A leader without followers is just going for a walk. He or she doesn’t operate in a vacuum. He is leading a project, a mission – a challenge. He needs to carefully plan the mission, what the organisation is trying to achieve. And then he has to communicate to everyone involved in the mission what he expects of each one of them, and what they are going to achieve. He needs to do it in the simplest terms and he needs to do it regularly.
The leader must discipline himself to set down the intent and to make it as clear and unambiguous as possible. Lord Dannatt, the former Chief of the General Staff, the professional head of the army thinks success all comes down to the personality of the leader, and that is all about character and integrity. “Success in the enterprise will be defined by the followers… who will look at the leader and decide whether this is the kind of person that they’re attracted to, whether this leader is the kind of person that they want to follow. Their understanding of that person’s integrity will actually determine the degree of enthusiasm with which they follow that person. Is that person to be trusted? So communication and character are both really important.”
Keeping the objective simple and focused is key to good communication and the success of a project. When Michael Howard, the then Home Secretary, was trying to find someone to do a review of the Prison Service, the service had 19 objectives. How does that work? How can you focus on 19 objectives? The leader must keep it simple with a clear and direct statement of what is to be achieved. The task of any leader is to inspire others to follow in order to achieve great results. It sounds simple and straightforward but leaders today are operating in an incredibly demanding environment, where life moves at an incredible speed. How do you capture hearts and minds when life moves so swiftly and when it is unlikely that a leader will have been taught critical communication skills?
Leadership today is a product of our times. A leader can be inhibited and overwhelmed by the constant scrutiny and the desire for instant communication. He or she can be put off by the sheer volume of interactions in an increasingly transparent world. It can constrain his or her actions. Or he or she can embrace it. He can see digital communication as an opportunity to engage regularly with employees who will deliver projects, or with the company’s customers who choose to buy the company’s products. This new environment that businesses operate in makes leadership much harder. Most communications are not fit for purpose in the Facebook, Twitter, blog and 24/7 newsworld. Leaders now operate much closer to the precipice. Reputation has always been important. Today is no different but in today’s world it can be lost in seconds, as news can travel across continents in seconds. Whatever you are doing, it can be caught on CCTV, Youtube and mobile phones and circulated instantly. But also there is the opportunity. It is now so much easier to build your brand and get your message across.
Being a leader more than ever means looking, acting, talking and walking like a leader. Many leaders forget that they are in a fishbowl and are being constantly observed. Great leaders communicate optimism and enthusiasm. They do it sometimes just with a smile, or an energy in their walk or the way they stand. They do it by ensuring their words and their actions are consistent. They do it by showing that they care, not just for profit, but for their people too. Leaders who can achieve that are very infectious. Kevin Murray in his book ‘The Language of Leaders’, quotes the ideals of Ayman Asfari; Group Chief Executive of Petrofac Limited. Asfari is clear that being a leader means that you have to have integrity, and ensure that everything that you say or do is important, and that such values are replicated in your work and your personal life. You have to be above reproach. That can sometimes mean communicating difficult messages to your team, such as a change in your strategy, and having the conviction to communicate these decisively and with clarity.
But if communication is so important to leadership, it begs the question why there is so little training. Leaders often complain about the lack of communication skills of their managers who do not communicate key messages or who put a ‘spin’ on messages when they deliver them. But very little training is ever given to what is becoming an increasingly important area of any business.Learning to communicate; learning to listen, should come much higher up the agenda in the training schedule of a managers’ development.
By Darryl Cooke