then, they can put into place the evaluation tools that will measure those processes accurately and effectively. Without robust evaluation protocols, leaders will be doing a lot of inefficient and unproductive guessing.
Finally, great leaders respond quickly, flexibly and intentionally to their evaluation by completing and continuing on the LEADER loop. They listen to team members to understand their current challenges and needs, they engage others to create positive change, they align change initiatives with organizational values, they drive process and communication excellence, and they evaluate all of these efforts — and then respond again.
I encourage training professionals to design leadership development activities with a focus on demonstrable communication practices, such as the ones I have proposed here, rather than on assumptions of the existence of stable leadership styles. Although some might argue that, in aggregate, a leader’s communication results in recognizable styles, I suggest that putting the leadership development focus on building excellent communication practices, infused with integrity, inclusiveness, equity and transparency, will maximize value for leaders and organizations.
Editor’s note: Don’t miss our infographic on modern leadership development, which shares insights from learning leaders like this one.