“The man who can think but does not know how to express what he thinks is at the same level as he who cannot think.” — Pericles, leader of Athens around 450 B.C.
It was the dead of winter in the middle of a very cold snap. As we approached departure time, judging by all the activity outside the plane, we weren’t likely to leave on time. In a few minutes the captain announced, “You can see a lot of activity on our left wing. This is a maintenance crew trying to replace a defective fuel pump. We find it’s best to fix a problem like that on the ground before we’re in the air. The good news is that there is another fuel pump available here at the airport. The bad news is that it will delay our departure by about 30 minutes.”
Within 10 minutes the captain was making another announcement, “Folks, you can see the little truck on the right coming in with our fuel pump. Unfortunately, this is work that can only be done with gloves off. Working with jet fuel on your fingers in this freezing weather is extremely difficult and taking longer than expected.” We started to feel sorry for those “hearty heroes” working in such tough conditions to get us underway! The captain continued to give us updates on progress every 10 – 15 minutes. When he announced the problem was fixed and we were finally ready to go some 90 minutes late, a cheer went up from the passengers.
I am sure there wasn’t a single complaint among the passengers on that plane. That’s because the captain treated us like adult customers and not “the cattle in the back” who don’t really need to know what’s going on. Communication is one of the key marks of a leader. Like motivation, it’s also a word that’s overused and misunderstood. For example, what are often called “communication problems” in many teams are really process, system, or structure problems. People don’t communicate because the way they are organized doesn’t let them do it effectively.
The strength of our communications spring, in part, from our personal values. The captain communicated with us from a values set that said we’re important enough and responsible enough to be told what’s going on, even if the news is bad. If my values are superiority over others, I won’t bother communicating with “the peons.” If I am arrogant, I may call my loud, one-way horn blowing “communication.”
If I have disdain for others, the only thing my tone of voice may arouse is resentment, hostility, or defensiveness. If I see customers, suppliers, or organization members in other departments as interruptions or adversaries rather than people, I’ll brush them off with minimum effort. If I am suspicious and distrustful, I will parcel out information on a “need to know basis.” If I think all the EQ (emotional intelligence) research is hogwash, I won’t bother to develop my verbal communication skills.
With few exceptions, highly effective leaders have very strong verbal (and often written) communication skills. They connect with people. Since leadership deals with emotions, energy, and spirit, verbal communication skills have a huge role to play in mobilizing and energizing. No matter how “right” a vision, deeply held principles, or purpose may be, they won’t mobilize others if they can’t be effectively communicated.
That means moving beyond dry logic, sterile printed statements, or speeches read with all the passion of a bored old professor giving his same old lecture to a group of bored young students. Highly effective leaders transfer their energy and passion to the people they’re trying to mobilize with words that paint exciting pictures, ring true, fire the imagination, or touch the spirit. Like the leader, their words are charged with energy.