I recently read an article in the January 2011 edition of the Leadership Review titled ‘10 communication tips for leaders’ by Mike Myatt. In this article he emphasises how in the classroom we are trained to focus more on annunciation, vocabulary, presence, delivery, grammar, syntax rather than the key elements of becoming a skillful communicator.
He believes that we are taught to focus on ourselves rather than focus more on the subtle elements of communication (the elements that focus on others) that leaders desperately need to learn.
Now, I tend to agree with him particularly when I look at how the leaders of this country communicate with each other and to the people. What separates a good communicator from those who muddle through their interactions with others is the ability to develop a keen external awareness. Thus you must be a good listener and observer.
Developing an understanding of great communication skills is easier than one might think; however, being able to appropriately apply these skills especially in tough situations is not always as easy as one may hope for.
Often, we hear of offensive statements made by our leaders and for which they end up apologising. As a leader, you cannot afford to speak with a forked tongue something majority of our political leaders are known for. People need to be able to trust you so that they can invest time and take risks in ways they would not if their leader had a reputation built upon poor character or lack of integrity. However, it’s sad that regardless of their split tongues, we go ahead to rally behind these same leaders who are out to pursue their own interests rather than the people’s.
Leaders therefore need to communicate with clarity. Simple and concise is always better than complicated and confusing. It is critical that you know how to cut to the chase and hit the high points, and that you expect the same from others. This of course does not include drawing unnecessary comparisons that do not relate to the subject matter. I hate to take you back to one derogatory statement that was made by a Cabinet Minister a few years ago who referred to rape and drawing a parallel to the anti-corruption war. In a situation such as this, those who receive the message are left confused wondering what it is you are implying and end up focusing on the offensive statement. This is just one example and we have seen many others in the political scene.
You need to be able to think out clearly what you are going to say and how people will receive and perceive it in order for your communication to be effective. Always anticipate the end result hence the power of observation and learning to read the mood, dynamics, attitudes and concerns of your audience.
So what are the other elements of communication?
Having an open mind is one key element. As a leader you need to willingly seek out those who hold dissenting opinions and opposing positions with the goal not of convincing them to change their minds, but with the goal of understanding what’s on their mind. This is very important particularly when it comes to dialogue. It will not only challenge you to think beyond but develop your character as a leader as well.
Of course it would be impossible to do this if at all you’re not a good listener; of which majority of our leaders are. Mike Myatt in his article says that when you reach that point in your life where the light bulb goes off, and you begin to understand that knowledge is not gained by flapping your lips, but by removing your ear wax, you have taken the first step to becoming a skilled communicator.
In this day and age of instant communication, everyone seems to be in such a rush to communicate what’s on their mind that they fail to realize that which can be gained from the minds of others even those with opposing views…Keep your eyes and ears open and your mouth shut!
Then again, our leaders are simply interested in broadcasting themselves and their views in a bid to preserve their egos, hence the back and forth we often see from them. Honestly at the end of the day, for most of our leaders, it’s about power; showing the other who’s boss and who can do more for the people. I mean, it’s not that hard to sit down, deliberate, reach compromises and make a decision concerning the nominations of Chief Justice, Attorney General, and the Director of Public Prosecution. Sadly they make it look like rocket science!
I believe that as a leader, you need to replace your ego with empathy so as to begin witnessing change even from those who oppose you. When your words are communicated with empathy and caring and not the prideful arrogance of an over inflated ego, it displays a level of authenticity and transparency and that is what we need to look out for when we elect our next leaders in 2012. Be careful not to let your ego write a cheque your talent cannot be able to cash. Otherwise you my friend, will be left answerable to your own words.
In conclusion, the leadership lesson here is that whenever you have a message to communicate (either directly, or indirectly through a third party) make sure that your message is true and correct, well reasoned, and substantiated by solid business logic that is specific, consistent, clear and accurate. Most important of all, keep in mind that communication is not about you, your opinions, your positions or your circumstances. It’s about helping others by meeting their needs, understanding their concerns, and adding value to their world. I do hope that the future leaders, those we vote for will heed this advice and pay more attention to what they say.