I’ve spent the last month thinking about leadership – analysing how leaders communicate, in preparation for my slot at the new PRCA Leadership Academy last week. It’s been fascinating to unpick what these individuals (who need to persuade, motivate, challenge and nurture us) actually do and say to earn our respect and trust and confidence. It turns out to be a package of behaviours and habits and mind set.
Which is great news for us because it means we can take small, practical steps towards becoming the leader lurking within us. We can take control of our own leadership potential.
Listening is of course one of our most valuable communication tools, in many contexts, but particularly in meetings. Good leaders give others space to speak; they create a supportive and collaborative atmosphere in which even introverts might be empowered to contribute. Bill Krause, former CEO of tech giant 3Com was once observed scribbling on a pad throughout a meeting. When asked what he was writing, he revealed that it was three letters – DNT – over and over. He explained that they stood for Do Not Talk – the act of writing them being a way of avoiding his tendency to interrupt people and dominate the conversation.
LEADERS ARE SKILLED AT SMALL TALK
Proper listening (rather than waiting to speak) is also a key element in being good at, and feeling confident about, small talk and networking. Leaders recognise how important ‘rapport talk’ is in building relationships and trust with clients and colleagues. They have techniques for starting, sustaining and ending conversations. If you worry about a conversation drying up, try listening out for a ‘stepping stone’ as the other person is speaking – a new topic which you can introduce once the previous subject has reached a natural conclusion. Knowing which ‘stone’ you’re moving on to will give you the security to relax into the conversation and perhaps even enjoy it!
LEADERS PRESENT WELL
When they communicate with us in a formal setting, leaders make us feel valued, motivated, excited and perhaps even proud. They hold our attention – no mean feat in an age when there’s evidence to suggest that many human beings struggle to concentrate for more than 8 seconds. They also make us feel safe. Simon Sinek is interesting on this (https://www.ted.com/talks/simon_sinek_why_good_leaders_make_you_feel_safe/discussion?languagetr) They know that great presentations don’t happen by chance so they prepare and rehearse. Steve Jobs was legendary for his approach to preparation and rehearsal (https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/6908348-the-presentation-secrets-of-steve-jobs). They pay attention to clarity, structure, choreography and performance (verbal and non verbal techniques). And they work hard to resonate with their audience. Great leaders know it’s not about them.
LEADERS LEAN IN TO CHALLENGE
Many people struggle to deal with challenge. They fear the moment their opinion/position/expertise is queried. They dread losing control. Great leaders welcome challenge as an opportunity to learn something new or to test their thinking or broaden their horizons. This is, I believe, our toughest communication skill because it requires a change in mind set at the point when the challenge is made. Instead of responding with resentment or fear or impatience, if we can react with respect and curiosity, everything will flow better from there – tone, body language, content. By acknowledging their entitlement to make the challenge, we can better address the question and diffuse potential hostility.
LEADERS AREN’T AFRAID OF DIFFICULT CONVERSATIONS
Whether it’s reprimanding someone for a misdemeanour or setting performance goals, leaders are often required to have difficult conversations. For many this is a new and daunting communication challenge. Good leaders manage these situations with clarity of message, unemotional language and tone, empathy and strong listening skills. They know the difference between assertive and aggressive, and they are focused on a resolution rather than victory at the other person’s expense. For aspiring leaders, these conversations can be carefully prepared and rehearsed to build confidence and help minimise emotion. If the words are said out loud in advance of the meeting, they really do lose their potency.
So, as the attendees at the Leadership Academy discovered last week, confidence and skill in communication is not a mystical force field. Nor is it something you’re necessarily born with. Even if you’re naturally extrovert, you still have to learn the ‘technical’ tools of effective communication. Roger Federer still has a coach. Mozart, born with immense natural musical talent still had to learn how to actually play the piano. So, for those who have leadership aspirations, why not make a start today? Let’s pick up the racquet, find middle C ……….