Raymond L. Wheeler, DMin

Musings about leadership

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Communication a Foundation of Leadership

Communication is Multifaceted

Leaders have to master communication. In its simplest form communication is the ability to outline the actions a team or group must take to carry out a task.  This sounds simple yet outlining actions also requires that a leader outline their values, expectations and the reason for the action to be taken.  In fact the greater the scope of leadership responsibility the more complex the layers of communication become so that verbal and symbolic multilayered communication is critical for the success of the organization.

Symbolic communication (also called non-verbal communication) incorporates a leader’s tone of voice, facial expressions, posture, clothing and the environment in which the communication transpires (e.g., a board room, a break room, the hallway etc.).  If not understood, symbolic communication projects a message that actually contradicts or undermines verbal communication.  One CEO had turned around the financial position of his company.  On the brink of bankruptcy when he accepted the position the company had made up its deficits under his watch and gained  recognition as a model institution.  Employees were encouraged to know that their jobs were safe.

However, when the CEO walked out of his office on day in an unguarded moment without greeting employees in the hallway as he rushed to grab lunch prior to an afternoon appointment rumors started swirling that the company was about to go under.  He was angry and shocked when the rumors resulted in a string of resignations and panic.  What happened?  The fact he failed to engage employees in the hallway made him seem detached and worried.  Employees assumed by his symbolic communication (unintentional as it was) that he had been less than truthful about the extent to which the institution turned around.  It took him weeks and a concerted effort to undo his one thoughtless walk from his office to the cafeteria. What did he learn? He said, “I have to disengage from the analytical thinking I do in my office so that I can engage my employees and allow these casual encounters to reflect the values and the stability of the company I talk about in our employee meetings.”

Deficiency in how a leader communicates is one of the most common complaints I run across when working with organizations experiencing difficulty in meeting performance goals. Poor communication is often characterized by the employees and volunteers we interview as one way, last-minute, manipulative, unclear, demeaning, and self-indulgent.

What makes up good communication?  In working with leaders across a variety of industries and non-profits I have defined four components of effective communication: transparency, responsiveness, authenticity and apprehension.  These components are defined in Table 1.

Table 1: Components of Effective Communication

Component Characteristics
Transparency Communication the meaning of which is clear whether verbal or written and carries a sense of honesty and professionalism.  It is direct in that it communicates to the source never via another (never triangularly).
Responsiveness Aware of the moment, fully present personally as is evident in active listening, requests for feedback, reflective responses (mirroring), inquiry and consistent/appropriate follow up.
Authenticity Treating others with respect, sensitive to others’ needs, feelings, and points of view.  It is communication that is tactful, characterized in active listening and open (i.e., appropriately vulnerable).
Apprehension Communication that is perceptive, comprehending characterized by behaviors that challenge ideas not people, attacks the problem not the person, effective negotiation and constructive conflict resolution.

The data categorized in Table 1 derive from two data tables in a qualitative questionnaire I use when assessing organizations. Engaging in communication is not just delivering a message it is engaging in a series of exchanges both verbal and symbolic (non-verbal) that make sure that the message received by those who are listening is verifiably close to the intended communication action.

Remember that facial expressions, body posture, context, delivery cadence, tone of voice, and pauses designed for others to express various forms of feedback are all part of the act of communication.

Impact of Deficient Factors Illustrated

In one large metropolitan school district a department suffered a severe loss of morale and productivity.  When I tabulated the data from our interviews with their employees and the questionnaire we used to evaluate their operation a distinct pattern emerged that illustrated a gap in communication (see Figure 1).  This gap resulted in part from the director’s devaluation of communication in all its factors.   He equated communication with staccato instructions and complaints about poor performance.  His communication style when viewed by others demonstrated that he was somewhat clear in the meaning of his words but consistently failed to communicate authenticity, apprehension and responsiveness.  He gave one way commands.

Figure 1: Leadership Communication Factors (Data Table A)

As is clear in Figure 1 the director of the department scored highest in transparency and lowest in apprehension.  His communication illustrated a focus on delivering data (technical facts).  He avoided emotional connections to the point employees felt contempt from him. After identifying the deficiency in apprehension, authenticity and responsiveness I interviewed the director to uncover the source of the contempt.  He had little patience for those who did not share his level of technical expertise.  This intolerance of technical imperfection expressed itself in mistrust and emotional detachment.  While his facts were correct (his employees truly did not share his level of technical expertise) he alienated his entire department and lacked the ability to inspire anything but mistrust or fear.

As a result of the directors assumptions about communication conversation in his department consistently took on a disrespectful and combative tone.  Employee comments in the questionnaire confirmed that the department lacked constructive conflict resolution strategies.  The director and his reports exhibited a tendency to personalize challenges and not concrete issues on the one hand. On the other hand the director’s emotional detachment de-personalized people and remained emotionally detached to even when facing the most sensitive of staff issues.

The employees scored themselves as higher in authenticity and lower in transparency, a reversal of the trend seen in the leaders’ scores (Cf. Figures 1 & 2).  This reversal was interesting especially in light of the fact everyone in the department leader and follower both shared virtually the same level of development in apprehension and responsiveness.  It may be that these two communication traits are tied directly to the size and age of an organization while transparency and apprehension are tied to the personal skill development of the people within the department.

By this I do not mean that apprehension and responsiveness are not a factor of personal development but that they are required in greater measure in more complex and larger organizations.  The reversal evident between authenticity and transparency is a classic pattern of behavior when leaders want to talk facts (denying the human factor) and employees or volunteers want to talk about people needs (often denying the facts).

Figure 2: Employee Communication Factors (Data Table D)

How is Your Communication?

Test your communication as a leader in several ways.  First, ask whether the behavior of your team is consistent to your message?  When behaviors align with what you thought you communicated there is a good chance you communicated clearly and consistently over time.

Second review the factors above and ask yourself how you think you do.  Do these factors enter your consideration when you plan communication?

Third, ask people around you to rate your effectiveness in each of these four factors.  Ask people who are neither intimidated by your position nor biased to your role.

Leaders can develop more effective communication skills.  I have found that practicing a more transparent and responsive approach to communication is important to achieving a greater level of self-motivation and goal ownership among staff and volunteers as well as a greater degree of efficiency in daily operations because it encourages learning conversations, clear and timely performance feedback and recognition of a job well done. Each of these factors contributes to employees’ sense of contribution and commitment. Like all other leadership disciplines and practices communication needs planning, evaluation and practice.


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Shaping Leaders through Experience, Transitions, and Challenges

I saw it in a two friends one is a CEO one is a COO.  We had not talked for over a year as I was buried in my academic program and they were both transferred to new assignments.  When I caught up to these friends of mine I was frankly astonished at how they had changed.  They both possessed a measurable growth and depth in their confident demeanor and aura of authority.  I wasn’t seeing arrogance or self promotion.  They carried themselves with a sense of confident purpose that they had not previously exhibited.

The change was so noticeable I shared my observation and asked them what they thought contributed to the change I was seeing.  Both described how entering a new and more challenging situation opened up new ways of seeing themselves.  Their new assignments had required that they step into a new sense of situational awareness, self-confidence and growing competence as leaders.

These men had been through a boundary in their development.  The change each of these men faced was not easy both assignments required that they alter the trajectory of failing organizations.  They both had to step in to difficult situations, use their experience to size up the problems and outline the steps needed to bring change.  They had to move quickly to stop the hemorrhage of cash and talent.  Neither one really had the time to second guess their actions until after the changes had taken place.

A boundary represents a point at which a leader faces the necessity of moving to depth in: skills, perspective or self-awareness to continue in and grow in effectiveness.  Facing these barriers means that leaders have the opportunity to:[1]

  • Bring to closure recent experiences – closure identifies significant lessons and allows the person to move forward.
  • Deepen relationship to God or spiritual depth – growing in spiritual depth or relationship to God does not result in religious weirdness it results in a clearer picture of purpose, moral fabric and awareness of others’ current and potential contribution.  One of my friends identifies himself as a Christian the other does not. But both describe a deeply spiritual experience in the challenges they faced.
  • Expand perspective to see new things – without the challenge of barriers or challenges people often tend to plateau in their growth.  I am reminded of the now proverbial definition of insanity attributed to Peter Drucker i.e., doing the same activity over and over expecting different results.
  • Make decisions that launch a new phase of development – this development extends to everyone within reach of the leader’s influence.  The entire organization benefits when leaders successfully navigate the barriers to their personal growth.

Leaders develop through their careers through boundary events characterized in one of three ways. Boundary events are either powerfully formative or devastatingly destructive.  It is not the experience itself that determines the outcome in leaders lives.  Individual choices determine the outcomes of these boundary experiences.  Outcomes are not inherent in the experience itself.[2]

New Experience – defined as being thrust into new terrain – an overseas assignment, unexpected turn of events in business or family life, new social or organizational role etc.  The challenge in new experience is to overcome disorientation and weave it into one’s own experiential tapestry and not be consumed by it.  Both friends of mine made this kind of choice. As a result they found themselves not only challenged but also enjoying their work.  Be aware of the frame through which you view new experiences.  Your first impressions will most likely be wrong. Ask questions.  Learn to rely on others, gain common ground by telling stories and encouraging others to share their views. Remember that events may conspire to make you a leader more than any inherent talent or unique ability.

Setback – loss or failure that is profoundly disruptive and bewildering – what was permanent is transient what was believed is questioned. The challenge in setbacks is to see one’s situation in a fundamentally new – and more comprehensive – way.  Seeing this bigger picture is often tremendously freeing.  A more comprehensive perspective introduces new opportunities and options that were previously hidden by the individual’s short-sightedness.  In today’s difficult economic environment setbacks are common.  What is not as common is watching people use setbacks to define a new sense of meaning and purpose and skill.

Deferral – an unanticipated hiatus during which routines are set aside, sometimes forcibly, and replaced with regimented structure or no structure at all.   Deferrals challenge leaders to clarify or create their personal mission and purpose; to cement their foundational beliefs and values.  These foundational beliefs and values are critical to shaping organizational culture, creating powerful delegation and unleashing innovation.

The significance of identifying boundaries is twofold.  First, experiencing boundaries is normal and is not a sign of fate aligned against the person.  I do occasionally meet people so narcissistic they believe that everything and everyone is against them – effective leaders do not have time for such self-absorption. Second, boundaries tend to cluster around specific periods of development. New territory boundaries seem to cluster in early career, reversals tend to cluster in mid-carrier and suspension seems to cluster around later career.  Even though this clustering pattern is clear it is not absolute – all three boundary experiences are present at any time.  But recognizing the clustering pattern does help leaders (1) recognize boundaries to development sooner and (2) expect their arrival to capitalize on the learning experience sooner.

The question then is how do you handle your boundary times? Do new experiences, setbacks or deferred hopes collapse your personal sense of purpose and emotional resilience?  Or do you use these boundary times to engage learning and development to see new things about yourself and your situation?  It takes a certain amount of courage to face change I saw this courage in my friends.  In fact I was a little envious of the difficulties they had been through.  I liked the men and the leaders they had become…I embrace my own boundary times in hope that my own growth will be as evident to others as my friends’ growth is to me.  If you are stuck in a boundary experience it is time to talk to someone about it.  Don’t let a boundary undo you – make it work for you.

[1] J Robert Clinton. Leadership Emergence Theory: A Self-Study Manual for Analyzing the Development of the Christian Leader (Pasadena, CA: Barnabas Resources, 1989).

[2] Robert J. Thomas. Crucibles of Leadership: How to Learn from Experience to Become a Great Leader (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2008).