As imperative as leadership is to a successfully functioning organization, it can be equally difficult to define. There are a wide variety of successful leadership styles, each with their own distinct, necessary traits. But one thread that weaves through just about every productive leadership style is the ability to communicate.
Communication is imperative to the ability to successfully lead a group. Whether you’re the CEO of a multinational corporation, a middle school basketball coach, or anything in between, you won’t be able to lead very effectively if you can’t communicate.
But communication, as a concept, is nearly as complicated as leadership. There is no one way to communicate, and what works best for one leader may not be as effective for another. To lead effectively, one first has to identify their communication style and then foster the skills that style requires.
If that seems daunting, never fear! Read along for our breakdown of the most critical leadership communication skills and what you can do to improve at each one. But first, let’s start with the basics. What is leadership, exactly?
What is Leadership?
Many people believe a leader is simply the person with the highest title in the organization, or within a team. But leadership has nothing to do with surface-level things like that. A high-ranking executive may be a great leader, but if they are, it’s because of their skills, not because of their position.
Likewise, it’s possible to demonstrate leadership from any position up and down the chain of command. Even if you’re low on the totem pole, you can still be a great leader! Leading is all about maximizing the efforts of others toward a common goal. And this can happen from anywhere within an organization.
Take, for instance, a sports team. Leading them is about maximizing the effort of the team towards the goal of winning a game or league championship. They could be led by the coach (a superior), a star player (a peer), or even a particularly inspirational water boy. The same is true in business. No matter where you are in the organizational hierarchy, you can lead!
Leadership is about demonstrating an example of impeccable production. It’s about keeping others focused and motivated. It’s about pushing for progress at all organizational levels. It’s about more qualities than we could ever hope to list. But no matter what, it’s about effective communication. Why?
Why is Communication Essential to Leadership?
The ability to effectively communicate—and the way that you do so—is arguably the most vital characteristic for a great leader. Many often imagine leaders as people with great vision, or an unstoppable force of will. But if you’re unable to communicate, none of that matters.
The core of leadership is the ability to influence and motivate others towards a common goal. That is exceedingly difficult if you’re unable to communicate well. Leadership by example only goes so far; while the goal is common, people in different roles will all play distinct parts in pursuing it.
Good communicators can create more precise, actionable goals, which leads to improved productivity across the board; they can foster stronger, more concise meetings; and they can ensure everyone is on the same page. That latter point is very significant, as little can kill a project faster than people working towards different goals.
Communication also plays an enormous role in building and developing respect. When you can communicate with someone in a relatable, down to earth way, that both conveys to the other person that you respect them, and elicits respect in return. The effect is even stronger when you are a particularly good listener.
Leadership Communication Skills
Communication is not a single, distinct skill. It is, in fact, made up of a wide variety of different skills, all of which build off of one another and can be honed in their own specific way. Here is a breakdown of some of the more critical leadership communication skills and some tips as to how you can develop them.
There’s an outdated idea that leadership is about a single, autocratic force issuing diktats to those below them, their authority never being questioned. That style may work in the most mechanistic of organizations, but by and large, it’s obsolete in modern society. In fact, one of the most important aspects of leadership is taking advantage of what your team members have to offer.
What does this mean in terms of communication? It means that the best leaders are often just as good at listening as they are at speaking. Listening isn’t only a courtesy; it has several substantial, tangible benefits. For one, it helps build respect and trust.
When your team knows that you value what they have to say, that is one of the most potent ways to build respect. And that is an incredibly valuable tool. When your team trusts that you have their best interests in mind, they will follow you through both good and bad.
Further, it gives you a far more well-rounded view of the organization. People in other roles, simply put, have a perspective that you do not. By considering these additional perspectives, you are gaining a far more profound understanding of your organization than you would otherwise be able to.
How to Get Better
There are several ways you can get better at listening. One of the first things you can do is to reframe your mindset. You’re not just listening to be polite; you’re listening to learn. From there, the best thing to do is, naturally enough, to ask more questions. If it sounds simple, that’s because it is. Give other people the chance to talk more!
Be conscious of yourself as the other person speaks. If you notice yourself interrupting, apologize, and ask them to continue. Allow them to finish talking, then wait for a beat before you respond. Finally, repeat back what the other person says. That helps solidify the information in your mind.
Know Your Team
Different people respond to different leadership styles. Likewise, different people react to different methods of communication. It is the mark of a true leader to cater their style to those they are leading, rather than the other way around. To tailor your communication style to your team members, you need to get to know them first.
This skill goes beyond getting to know them on a personal level. That can certainly be valuable in its own right, but what we’re looking for is a knowledge of what your team is like as workers. Knowledge of what motivates them and what they do and do not respond to.
One clear example is harsh language. Suppose you get frustrated with an employee’s slipping performance, and really lay into them. And lo and behold, their performance improves! Now you think you’ve found your leadership style. But when you try the same thing with a different employee, their performance slips even further.
A weak leader would say that the latter employee just isn’t tough enough to handle their style and write them off. But a strong leader would understand that the first person simply had a personality that responded well to that type of rhetoric, and the second person doesn’t. Real leadership isn’t finding one style and sticking to it no matter what; it’s taking it upon yourself to find what works for each of your team members.
How to Get Better
We said earlier that getting to know your team on a personal level isn’t enough to be fully proficient in this area, but it’s a good start! You will naturally get to know each other over time. But you can expedite the process by having lunch one by one with each of your team members and asking them to share a bit about themselves.
That may not be enough in and of itself to tailor a style to them, but it will help you build an initial foundation off of which you can grow.
Further, it can be a great help to keep notes on each of your team members and what they respond best to. Tracking their morale and their performance relative to your communication style can be one of the most efficient ways to find what works for each of them.
An essential communication skill is the ability to be clear, specific, and direct. When you finish speaking, everyone you addressed should come away with the same understanding of what was said. Leadership, as we know, is, in large part, about rallying people towards a common goal. So when a leader communicates goals, it should always be clear and actionable.
Being direct has many benefits. It’s more efficient, meaning less time wasted in meetings and more time spent achieving. It means everyone understands your expectations. And it means everyone knows exactly what to do to start working towards the common goal.
When a presentation is overstuffed and zig-zags between different subjects, listeners may naturally lose focus, or lose track of the main point. If your objectives are at all unclear, you may break a meeting and see your team head off working towards different goals. Being direct and specific promotes focus and productivity.
How to Get Better
When preparing to lead a meeting or presentation, consider: what is this really in service of? How does this point advance my objective? Overstuffed, zig-zagging monologues are often the result of a lack of focus. Keeping your eyes on the goal helps you stay on task and be specific.
Rather than delivering a stream of consciousness presentation, mentally edit what you plan to say the same way you would edit a written deliverable. You don’t turn in rough drafts when you write, so why do so when you speak? Focus on what matters (and what doesn’t), and you’ll be sure to be more efficient and effective.
Be Aware of Nonverbal Communication
Verbal communication is incredibly important, as the above section attests. It is through verbal communication that we can clearly and specifically lay out our actionable goals and instructions. But body language can be just as important. It can often convey things that simply cannot he expresses through words, and may even be your first tip about something that your team may not initially be comfortable expressing directly.
A typical example of the latter is morale. If your team is suffering from low morale, their body language will likely be your first indication. Members might not want to say it out loud, because they don’t want to sound as if they’re complaining.
But the sooner you can identify morale problems, the better. That means you’ll be able to address them more quickly and prevent them from spiraling out of control. Be sure to be on the lookout for these signs, so you can respond to the issues before it’s too late.
Nonverbal communication doesn’t always have to be negative, either. If you notice an employee expressing increasingly confident body language, that could be a sign that they’re excelling in their role, and they are ready for a new challenge. Don’t push too far; you don’t want to kill their confidence as it’s just beginning. But recognizing confident body language can represent a tremendous opportunity to lead growth.
How to Get Better
Recognizing nonverbal communication is a matter of practice and effort. You need to pay attention to your team and the way they are carrying themselves. It’s much easier to note verbal communication while you are distracted.
Checking your email on your phone doesn’t prevent you from hearing the words someone is saying. But to register their body language, you truly need to focus.
While there are universal nonverbal signals, each person’s body language is unique and can carry different meanings. You simply need to get to know your team. Over time, certain tics that didn’t register with you before will become clear tells.
Here’s a skill that might sound like a new age cliche, but is actually tremendously valuable to leadership-oriented communication. Understanding yourself, and your own strengths and weaknesses, is crucial to developing a communication style that works for you. You can’t improve your shortcomings if you don’t even know what they are.
On the day-to-day level, being self-aware also helps you regulate and control your tone. If you are distracted or in a bad mood and communicate with someone, you may give off a harsh or negative impression without even realizing it. Self-awareness helps avoid such potential miscommunications (which can be very costly).
Knowing yourself, then, can have significant benefits to both the big picture and small picture. Developing your communication style is a significant step for any leader, and it can’t be done (or at least, it can’t be done well) without self-knowledge.
Meanwhile, self-knowledge ensures that you present yourself in interactions the way you intend to do. Effective communication is impossible if you are unaware that your mood is affecting the way you are coming across.
How to Get Better
Improving your knowledge of yourself begins and ends with introspection and, as is the case with several other skills, mindful awareness. Reflect upon what you do well and what you would like to improve upon. Then look a level deeper. Why do some things you do seem to work better than others?
As to the smaller-scale effects, all you can do is make an effort to be aware. Before you interact with someone, take the briefest pause to note how you feel, and how your emotions might affect the interaction. That may seem tedious and unnecessary, but it’s those types of small touches that can separate good communicators from great ones.
Above, we discussed developing a communication style that works for you. But the most important thing is that you don’t cling to the same style in every single situation. We’ve already discussed how imperative it is to be able to tailor your approach to individual team members. But that’s true on a larger scale as well.
When leading a presentation, you might go with a concise, descriptive style. When you’re responsible for a significant project, you might lead from the front, being assertive and delegating tasks to others. Conversely, when you’re coaching up a promising team member, you might be warmer and more hands-off.
If you approach every situation with the same style, you may excel in some areas and struggle in others. But the more adaptable you become, the more well-rounded you’ll become in your professional life, and the more responsibilities you’ll be able to handle comfortably.
How to Get Better
Becoming more adaptable is all about being able to get outside your comfort zone. The more often you remain in one place, the more stagnant and inflexible you will become. But if you push your typical limits, you’ll be able to develop a more well-rounded skill set.
A comfort zone is named that way for a reason. It can be unnerving to leave it. But it’s also necessary if you’re going to grow. We recommend pushing yourself outside of your comfort zone in your day-to-day life, whether it’s something as simple as going to a different restaurant for lunch, or something as major as a skydiving trip.
If you grow accustomed to leaving your comfort zone in these areas of your life, you should have an easier time doing so in your professional life as well. And that can pay big dividends.
Speaking of growth, one skill that directly feeds all the rest is to seek feedback from others on your communication style. Sit down with members of your team and ask for an honest evaluation of the way you communicate. Ask for strengths, weaknesses, and what changes they would make if they were you.
That can happen in a casual setting if, for example, you go out to lunch with your team. Or it can be part of a meeting. You can even make it part of a larger team-building activity if you’d like. Regardless, it’s possible you might get completely different results from each person you ask. But hopefully, you will be able to sense an overall pattern, which can inform your path of development.
Reflection can be a powerful tool, but sometimes others can see things that we are simply incapable of seeing ourselves. Taking advantage of the perspective of others can be an irreplaceable tool for personal and professional growth in many areas, not least of which is communication.
How to Get Better
Soliciting feedback in and of itself is a pretty straightforward activity. The difficult part can be, simply enough, just putting yourself out there and doing it.
Asking for other people’s opinions on you can make you feel extremely vulnerable. Hearing our weaknesses can be painful. Just make sure you remind yourself that you’re not doing this to focus on those weaknesses; you’re doing it to give yourself a new opportunity to grow.
A critical thing to keep in mind, though, is that you make sure you ask people you trust to be truthful. If you’re going to solicit feedback from a subordinate, make sure to do so in a situation where they feel comfortable, and understand there will be no repercussions if they are critical. Inaccurate feedback can be useless at best and counterproductive at worst.
When you communicate with your team, it’s important to be honest and truthful. As we touched on above, avoiding critical feedback can prevent growth and development. But even if you mean well, if you’re consistently focusing on areas of improvement, that can gradually wear down morale.
One way to combat this is to make sure to take time to discuss your team member’s positive attributes as well as the negatives. When you notice someone doing something well, don’t just nod and move on. Tell them you noticed! It may seem small, but small things can add up to make a significant difference.
Morale has a tremendous effect on productivity. When someone is in low spirits and feeling unconfident, that can make it significantly more challenging to perform. We all strive to leave our mood at the door when we get to work, but it’s not always possible to do so.
Emphasizing positivity, then, isn’t just an act of charity. It’s a practical effort as well. When you make it a habit to point it out when someone does something right, that helps keep the entire team in higher spirits. And it makes it easier to hear about areas for improvement.
How to Get Better
This one is pretty straightforward; it’s just a matter of making a little effort. You may have to try a little harder to notice when your team members have successes, but you probably already do! So all it takes is a conscious effort to say it out loud when you see it. It costs nothing, and it can make a tremendous difference to the team.
We’ve discussed the fact that leadership-oriented communication has to be a two-way street. And we’ve discussed the overwhelming importance of listening. But sometimes leaders have to take action to ensure that two-way street stays open.
Sometimes, your team may not actively engage with you. That may be out of deference to your position, or simply because they’re feeling a little tired. No matter the reason, it’s on you to change that. If you lead a meeting, take time at the end to ask for questions and comments. That approach dovetails nicely with one of the earlier skills, be direct; if you are more efficient during the meeting, you’ll have spare time in the end to use for this purpose.
Some teams may speak their mind freely, while for others fostering dialogue may be like pulling teeth, Some people are unaccustomed to this type of leadership, as they may come from an organization where open communication is not encouraged. But no matter what, being able to foster dialogue is an important skill, and can give you a much richer perception of your organization.
How to Get Better
Encouraging dialogue can be a subtle exercise. Simply asking “any questions?” at the end of a meeting may come off as rhetorical, and people will think that responding is just going to hold up the rest of the group. Instead, reach out to someone and directly ask them what they think.
That will get the ball rolling, and when you open up the floor, the team will know that the request isn’t an empty one. If that still doesn’t work, you may have to begin on a smaller scale.
Sit down with team members individually and simply talk with them. If someone comes from an organization where open communication isn’t the norm, it might take some extra time to get them out of that mindset. But it can absolutely be worth your while!
The Final Word
Leadership is all about motivating people to do their best in pursuit of a common goal. And despite some common perceptions, effective communication may be the most critical leadership trait.
Thankfully, leadership is something you can learn. Aspiring leaders should devote some time to developing a variety of communication skills. That can help build a foundation upon which great leadership may grow.