You may have a set image in your mind of what leadership means, but there is no one way to be a leader. There are, however, several consistent characteristics that most great leaders share. Leaders typically have high integrity, confidence, creativity… but above all else, the best leaders are great communicators.
Effective communication has an incredibly wide array of benefits. Just a few of them are improved productivity, boosted morale, more efficient meetings, and more explicit goals.
Leadership styles are incredibly varied, and communication styles can be to the same degree. One of the most critical things for an aspiring leader to do is to find the communication style that works best for them. For some, that may come naturally. But for others, it may take some time to find the right fit.
If you’re looking to develop your leadership skills, communication could be the perfect place to start, and we have your back. Follow along, and we’ll break down what it means to be a leader, how to develop your communication style, and what skills you’ll need to foster to get there. Let’s begin with the basics:
What is Leadership?
Leadership is a concept often discussed, but less often defined. Everyone has an idea in their head of what a leader is. But unless you spell it out, you can wind up with two people having a conversation about two completely different things without even realizing it. So what does it mean to lead?
Let’s begin with where we believe some of those unspoken definitions tend to lead people astray. Many believe that a leader is, naturally enough, the person at the top of the chain of command. Whatever their tactics are, that is simply their leadership style. It’s easy to see why someone might believe this.
And it is indeed true that many great leaders ascend to positions of power. But merely being in a position of authority does not make one a leader. There are plenty of people far up the chain of command, in plenty of organizations, who do not demonstrate leadership skills. Conversely, people much lower in an organizational hierarchy can be great leaders themselves.
Another common misconception is the idea that leaders are always particularly domineering or charismatic. We picture people who achieve leadership through the sheer force of their dominant personalities. And again, there can often be overlap here. But it’s merely a correlation, not causation.
Charisma often exists in connection with other leadership traits, some of which we’ve already mentioned (like confidence) and others we’ll get to later. Being overly forceful and domineering, on the other hand, can actually be an active detriment. Either way, their dominant personality is not the reason they’ve become leaders.
As a matter of fact, leadership isn’t an intrinsic quality at all. It’s not about the leader themselves; it’s about their relationships with other people. We define leadership as the ability to motivate others to perform at their best and pursue a common goal. Both of these aspects (perform at their best; pursue a common goal) are equally important.
While we have a specific definition of what leadership means, there is no single example of what leadership looks like. There are any number of approaches that can achieve those ends. In large part, as we’ve mentioned, it is driven by communication.
The best part is, a leadership communication style is learnable. You may not have a natural style. Or you may even have a natural approach that isn’t particularly effective. But never fear! A communication style is something you can work towards developing over time. And we’re here to help you get started. But first:
What is Communication?
This question is even broader than the one before, so let’s be a bit more specific. What is leadership communication? We know that communication may not be what first comes to mind when you think of leadership. But we genuinely believe that it is one of the most vital qualities of a leader—not just the ability to communicate, but the way you do it as well.
Why is that? Well, let’s circle back to our definition of leadership. Effective communication is absolutely essential to getting a team to work towards a common goal, for a number of reasons. To begin with, communicators are able to get everyone on the same page. If the team doesn’t share a clear, shared understanding of the goal, how are they supposed to work in the same direction?
Further, expert communicators are able to ensure that everyone in each role has clear-cut, actionable goals to be working towards at all times. Leadership is about being direct and setting expectations that can be understood by everyone on the team. That serves both purposes, as it helps boost goal-oriented productivity, and motivates the team by giving them achievable goals rather than nebulous, long-distance targets.
Communication is also a crucial part of building respect between team members and boosting team morale. When those qualities are high, so is motivation. Effective communication ensures team members remain in the loop as much as possible. It also means they feel heard, and that they have an outlet when they’re frustrated.
Leadership Communication Styles
So, now that we’ve covered the basics let’s get into some specifics. What does it mean to have a communication style? Up to this point, we’ve primarily been discussing communication in vague terms, as if it were a single, amorphous concept. But there are countless different ways to communicate.
A leader’s mastery of their communication style can play a significant role in the degree to which their communication is effective. But it’s not always something you’re born with—it’s something that is continually evolving if you’re willing to put in the work.
The best leaders will even have multiple communication styles in their bag. The same method may not always resonate equally with every team member, so having the ability to adapt can be incredibly valuable. Once you know your primary communication style, it can be beneficial to start working on others, to see what else fits.
There are more communication styles than we could ever hope to list, and the techniques of individuals are rarely clear-cut enough to categorize simply. Many may pull features from several different categories on the list below to varying degrees. But here are a few of our favorite archetypes.
The listen-first communicator motivates their team to perform their best because the team members truly feel valued. Listening should be significantly incorporated into everyone’s style. One-way communication isn’t communication at all; it’s dictation.
Listening has no shortage of value to a leader. It is the foundation of healthy, mutually respectful team relationships. Listening isn’t just registering someone else’s words; it means genuinely valuing what someone else has to say. When a team member realizes that you are truly listening to them, that conveys that you respect them. And respect feeds respect.
It’s also just smart practice. A leader who is an expert listener will learn far more about their organization than one who is not. If you don’t actively listen to others, all you have is your perspective of your organization. But when you listen, you have your viewpoint, plus that of your entire team. That gives you a far more profound understanding of the organization and the ability to make more informed decisions.
Further, when your team trusts that you will listen to them, they will be willing to share more than if they don’t. If your team isn’t comfortable being open with you, that makes it significantly more difficult to lead them. Building trust through listening can be one of the best ways to circumvent this pitfall.
Teaching a team member can be incredibly powerful. You can help them to learn a new skill, or develop one where they might be lagging. What does this have to do with communication? The way you frame your teaching effort plays a tremendous role in the way your team member responds.
If you handle it indelicately, attempting to teach someone can make them feel condescended to and discouraged. But if you do it well, they will be excited and grateful. If you’re a good teacher, this is an excellent opportunity for them. The important thing is helping them to see that. So the priority is making them want to learn what you have to teach them.
The most significant difference is whether they feel you are focusing on their weaknesses and poor performance or focusing on a chance to gain new strength. That may seem synonymous, but for some people, it can make an overwhelming difference in their attitude and morale. When you look to teach someone, make sure you focus on the positive.
Over time, if you’re good enough, this will become a self-sustaining machine. Once you develop a reputation as a caring, communicative teacher, you will no longer have to take these initial steps. Your team will understand that you have their best interests in mind, and they will actively seek your mentorship.
Motivating is about driving your team’s engagement and pushing them to perform their best. A common misconception about a motivation-oriented style is that motivators are always cheerleaders. While some people do respond to big, hyped-up motivation styles, some may be unnerved or actively discouraged by it.
The best leaders realize that motivation can be a subtle, understated thing. Sometimes it can be as simple as consistent positive reinforcement. With the right team, a consistent motivational communicational style can keep them level and focused. That can make it the perfect approach for one of the main legs of leadership: pushing others to perform at their best.
A motivational communication style can be particularly essential when your team is in a funk. A motivational leader will make it their priority to get them out of it. But the best motivational leaders will know exactly how. No two teams are alike, and therefore, they will respond to different styles of motivation.
While the stereotypical cheerleading style isn’t always appropriate, that isn’t to say it’s worthless. Some teams need that approach, particularly when faced with a funk, or a particularly big goal. But other teams will prefer even then for their leader to motivate them in more subtle ways. The mark of a motivational communication style, then, isn’t the ability to give the best speeches, but rather the ability to know their team and be versatile.
Here is another style where, like the motivator, pop culture might give you the wrong impression. When you think of coaches in sports, you imagine them pacing the sideline, huffing and puffing, dramatically cheering good plays. But in reality, coaching is all about what goes on behind the scenes, as they develop their players’ skill sets and prepare them for game day.
Coaching is actually much more akin to teaching, with a few key differences but considerable overlap. One of the most significant differences is that teaching can be reactive; you notice an area where a team member is lagging, and you work to help them improve.
Coaching, on the other hand, is proactive. It’s about forming a plan to develop your team members’ skill sets and communicating that plan to them in a clear and actionable way. You want to strive for constant improvement, but not just for the sake of itself. Coaches link the development of the team towards specific, common organizational goals.
The coaching communication style is all about the effective implementation of the plan. Developing a vision for your team is one thing, but that’s meaningless if you can’t communicate it to them. When you can do both, that is the sign of a true leader.
A widespread leadership communication style, assertiveness should not be mistaken for aggressiveness. An aggressive communicator is someone who feels the need to dominate every interaction. They’re loud, they pick unnecessary fights, and they’re continually criticizing, blaming, and intimidating others. You may occasionally see this style from someone high up the chain of command, but this is not leadership.
Assertiveness, on the other hand, can be much more productive. Assertive communicators do not need to put others down because they have confidence in themselves. Assertiveness means leading from the front but maintaining openness and honesty. Aggressive and assertive communicators both tell the team what to do, but assertive communicators also show them how and why.
Another critical attribute of the assertive leader is that they take ownership of their actions—for better and for worse. If you want to take the credit for a positive outcome, you must also accept blame for a suboptimal one. Assertive leaders never shift blame onto the team when things go wrong.
Further, assertive leaders understand the value of morale, but they don’t pamper their team. To be assertive, you can’t be afraid to say no. And while they don’t blame others publicly, they hold everyone to an equally high standard. Behind closed doors, assertive leaders will make it clear when a team member is not performing up to expectations.
Being a directive leader can be extremely valuable, but it can be a thin line to walk, with pitfalls on either side. Directing is very goal and project-oriented, and leading people towards a common goal is one of the core tenets of leadership. Directive communication is about providing a step by step outline to your team for the pursuit of organizational goals.
On the one end, the concern is that you may fall too deep into the project. Managing projects is important, but it isn’t leadership. Leadership is always about people first. When you put everything on your shoulders, you aren’t doing yourself nor anyone else any favors. The people around you are there for a reason. Direct them, but use them.
The other side of the coin is when directive communication crosses the line into dictation. Leading isn’t about giving orders and making sure no one steps outside the lines. Guide your team, and let them do what they do best. The talents of their team are a leader’s greatest asset.
Directive communication can be one of the most effective styles for visionary leaders, who like having a lot on their plate, but understand that they can’t and shouldn’t do everything themselves. If you have a natural vision and see how you would like an entire project to go from the start, use a directive style to communicate your vision for the project to the team, and facilitate them as they get to work.
An advisory leadership style is a hybrid style that can come in handy in a wide array of situations. At its heart, advisory communication is about providing direction and clarity to your team members. You can see how this would have a considerable amount of utility.
Think of an advisory leader as someone in a mentor role. When team members have questions or concerns, they will come to you, and you would provide them with advice and guidance. It’s about removing roadblocks, and ensuring everyone remains on the same page and in high spirits.
Naturally, in order to make use of this style, you need to be in a position to give advice in the first place. That means first establishing a trusting relationship with your team. There are several ways to pursue this end, a few of which we’ve discussed already. But over time, if you respect them and show that you have their interests in mind, they will come to you when in need of guidance.
If this is the type of leader you want to be, an advisory style could be the perfect fit for you. It means communicating in a caring, but thoughtful and objective way. Take a step back and look at your team and organizational goals as if from the outside. That will enable you to give advice that is both warm and accurate.
We finish with a style that is fairly unique and the least common. But in the right circumstances, it can be just as effective as any other. Some might conflate the idea of a passive leader with an absentee manager, or a pushover. But it’s better to reframe your perception of the style as leading from a distance.
Passive leaders aren’t incapable of giving orders and leading from the front. Quite the opposite. They instead just choose not to, unless it is necessary. Rather, passive leadership communication is about empowering the team to make their own decisions and pursue their goals on their own terms—provided they continue to reach the standard that you set.
Some teams will be tremendously motivated by this leadership communication style. It tells them that you have the ultimate trust in them, and they are going to work as hard as possible to live up to that trust. Hands-off leadership also allows teams to act more quickly and be more adaptive since they don’t need to run ideas up the chain of command before implementing them.
Of course, this style is not appropriate for every setting. Teams should only be empowered to this degree if you trust that they will live up to the standard. And a hands-off leader needs to be capable of adjusting to a different style quickly, should the situation call for it. But in the right circumstances, this leadership communication style can be one of the most effective.
Finding Your Leadership Cpmmunication Style
The best leaders can adapt their communication style based on what the situation calls for, and aspiring leaders should strive to reach this level eventually. But most leaders also have a default style, one they are able to rely on in most situations. How did they find it? And what can you do to find yours?
For some people, the style came to them naturally. But to be the best leader possible, you still have to work to cultivate this natural style improve it as best you can. It’s one thing to have a communication style; it’s another thing entirely to be great at it. For other people, though, it’s not as intuitive. Maybe this applies to you. You’re looking to form an identity as a leader, and you want to become a better communicator in the process. But where do you start?
The place to begin is to learn the people with whom you’re going to be working, and see what they do and do not respond to. Leaders lead people, and all people are different. Trial and error can work here. See if any of the styles we listed above appeal to you, and give them a shot. If you notice one particularly resonating, take a moment to think about why it was so effective. And build from there.
The other thing to consider is the type of leader you want to be. If you want to be a team-first mentor, a combination of an advisory style and a hands-off style could fit perfectly. But if you want to be a visionary who leads from the front, those wouldn’t be nearly as appropriate. You might be better suited working on your assertiveness, and cultivating a directive style.
No matter what, though, remember that your leadership communication style should serve and advance your goals, not the other way around.
The Final Word
Leadership can be a very nebulous term, one about which many people have several counterproductive misconceptions. Simply being in charge does not make you a leader by default. Nor does being a forceful, charismatic personality. True leadership is something much deeper than these surface-level misconceptions.
Leadership is an outward-facing characteristic. It is about motivating people to perform their best and pursue a common goal. And while there are countless ways to lead, they all require strong communication skills. If this is not something that comes naturally to you, don’t worry, because it’s a learnable attribute. But its importance cannot be overstated.
Leadership-oriented communication keeps everyone on the same page, making sure goals and expectations are clear. Further, it can help to boost morale and build trust and respect within the team. And there are a number of different ways to do it. We’ve broken down some of our favorite communication styles, but it’s rare for a leader to communicate solely within one single archetype.
Indeed, most people’s default styles will be hybrids of several that we mentioned above or something different entirely. The most important thing, though, is the ability to adapt. Just because you’ve found a leadership communication style that worked in one situation doesn’t mean you’ll be able to use it without fail for the rest of your career.
Leadership, at its core, is about the effect you have on other people. If a trusted style isn’t resonating with a new team, a poor leader will question what’s wrong with the team. But a great leader will question what adjustments they can make themselves to communicate better.