This is the third in a series of three articles dedicated to the wonderful men and women who likely have not read the latest bestseller on leadership but still get up every morning committed to making a real difference in the work, careers, and lives of others. This series will explore the universal, timeless principles that determine how great leaders think, act, and interact.
Interactions that Matter
One of the hallmarks of good leaders is that they see every conversation as an occasion to have a positive impact on the other person. The project review, the staff meeting, the development planning session, the information request, even the hallway conversation—all present the possibility of increasing alignment, engagement, and commitment.
When great leaders interact with others, things happen! People become engaged. Teams gel. Customers are served. Problems are solved. Ideas are surfaced. Such is the power of interactions with leaders who are intentional about using every such occasion to advance their and the other person’s agenda.
As James C. Humes wrote, “Every time you speak, you are auditioning for leadership.” We should hold leaders to a much higher standard of communication than others. Most managers focus primarily on efficiently and accurately conveying information in their interactions with others.
Good leaders do more; they communicate in ways that get people to think and act differently and in concert with other team members. They create not just understanding, but action. In fact, leaders should be judged not by their performances as communicators but, rather, by the performance of those who hear them.
Think about your interactions. Do others leave more inspired, more productive, and more innovative because of what you communicate? Are you simply an efficient transmitter of information, or are others changing the way they think and act as a result of time spent with you?
Fortunately, there are three observable and learnable practices leaders at all organization levels can employ to significantly increase the impact of what they say to others. They need to connect with others on a Personal level, present an enticing image of the Future, and articulate a compelling organization Story in which everyone has a starring role.
Personal. All communication is personal. For the leaders, there is no such thing as communication that is strictly business. Unless the listener decides to allow the leaders’ words to touch them personally, their words simply become a part of the organizational noise. Picture others with a remote control in their hands. They can shut you off at any point when you no longer are able to keep the personal connection open.
Good leaders communicate to us personally. Whether they are speaking to one person or a thousand, they are able to connect with each as individuals. They recognize that others are listening through lenses shaped by their own interests and values, and they make it their job to illuminate these elements in their communication. They share their own driving passions and most exciting aspirations. They make others feel valued and uniquely important in the briefest of conversations.
Future. Good leaders invite others to join them in pursuit of a tomorrow that is better than today. Confidence and optimism are apparent in all of their communication. Their positive, enthusiastic view of the future is obvious in everything they say, whether it is ordering office supplies or presenting corporate strategy.
They are, however, not simply arm-waving cheerleaders. They view their role as one of advancing the organization along the continuum of time. They see the organization’s future as an extension of its history and current state of affairs. In their interactions with others, they find opportunities to honor the heroes and victories of the past, give voice to the realities of the present (both harsh and positive), and invite others to join them on the organization’s path forward.
Story. Every interaction with a good leader is a chapter in a story. Leaders craft big stories for their teams and organizations not just to be entertaining or engaging. They do so because this is the only way humans can think and relate to one another.
As Isak Dinesen wrote, “To be a person is to have a story to tell.” We see the world (and our jobs) through stories. It is through stories that we can connect to an organization’s mission and plans. Good leaders make these plans come alive through rich, engaging stories that capture our attention. Most importantly, they help others connect their personal stories with the organization’s story and enhance both in the process. And when they help us see our own starring role in the stories, they elicit our very best efforts.
Leadership communication is less about the efficient transmission of information and much more about the impact it has on others. The challenging question for all who seek to lead is this: “Are the members of my team or organization more aligned, more committed and more engaged because of their interactions with me?”
Fortunately, good leadership communication is not the exclusive domain of a gifted, charismatic few. It is well within the reach of all who care enough about others to connect with them personally, to share their most hopeful view of the future, and to craft a compelling story that provides a special sense of meaning and purpose.