Leadership communication image

Real Leadership Communication

OK, I’ll just throw it out there: really great leadership is all about superior communication skills.  But great communication is really for all of us! 

Whilst there is a long list of lists about leadership traits and qualities (a google search produced 417,000,000 results for ‘leadership qualities’), the demonstration of nearly all of these traits (focus, confidence, integrity, inspiration, passion, innovation etc. etc. etc.) primarily relies on superior communication skills, and it is the demonstration of these traits, rather than mere possession, that results in effective leadership. There are numerous people for instance with great insights, focus. confidence and personal integrity but who would never be seen as leaders because of various leadership communication failings.

I’m certainly not suggesting that all great leaders are charismatic ‘talkers’ – on the contrary I’m a big fan of quiet leadership – rather that the most effective leaders demonstrate consistent mastery of a broader and more sophisticated range of communication skills.

The great thing is that although these skills are rarely taught on MBAs or leadership classes, they can be taught or developed. Here are my top 7:

Great leaders . . .

  1. Get intimate
  2. Identify and challenge ambiguities
  3. Demonstrate credibility with questions rather than assertions
  4. Use powerful coaching questions
  5. Give advice effectively
  6. Constructively engage with cynics and detractors
  7. Balance the giving and taking of value


Get intimate


One difference between leaders and managers is that leaders engage with their followers on a human, emotional level. Leaders need to build intimacy and trust by communicating in ways that trigger emotional touch-points within the work/business context.

This requires moving conversations beyond the twin safe havens of either superficial personal-personal chit-chat (weather / sport / family) or professional-professional technical discussions. It means moving onto personal-professional issues such as personal motivations and workplace challenges by:

  • listening for and responding to any emotional language:
  • asking people how they feel about any stressful challenges
  • asking permission to get personal – either by asking a question or saying something personal yourself
  • Saying thank you – in a genuine, personal heartfelt way
  • expressing your own emotions (anxieties, worries, hopes) about any work/business situation
  • acknowledging difficult or uncomfortable situations
  • being more direct and honest than they were expecting


Identify and challenge ambiguities


Effective leaders not only need to be highly specific in their own speech (especially when clarifying direction or delegating tasks), they also need to identify and challenge any ambiguities or generalisations in the speech of others.

The ability to identify ambiguities and generalisations allows leaders to challenge blind spots, assumptions and limited beliefs that might otherwise derail a project or individual performance.

This first requires good active listening skills to limit listening barriers to listen with an open mind to both what is said and what is not said. Beyond that, leaders can   benefit from NLP training such as the meta model on the different types of deletions, distortions, nominalisations and presuppositions that are commonplace in everyday speech.


Demonstrate credibility with questions rather than assertions


Leadership is less about having the right answers than about having the right questions. Leaders often damage their credibility by talking as if they know more about any given topic than their colleague who is handling the detail day-in, day-out.

Leaders can add more value by asking insightful questions than by making assertions or suggestions. It’s a low-risk approach and carries a high likelihood that the question will help to unearth an issue that neither the leader nor their colleague had considered. By asking questions relating to broad universals such as objectives, risk, resources, time and relationships, leaders can add value and demonstrate insight with either knowing or needing to know the detail.


Use powerful coaching questions


The right coaching question can do more to motivate or direct either an individual or a team than a day’s worth of reading or seminar attendance.  A great leader knows when to ask which type of question – ‘what’, ‘if’, ‘why’, ‘’how’ – and then how to follow it up.


Give advice effectively


The ability to effectively and selectively give advice is a rare and vastly underrated skill. In the workplace context, giving advice or making suggestions carries significant risk of:

  • Compromising personal credibility by not being seen to understand the issues
  • Giving poor advice
  • Suppressing the ideas of others
  • Missing an opportunity to coach or support someone else in developing their own responses
  • Being seen as criticising, arrogant, dismissive, patronising, condescending or disrespectful

Generally, leaders give too much advice, or give it poorly, so in giving advice they should certainly focus on quality over quantity and should consider alternatives such as coaching.


Constructively engage with cynics and detractors


A key attribute of leaders is the ability to deal with conflict, tension and ‘difficult’ people constructively. Too often leaders respond aggressively with cynics and detractors – resulting in unresolved issues and growing resentments on both sides.

The most effective leaders keep an open mind and are genuinely curious and interested in opposing views. Cynics in particular often have unique insights in relation to workplace irony (the gap between the management claims, aspirations and the reality).

The most effective leaders actually listen to detractors rather than merely trying to win battles. They engage with the cynics by probing further, asking the questions that progress understanding and genuinely solve problems.


Balance the giving and taking of value


The most effective leaders – with great leadership communication skills – know when to listen and when to talk. Getting the balance wrong can significantly hurt a leader’s credibility.  One good approach is to enter each meeting or conversation with the intention of:

  • Learning one new thing through effective listening and
  • Making one valuable contribution – either through a question, an answer or an insight

Workshop InformationDue to the popularity of her corporate events, Julie is running a limited number of sessions open to the public. To learn how to manage smart people, lead with curiosity, and meet your goals in a hands-on, facilitated environment, attend one of Julie’s workshops.