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The Most Important Job of a Leader
It sounds simple, but it takes work
“Making a film means, first of all, to tell a story. That story can be an improbable one, but it should never be banal. It must be dramatic and human. What is drama, after all, but life with the dull bits cut out?” — Alfred Hitchcock, 1962
I work with a lot of leaders, at all different levels of organizations and at different stages of their careers. And what separates the great from the good is one simple thing.
They’re great communicators.
That may sound oversimplified and trite, but time and again, I’ve seen the difference between poor communication and effective communication.
To be clear, it’s not simply a matter of constant emails, voicemails or meetings. The content of the communication and the way people perceive it matters the most.
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What Are You Communicating?
Before we get into the hows of good communication, let’s first cover the what.
You may be thinking: every organization is different! What I communicate about isn’t going to be the same as someone else. And in the most detailed sense, you’re right.
At the macro level though, it’s all the same: communicate the vision.
Without a clearly stated vision, there is no sense as to where the company is going. A vision is your North star.
It needs to be repeated constantly, everywhere and every time there’s a communication, whether it’s a meeting, an email and anywhere else you’re gathering.
Clarity and consistency in your vision make all the difference as a communicator.
The Great Communicator
Politics and policies aside, Ronald Reagan stands out as one of the best communicators we’ve ever had in the White House.
Like Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he knew the power of speaking directly to people — FDR used the radio for his fireside chats; Reagan was a television man.
Reagan’s skill was more than being a Hollywood star, though. He knew how to move people through stories. He educated his audiences using memorable and simple examples, bringing his ideas to life by illustrating these situations vividly.
And he did so with great regularity. Speeches, press conferences, televised statements — at every turn he repeated his vision and invited his audience on a journey with him as he painted an image recognizable to all. Words were his medium, stories were his canvas.
How to be a Great Communicator
How can you communicate like a Reagan or an FDR? There are a handful of elements that can help you become even better at what you do.
Get out of your zone
Bill Hewlett, founder of Hewlett-Packard, knew there was no substitute for personal involvement, so he believed in MBWA: management by walking around.
Leaders are often holed up in meetings and invisible to their teams. It’s critical to come out of your sanctum and mix with people, talk with them, and understand what’s going on directly from them.
Our remote and hybrid workplaces make this all the more critical. While video calls aren’t the same as physical presence, they’re better than emails and better still than instant messages or no communication at all.
When there’s radio silence, people begin to get ideas. And more often than not, they get negative ideas — even when there’s nothing to indicate something negative.
You can avoid this by filling the silence. It doesn’t have to be a constant drone, but it should at least be done with regularity. All the better if there’s a consistency to it, so you build expectations.
Keep it simple
Short, simple messages tend to stick with people. You don’t need to be Tolstoy (because frankly, he was a drag, and people tend to skim over long communications).
The other thing about simplicity: people inherently trust it more. They can see you’re not hiding anything.
We think so much about outgoing communication that the incoming portion tends to get ignored. And yet, study after study finds people think more highly of people who take the time to listen to them.
Know how to listen — not just waiting to speak, but truly taking in information and processing it. And let people know youre interested in listening by asking for feedback and acting on that feedback.
Show and tell
Storytelling is the most compelling way to bring people along.
Make a point and breathe life into it by illustrating it with a story. Because stories are inherently memorable, a good story well-told will help your team remember the points you were making.
Match words with actions
Let’s face it: you can be the most gifted storyteller, a virtuoso with s speech, but if you don’t live up to your words, you may as well not have communicated at all.
In some ways, actions are even more powerful, because people are observing you even when you’re not trying to say anything. They’ll see the true you at work.
I have more to say about this, but we’ll pause here for now.
That’s a lot to take in!
But it’s a winning formula for leaders who want to be successful.
Stay tuned for a follow-up piece where I’ll share five behaviors that you can work on as a leader.
Meanwhile, get out there and communicate!
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.