Communication a Foundation of Leadership

Communication is Multifaceted
Leaders have to master communication. In its simplest form communication is the ability to outline the actions a team or group must take to carry out a task.  This sounds simple yet outlining actions also requires that a leader outline their values, expectations and the reason for the action to be taken.  In fact the greater the scope of leadership responsibility the more complex the layers of communication become so that verbal and symbolic multilayered communication is critical for the success of the organization.

Symbolic communication (also called non-verbal communication) incorporates a leader’s tone of voice, facial expressions, posture, clothing and the environment in which the communication transpires (e.g., a board room, a break room, the hallway etc.).  If not understood, symbolic communication projects a message that actually contradicts or undermines verbal communication.  One CEO had turned around the financial position of his company.  On the brink of bankruptcy when he accepted the position the company had made up its deficits under his watch and gained  recognition as a model institution.  Employees were encouraged to know that their jobs were safe.

However, when the CEO walked out of his office on day in an unguarded moment without greeting employees in the hallway as he rushed to grab lunch prior to an afternoon appointment rumors started swirling that the company was about to go under.  He was angry and shocked when the rumors resulted in a string of resignations and panic.  What happened?  The fact he failed to engage employees in the hallway made him seem detached and worried.  Employees assumed by his symbolic communication (unintentional as it was) that he had been less than truthful about the extent to which the institution turned around.  It took him weeks and a concerted effort to undo his one thoughtless walk from his office to the cafeteria. What did he learn? He said, “I have to disengage from the analytical thinking I do in my office so that I can engage my employees and allow these casual encounters to reflect the values and the stability of the company I talk about in our employee meetings.”

Deficiency in how a leader communicates is one of the most common complaints I run across when working with organizations experiencing difficulty in meeting performance goals. Poor communication is often characterized by the employees and volunteers we interview as one way, last-minute, manipulative, unclear, demeaning, and self-indulgent.

What makes up good communication?  In working with leaders across a variety of industries and non-profits I have defined four components of effective communication: transparency, responsiveness, authenticity and apprehension.  These components are defined in Table 1.

Table 1: Components of Effective Communication

Component Characteristics
Transparency Communication the meaning of which is clear whether verbal or written and carries a sense of honesty and professionalism.  It is direct in that it communicates to the source never via another (never triangularly).
Responsiveness Aware of the moment, fully present personally as is evident in active listening, requests for feedback, reflective responses (mirroring), inquiry and consistent/appropriate follow up.
Authenticity Treating others with respect, sensitive to others’ needs, feelings, and points of view.  It is communication that is tactful, characterized in active listening and open (i.e., appropriately vulnerable).
Apprehension Communication that is perceptive, comprehending characterized by behaviors that challenge ideas not people, attacks the problem not the person, effective negotiation and constructive conflict resolution.

The data categorized in Table 1 derive from two data tables in a qualitative questionnaire I use when assessing organizations. Engaging in communication is not just delivering a message it is engaging in a series of exchanges both verbal and symbolic (non-verbal) that make sure that the message received by those who are listening is verifiably close to the intended communication action.

Remember that facial expressions, body posture, context, delivery cadence, tone of voice, and pauses designed for others to express various forms of feedback are all part of the act of communication.

Impact of Deficient Factors Illustrated

In one large metropolitan school district a department suffered a severe loss of morale and productivity.  When I tabulated the data from our interviews with their employees and the questionnaire we used to evaluate their operation a distinct pattern emerged that illustrated a gap in communication (see Figure 1).  This gap resulted in part from the director’s devaluation of communication in all its factors.   He equated communication with staccato instructions and complaints about poor performance.  His communication style when viewed by others demonstrated that he was somewhat clear in the meaning of his words but consistently failed to communicate authenticity, apprehension and responsiveness.  He gave one way commands.

Figure 1: Leadership Communication Factors (Data Table A)

As is clear in Figure 1 the director of the department scored highest in transparency and lowest in apprehension.  His communication illustrated a focus on delivering data (technical facts).  He avoided emotional connections to the point employees felt contempt from him. After identifying the deficiency in apprehension, authenticity and responsiveness I interviewed the director to uncover the source of the contempt.  He had little patience for those who did not share his level of technical expertise.  This intolerance of technical imperfection expressed itself in mistrust and emotional detachment.  While his facts were correct (his employees truly did not share his level of technical expertise) he alienated his entire department and lacked the ability to inspire anything but mistrust or fear.

As a result of the directors assumptions about communication conversation in his department consistently took on a disrespectful and combative tone.  Employee comments in the questionnaire confirmed that the department lacked constructive conflict resolution strategies.  The director and his reports exhibited a tendency to personalize challenges and not concrete issues on the one hand. On the other hand the director’s emotional detachment de-personalized people and remained emotionally detached to even when facing the most sensitive of staff issues.

The employees scored themselves as higher in authenticity and lower in transparency, a reversal of the trend seen in the leaders’ scores (Cf. Figures 1 & 2).  This reversal was interesting especially in light of the fact everyone in the department leader and follower both shared virtually the same level of development in apprehension and responsiveness.  It may be that these two communication traits are tied directly to the size and age of an organization while transparency and apprehension are tied to the personal skill development of the people within the department.

By this I do not mean that apprehension and responsiveness are not a factor of personal development but that they are required in greater measure in more complex and larger organizations.  The reversal evident between authenticity and transparency is a classic pattern of behavior when leaders want to talk facts (denying the human factor) and employees or volunteers want to talk about people needs (often denying the facts).

Figure 2: Employee Communication Factors (Data Table D)

How is Your Communication?

Test your communication as a leader in several ways.  First, ask whether the behavior of your team is consistent to your message?  When behaviors align with what you thought you communicated there is a good chance you communicated clearly and consistently over time.

Second review the factors above and ask yourself how you think you do.  Do these factors enter your consideration when you plan communication?

Third, ask people around you to rate your effectiveness in each of these four factors.  Ask people who are neither intimidated by your position nor biased to your role.

Leaders can develop more effective communication skills.  I have found that practicing a more transparent and responsive approach to communication is important to achieving a greater level of self-motivation and goal ownership among staff and volunteers as well as a greater degree of efficiency in daily operations because it encourages learning conversations, clear and timely performance feedback and recognition of a job well done. Each of these factors contributes to employees’ sense of contribution and commitment. Like all other leadership disciplines and practices communication needs planning, evaluation and practice.


Shaping Leaders through Experience, Transitions, and Challenges

I saw it in a two friends one is a CEO one is a COO.  We had not talked for over a year as I was buried in my academic program and they were both transferred to new assignments.  When I caught up to these friends of mine I was frankly astonished at how they had changed.  They both possessed a measurable growth and depth in their confident demeanor and aura of authority.  I wasn’t seeing arrogance or self promotion.  They carried themselves with a sense of confident purpose that they had not previously exhibited.
The change was so noticeable I shared my observation and asked them what they thought contributed to the change I was seeing.  Both described how entering a new and more challenging situation opened up new ways of seeing themselves.  Their new assignments had required that they step into a new sense of situational awareness, self-confidence and growing competence as leaders.

These men had been through a boundary in their development.  The change each of these men faced was not easy both assignments required that they alter the trajectory of failing organizations.  They both had to step in to difficult situations, use their experience to size up the problems and outline the steps needed to bring change.  They had to move quickly to stop the hemorrhage of cash and talent.  Neither one really had the time to second guess their actions until after the changes had taken place.

A boundary represents a point at which a leader faces the necessity of moving to depth in: skills, perspective or self-awareness to continue in and grow in effectiveness.  Facing these barriers means that leaders have the opportunity to:[1]

  • Bring to closure recent experiences – closure identifies significant lessons and allows the person to move forward.
  • Deepen relationship to God or spiritual depth – growing in spiritual depth or relationship to God does not result in religious weirdness it results in a clearer picture of purpose, moral fabric and awareness of others’ current and potential contribution.  One of my friends identifies himself as a Christian the other does not. But both describe a deeply spiritual experience in the challenges they faced.
  • Expand perspective to see new things – without the challenge of barriers or challenges people often tend to plateau in their growth.  I am reminded of the now proverbial definition of insanity attributed to Peter Drucker i.e., doing the same activity over and over expecting different results.
  • Make decisions that launch a new phase of development – this development extends to everyone within reach of the leader’s influence.  The entire organization benefits when leaders successfully navigate the barriers to their personal growth.

Leaders develop through their careers through boundary events characterized in one of three ways. Boundary events are either powerfully formative or devastatingly destructive.  It is not the experience itself that determines the outcome in leaders lives.  Individual choices determine the outcomes of these boundary experiences.  Outcomes are not inherent in the experience itself.[2]

New Experience – defined as being thrust into new terrain – an overseas assignment, unexpected turn of events in business or family life, new social or organizational role etc.  The challenge in new experience is to overcome disorientation and weave it into one’s own experiential tapestry and not be consumed by it.  Both friends of mine made this kind of choice. As a result they found themselves not only challenged but also enjoying their work.  Be aware of the frame through which you view new experiences.  Your first impressions will most likely be wrong. Ask questions.  Learn to rely on others, gain common ground by telling stories and encouraging others to share their views. Remember that events may conspire to make you a leader more than any inherent talent or unique ability.

Setback – loss or failure that is profoundly disruptive and bewildering – what was permanent is transient what was believed is questioned. The challenge in setbacks is to see one’s situation in a fundamentally new – and more comprehensive – way.  Seeing this bigger picture is often tremendously freeing.  A more comprehensive perspective introduces new opportunities and options that were previously hidden by the individual’s short-sightedness.  In today’s difficult economic environment setbacks are common.  What is not as common is watching people use setbacks to define a new sense of meaning and purpose and skill.

Deferral – an unanticipated hiatus during which routines are set aside, sometimes forcibly, and replaced with regimented structure or no structure at all.   Deferrals challenge leaders to clarify or create their personal mission and purpose; to cement their foundational beliefs and values.  These foundational beliefs and values are critical to shaping organizational culture, creating powerful delegation and unleashing innovation.

The significance of identifying boundaries is twofold.  First, experiencing boundaries is normal and is not a sign of fate aligned against the person.  I do occasionally meet people so narcissistic they believe that everything and everyone is against them – effective leaders do not have time for such self-absorption. Second, boundaries tend to cluster around specific periods of development. New territory boundaries seem to cluster in early career, reversals tend to cluster in mid-carrier and suspension seems to cluster around later career.  Even though this clustering pattern is clear it is not absolute – all three boundary experiences are present at any time.  But recognizing the clustering pattern does help leaders (1) recognize boundaries to development sooner and (2) expect their arrival to capitalize on the learning experience sooner.

The question then is how do you handle your boundary times? Do new experiences, setbacks or deferred hopes collapse your personal sense of purpose and emotional resilience?  Or do you use these boundary times to engage learning and development to see new things about yourself and your situation?  It takes a certain amount of courage to face change I saw this courage in my friends.  In fact I was a little envious of the difficulties they had been through.  I liked the men and the leaders they had become…I embrace my own boundary times in hope that my own growth will be as evident to others as my friends’ growth is to me.  If you are stuck in a boundary experience it is time to talk to someone about it.  Don’t let a boundary undo you – make it work for you.

[1] J Robert Clinton. Leadership Emergence Theory: A Self-Study Manual for Analyzing the Development of the Christian Leader (Pasadena, CA: Barnabas Resources, 1989).

[2] Robert J. Thomas. Crucibles of Leadership: How to Learn from Experience to Become a Great Leader (Boston, MA: Harvard Business Press, 2008).

Servant Leadership and Corporate Social Responsibility

Servant Leadership Acts in the Tensions of Parallel Demands

In his series of essays on Servant Leadership Robert Greenleaf clearly states the thesis he wished to support in expanding the idea of servant leadership,

If a better society is to be built, one more just and caring and providing opportunity for people to grow, the most open course, the most effective and economical way, while supportive of the social order, is to raise the performance as servant of as many institutions as possible by new voluntary regenerative forces initiated within them by committed individuals – servants.[1]

Greenleaf clearly discounts two popular assumptions of his day: (1) that it is impossible to negotiate a balance between economy and society and (2) that moral reasoning (the basis of ethical decision making) has no place in economic and business policy decision-making.

Are economic factors simple objective truths divested of moral/social concerns?  If the interests of both workers and shareholders are directly dependent on the success of the corporation then such a dichotomy is untenable not only in light of issues of legal compliance but also in the larger ethical issues the determine how grey areas of legality and social responsibility are addressed.  A greater responsibility among leaders (representatives of capital) exists to make sure that the social/political aspects of worker interests are sufficiently addressed in the process of wealth creation for the corporation.

This is not a demand that business leaders be limited by the emotionally immature.  If the interests of labor and capital are  de facto included in the success of the corporation’s ability to successfully navigate an independent economic reality then it is imperative that the corporation engage in wealth-creation, innovation and opportunity with the utmost flexibility in light of the changing economic environment with the hope that the benefits will always exceed the costs exacted socially.  To accept the idea of independent economic realities does not mean one must shun engagement with the social costs inherent in the quest for flexibility.  In fact to shun the social costs ultimately undermine the capacity of flexibility needed to maintain a thriving organization.  Greenleaf asked:

In an imperfect world, some will continue to be hurt…But, as my concern for servanthood has evolved, the…more prominent…my…self-questioning…. Could I have been more aware, more patient, more gentle, more forgiving, more skillful?[2]

The concept of servant leadership places the leader squarely in two parallel concerns (1) development and deployment of the corporation’s wealth generating ability and (2) training and enhancement of the talent needed to respond to new market demands. The concept of servant leadership follows the assumption that corporate flexibility necessitated by independent economic factors demands an equally flexible workforce.  Labor must also exercise flexibility characterized by an attitude that accepts the inevitability of the market economy and thus remains mobile, multi-skilled, and always learning.  Job security is not framed as a consistent source of employment but the consistent ability to adapt to new workforce demands on skills and attitudes driven by new economic realities.

The idea of flexibility not only alters the corporation’s stance to the present it alters the workers stance in the present as well and significantly enlarges the needed skill sets among leaders.  Flexibility demands more than that the corporation’s structure and approaches are free from the rigidity of institutionalism.  Responding to market changes demands the agility to configure or reconfigure itself in its marketing strategies, products, production systems, capital investments and talent composition.  Leaders must therefore be capable of accurately reading the overlapping logistics of re-configuring corporate structures and systems and the deployment of labor based on skills, attitudes and ability to learn.  Leaders must then not only possess the skills to read and understand market trends but also read and understand the needs and skills of those around them to persuade their best performance around corporate objectives.

Servant Leadership Exercises Emotional Intelligence

Manager’s and other leaders cannot afford to either possesses a high concern for people and low awareness of business goals or a low concern for people and a high awareness of business goals. On the one hand the leader is nothing more than a pal and on the other the leader appears as a brutal dictator.

Either case is morale crushing.  If the manager/leader does not possess the competencies they need to effectively read the market and find a competitive course of action they will lose the trust of their labor.  On the other hand behaviors that fail to register either an awareness of one’s emotion or its impact on others are characteristic of a lack of emotional intelligence. Assuming for the sake of space that Servant leaders own the right business acumen and industry knowledge then emotional intelligence rises to the forefront as the skill needed to successfully lead a flexible workforce.

Emotional Intelligence is the ability to perceive and constructively act on both one’s own emotions and the feelings of others. Emotional intelligence creates a synergy between self-awareness, self management, social awareness and relationship management. (See Table 3)

Emotional intelligence gives managers and leaders a competitive edge. Studies conducted at Bell Labs found that the most valued and productive engineers were those with the traits of emotional intelligence – not the highest IQ. Possessing great intellectual abilities or grasp of a job’s core skills may make an individual a successful line employee (although the case can probably be made that without emotional intelligence an individual won’t be an exceptional performer) but skill without emotional intelligence leads to predictable failures among managers and leaders.

Emotional intelligence is a concept that measures empathy and other qualities of the heart. Lack of these qualities or abilities explains why managers who attempt to lead without an awareness of the impact of their emotion on others create a shamble of their work relationships and frequently become disastrous pilots of their personal lives.

Analyses of the behavioral traits that accompany highly capable people lacking these emotional competencies portray the stereotypical dictator: critical and condescending, inhibited and uncomfortable with relationships and emotionally bland or explosive. By contrast, individuals with the traits that mark emotional intelligence are poised and outgoing, committed to people and causes, sympathetic and caring, with a rich but proper emotional life — they’re comfortable with themselves, others, and the social universe they live in.[3]

This insight into the mechanics of emotional intelligence provides a lesson for leaders. Those with high emotional intelligence learn from their previous encounters with people and are alert to the nuances of emotion in relationships.[4] How others feel is important to them.

The concept of emotional intelligence has found a number of different applications outside of the psychological research and therapy arenas. Professional, educational, and community institutions have integrated different aspects of the emotional intelligence philosophy into their organizations to promote more productive working relationships, better outcomes, and enhanced personal satisfaction.

Table 1: Components of Emotional Intelligence

In the workplace and in other organizational settings, “people skills,” another buzzword for emotional intelligence has long been recognized as a valued attribute in employees. The popularity of the concept in business is easily explained-when employees, managers, and clients have mutually rewarding personal relationships, productivity increases and profits follow. Conversely, where the emotional intelligence of key production managers is low productivity decreases and morale seems to crash.  Without emotional intelligence the harder production managers push to gain performance the less respect and trust they retain and the poorer the results they generate.

The Servant Leadership Challenge

The challenge faced by servant leaders is tochoose what part of the inner self to respond in light of the organization’s purpose when assessing:

  • Issues
  • Expectations
  • Situation
  • Opportunities
  • Risks
  • Skill Requirements

The inner self (illustrated and defined in Table 1) cannot remain isolated from a leader’s daily management tasks. Simply put, to be effective a manager/leader or to excel as a servant leader must bring all of themselves to the task of managing performance. If a manager’s self-awareness and self-discipline remains undeveloped they fail to understand the impact of their emotion on others and risk professional ruin by exhibiting self-defeating behavior by failing to mobilize the kind of flexible workforce needed to capitalize on new opportunities or changing market situations.

In the larger picture the concept of servant leadership refuses to dismiss the issue of how to achieve a balance between economic and other social values.  It recognizes the inherent danger of assuming a values free or solely technical approach to market changes e.g., the toxic nature of unmitigated greed, disregard for the environment or disconnection from the social consequences of a “profit only” stance.  However, to date the concept of servant leadership has not tendered a viable solution to these tensions.  It has addressed the nature of the conversation by insisting that economic and social values remain in dynamic tension and thereby provides one of the best approaches to creating a healthy corporate culture.   In other words the practice of servant leadership offers those organizations that embrace it a wider platform of legitimacy among both their employees and the communities in which they work.

[1] Robert K. Greenleaf. The Power of Servant Leadership, ed., Larry C. Spears (San Francisco, CA: Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1998), 32.

[2] Ibid 45

[3] These traits are also identified by D.A. Benton as the core traits of an effective CEO (see How to Think Like a CEO. New York, NY: Time Warner Books, 1996). If your career goals include moving up in the company you are with or moving forward in your career the development of emotional intelligence is essential.

[4] In the non-profit world the mix of character and leadership is imperative to success. In church or para-church leadership the tie between emotional intelligence and strong leadership has an explicit foundation (Galatians 5:22; Ephesians 4). Yet, the same complaints about executive leaders (senior pastors, denominational executives, mission executives) persist as those leveled at business leaders – they often disregard people. In light of this, the concept of emotional intelligence could serve as an integration point between the spiritual realities that drive the church or para-church organization and the daily out working of leadership and managing tasks.

Generating Consistent Outcomes – Servant Leadership Applied

If your organization or company has struggled to move beyond the mediocre results of past years then consider changing the way leadership is understood.  Consider Servant Leadership.
Researchers recognize two things are needed to consistently generate above average results.  They sound simple yet organizations wrestle against a flood of poor leadership models, performance pressures and flawed assumptions about workplace productivity that leave them struggling to produce anything but mundane results.

First, businesses and organizations need to learn how to generate high performing teams who feel alive and experience exhilarating meaning in work.  The fact is that when these two particular dynamics exist teams perform at sustained levels of output that consistently surpass the common benchmarks of productivity.[1]

Second, businesses need to accept the simple fact that happy people (those who embrace the highs and lows of life as learning opportunities) exhibit the kind of contribution, conviction, culture, commitment and confidence that not only propels performance forward at astonishing rates but also reduces the costs associated with sick days, lost productivity, employee sabotage, and turnover.[2]

The idea of psychological capital at work is gaining traction.  Why?  It produces measurable results across company metrics in every industry.  The fundamentals of personal happiness are nested in individual perspectives and choices. The organizational benefit of retaining people who hold these perspectives is a function of powerful and meaningful company culture.  The nature of an organization’s culture rests at the feet of its leaders.

When discussing leadership it is important to talk about the skills and styles that effect good communication between leaders and followers but skill sets and outcomes are not sufficient to understand what makes leaders effective. Limiting the understanding of leadership to skill sets and outcomes leaves a void in understanding that results in a distortion of leadership (like that identified by Lipman-Blumen) that cannot distinguish between good and poor leaders.  For example both Gandhi and Hitler influenced people and generated results. They are however worlds apart when one consider the long-term benefit to cost of their influence and outcomes.[3]

Clearly leadership must be exercised with a defined and transparent moral imperative. Leadership is not and cannot be exercised in a morally neutral way.[4] By transparent I mean that the moral imperative of leadership must be something capable of scrutiny. The idea of servant leadership lends itself to moral scrutiny in how it approaches power and outcomes. In servant leadership the “… imperative is to lead sacrificially for the sake of others.”[5] The transparency of a moral imperative makes it accessible to critique. This necessitates a the willingness on the part of a leader to listen to concerns and challenges and to take his or her development as a leader seriously.

Organizations that exhibit the psychological capital needed to sustain extraordinary performance are lead by men and women characterized as servant leaders.   So what is servant leadership?

The servant-leader is servant first . . . It begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first. Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first, perhaps because of the need to assuage an unusual power drive or to acquire material possessions. For such it will be a later choice to serve—after leadership is established. The leader- first and the servant- first are two extreme types. Between them there are shadings and blends that are part of the infinite variety of human nature. . . The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant- first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served.[6]

Servant leadership is an orientation to leadership that owns a transparent moral imperative, exercises personal awareness for the impact of behaviors, recognizes the contribution potential of employees and builds a culture characterized by modeling, mentoring, development, discipline and fun. Servant leadership engages the essential activities of vision, structure and benevolence in an accessible way to employees, board members, stakeholders and stockholders.  Servant leadership sees a long view versus a foreshortened quarterly view that produces a rate of return on a company’s pre-tax portfolio of over 20%.[7] To some leaders this level of performance sounds mythical.  However to men like Ken Melrose (former CEO of Toro) this level of performance is a given result of servant leadership.

What kinds of actions define servant leadership?  Servant leaders listen, they use power ethically and persuasion as the preferred model, they build ownership of decisions by ensuring participation of all employees; they practice foresight that sees a preferred future and the paths and obstacles to achieving it.  Servant leaders exercise adaptive leadership recognizing when problems are ill-defined solutions must be designed and not dictated – they conceptualize well.  Servant leaders regularly practice withdrawal in recharging their energy.  Finally servant leaders practice acceptance and empathy recognizing that employees want to engage, they want to believe in something larger than themselves and they want to commit.  A servant leader helps provide the culture needed to engender employee commitment.

Servant leadership has moved beyond an esoteric idea of something that may work better and has entered the critical world of theories that measurably perform better.  It is a concept and a way of thinking that needs to be both understood and employed in order to see superior performance.

[1] Jean Lipman-Blumen. The Allure of Toxic Leaders: Why We Follow Destructive Bosses and Corrupt Politicians and How We Can Survive Them (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2005), 221-22.

[2] Jessica Pryce-Jones. Happiness at Work: Maximizing Your Psychological Capital for Success (West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2010), 2-26.

[3] Ronald Heifetz. Leadership Without Easy Answers (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1994), 16-18. Heifetz discusses the power of values and the necessity for including values in the definition of leadership.

[4] Tony Baron. The Art of Servant Leadership (Tuscan, AZ: Wheatmark, 2010), 6.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Robert K. Greenleaf, The Servant as Leader (Indianapolis: Greenleaf Center for Servant Leadership, 1970, 1991), 7.

[7] Art Barter, CEO Datron Communications. “Datron’s Servant Leadership Journey – Success and Pitfalls” (San Diego, CA: Servant Leadership Winter Conference, February 1-3, 2011).