Leadership and communication

Communication is paramount for a leader. Good leaders have always been excellent communicators. In the previous chapter we touched the essentials of communication: we know that your personal leadership style, and accordingly your personal communication style, are the only possible models for leadership and communication, not because leadership is divine and unrepeatable but because leadership is uniquely individual and despite the many modern attempts to sell you styles and methods, it remains uniquely individual. Exactly like a beautiful love story cannot be repeated, a magnificent leadership story cannot be repeated. However, what makes a leader can be learned so that it will produce innumerable unique leadership stories.

     Yet, once we have understood the leader’s higher approach to communication in which the leader basically has to communicate inspiration in order to create that deep trust and relationship that will eventually fully involve people in the leader’s vision, we can now observe what is leadership communication in an organization in the day to day running activity. Being communication such an important aspect of leadership, it is beneficial to dedicate some time to this level of detail. Communication is so important for an organization that I should dedicate an entire book only to this theme, but I will try to condense here a few principles.

     A high level of communication in an organization is an advantage, both for internal processes and for external relations. Whatever the message, it passes clear and strong, whatever the brand, its identity and role are well defined. A high level of communication is an advantage also because it secures that the leader’s vision is clearly understood, discussed and shared, it tightens the bonds between leader and team, it accelerates the team’s ordinary activities and problem-solving processes and it facilitates the organization’s adaptation to constantly changing environments and situations on the way to the goal. 

     While communication was initially considered by many a soft skill, today communication skills are becoming a major criterion to evaluate a leader, starting from the hiring process. A leader with a high profile of communication skills is capable of motivating, inspiring and generating trust within the group. These three vital elements for an organization require from the leader both action and adaptation. 

     The adaptation effort of the leader requires constantly taking into account the emotions, the acumen and the knowledge level of the receiver in order to align the communication level to the receiver. Further effort requires the leader to constantly keep all doors open, no matter the communication or non-communication level of the receiver. The leader needs to learn to listen. Listening doesn’t mean simply giving time or words to the other, it should instead be considered a technique. Listening means letting the other understand that you are thoroughly following their approach and that you do not have preclusions or pre-judgements. Listening also means that you have time to take mental (or physical) notes of the relevant points arisen by the other, understand how the other structured his or her approach to the situation, and dedicate your answer not to the details but directly to the structure of the other’s reasoning. The listening process allows the leader to observe attitudes and behavior, ideals, anxieties of each member of the team, aligning the leader’s message accordingly. The adaptation effort by the leader relevantly contributes to building trust between leader and team. 

     The leader’s action is based on the information the leader acquired during the listening process and during the process of connecting the team to himself or herself and to the vision. By observing the team’s reaction to this ‘stimulating’ process, the leader can obtain relevant information regarding the team, their approach and competence.

     The leader’s action consists in establishing and nurturing appropriate principles, discipline and develop a sense of belonging to the organization and responsibility toward the project. The leader’s tools here are trust and appropriate communication. A leader should never aim at communicating principles, responsibility or belonging as concepts. In fact, they should never even be mentioned. They are the natural consequence of a team tightly running toward a common objective. The leader aims at the final result, the vision and the action necessary to reach that target and the common effort to reach it. 

     The leader’s action requires controlling that the communication process is continuous, ensures the correct atmosphere to promote and facilitate understanding and constantly alternates both a formal and informal approach: while the formal approach is a slow process that regards planned moments of sharing of the information, the informal approach is a fast, direct approach that often brings to surface issues difficult to communicate in formal situations, both ways. The leader should always encourage and accept informal communication and, if possible, use his or her communication skills to convey the issues at a higher level in the formal communication. 

     The distinction between formal and informal communication, though still valid, is progressively phasing-out in favor of a unique, essentially direct, communication approach, which does not consider useful separating levels. This phasing-out is accelerated by new communication technologies. Institutions or Governments are slower than organizations to follow this change even though they are relying more often in new technologies and social sites, adopting accordingly their peculiar language. The language of communication technology and software tends to uniform everybody to this simplified and direct communication style, removing the formal/informal distinction.

Virtual teams’ communication

     Virtual team are growing fast and spreading in organizations. Leadership of virtual teams should have a separate consideration. Virtual teams or organizations face particular challenges, the most relevant being in my view geographical, temporal, cultural and organizational challenges. It is clear that the leader cannot guide the team in the same way as a traditional group.

     A virtual team has the advantage that members can be picked up anywhere in the world. Sometimes high-profile competencies have higher negotiation power with the organization and are less available to move. This in fact brings an advantage to the organization which, through a virtual team, is able to hire the best competency in the world and appoint a high-profile team, on the other hand the disadvantage for the organization is that the team ends up scattered around the world. This disadvantage can be transformed into an opportunity for the organization. The geographical challenge brings a temporal challenge which limits the team’s interaction opportunity to each individual’s time zone. These two challenges bring along the question of the availability of the leader: traditionally the leader should be available to the team and in regular contact. I don’t see any problem in these challenges since they can be compensated with a strong and enhanced focus on the objective and the charisma exerted by the leader. As for cultural diversity this is an issue that, for instance, top US organizations already addressed effectively and that can be further addressed by a leader supporting a strong organization, or project, identity. This develops a sense of belonging and recognition in all members of the team, potentially solving the cultural gap generated by a virtual team. The gap can also be addressed by a company policy that pushes for an enlarged multicultural team that definitely smooths out cultural diversity. Finally, organizational challenges should be addressed by the leader using his or her charisma and vision: the leader should project all team members towards the future and the objectives. This approach moves everybody’s focus in the appropriate direction, compensating organizational challenges. In conclusion, the reinforcement of relations through a stronger feeling of focus, a stronger project identity, a stronger sense of belonging and cultural inclusion, actually determine an advantage for the project and for the organization.

     Communication is always interrelated to leadership and a leader should always have an open and fluid approach. Communication should always adapt to the intellectual level of the team but should consider this level is constantly changing – maturity of the team, ability to handle complex situations, understanding of the target and difficulties related to obtaining the target, ability to respond to emotional influences, dedication, reaction to new variables in the team’s balance, and so on – communication should adapt constantly and accordingly to the situation. Taking into account all the above, it is clear that one major skill of the leader is improvisation: it allows the leader to handle all the possible variables, expected and unexpected, that occur during the journey. Improvisation is a world in itself that requires high competency and knowledge of communication skills from the leader, coupled with self-confidence. A leader using appropriately improvisation is able to communicate with an authenticity that no other communication technique can reach, deeply involving all the team.

     Leader’s confidence should be considered a major driving force in communication. The receiver immediately senses this and the foundations for an open and correct communication process are laid.