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How to improve communicative leadership in organisations

Allowing bad leaders to roam free is a recipe for serious problems.

Communicative leadership in organisations is a tall order.

Do you know the single biggest challenge in communicative leadership for organisations? We need way more leaders than there are to be found.

As strange as it might seem, in most organisations, there are more non-leaders in management positions than there are leaders in management positions.

We’re sophisticated mammals with complex languages and social behaviours which makes leadership a quality necessary for our survival. This makes real leaders valuable — and naturally rare.

However, none of this is changing the fact that organisations need large volumes of managers to lead themselves and others.

So, how do you make this equation work?

Tell-tale signs of poor communicative leadership

In communicative leadership, there are many tell-tale signs of a bad leader. Given that leadership is such a profound organisational challenge, almost every working adult have experienced what it means to serve a bad leader in an organisation:

  • Bad leaders keep information from their teams in an attempt to assert power.
  • Bad leaders use passive aggression to shame their teams into performing better.
  • Bad leaders blame their teams for any poor outcomes, but take the credit for themselves when things go well.
  • Bad leaders use praise subjectively and strategically instead of objectively and fairly.
  • Bad leaders are adding bolstering layers between themselves and the practical outcomes, like additional layers of unnecessary managers or meetings.
  • Bad leaders are placing their own careers before the careers of their teams.
  • Bad leaders are excluding their teams from participating directly in important discussions; they need to place themselves in a position where they can filter and manipulate any feedback from the team.
  • Bad leaders are hostile towards new ideas from subordinates because they believe that anything that benefits someone beneath themselves in the organisational hierarchy is a potential threat to their position.

As follows, any of the above behaviours, while being all-too common, will wreak havoc in any organisation. So, what would we be looking for instead?

Requirements for communicative leadership

What is required from communicative leaders? According to Catrin Johansson, Vernon Miller and Solange Hamrin:

“These principles can […] aid in assessments of leaders when matched with requirements of work design and context:

1. Communicative leaders coach and enable employees to be self-managing.
2. Communicative leaders provide structures that facilitate the work.
3. Communicative leaders set clear expectations for quality, productivity, and professionalism.
4. Communicative leaders are approachable, respectful, and express concern for employees.
5. Communicative leaders actively engage in problem solving, follow up on feedback, and advocate for the unit.
6. Communicative leaders convey direction and assist others in achieving their goals.
7. Communicative leaders actively engage in framing of messages and events.
8. Communicative leaders enable and support sensemaking.

Communication environments in organizations and units consist of culture, climate and systems for performance appraisal and feedback.”

This is all well and good, of course, but it’s also like saying, “Be a good leader, not a bad one.”

And that’s fair enough; most organisations would benefit from becoming better at finding and hiring good leaders.

It begs the question:

Is it theoretically possible for an organisation to fill up all management positions with exceptional leaders — despite them being so rare?

The one leadership equation that just won’t add up

Few studies indicate the natural percentage of leaders in a human population, but it’s safe to say that it’s easy to run out of natural born leaders for all management positions in existence.

In other words: It’s statistically impossible for all organisations to recruit communicative leaders to fill all management positions; we simply don’t have enough leaders to go around.

Now, it’s possible for outlier organisations to attract more than their statistical share of great leaders. It can be done either by a) ensuring near-perfect recruiting processes or b) find ways to identify and sack bad leaders. Both paths are difficult, but theoretically possible.

Still, we must also take into account that natural leaders typically don’t come cheap. Hence, if the leadership equation doesn’t break statistically or methodologically — it might just break financially.

The grim conclusion seems to be this:

Organisations must find ways to ensure communicative leadership despite having varying levels of leadership quality throughout the organisations.

A more realistic approach to communicative leadership

There’s an interesting chicken-and-egg dilemma to consider here:

Is great communication an outcome of great leadership?
Or, is great leadership an outcome of great communication?

Arguably, it seems to be the latter. In contrast with just being appointed, leadership is a human quality awarded by a group willing to tolerate authority in exchange for efficiency and guidance. This “leadership contract” is based on trust which, in turn, is established using various forms of verbal- and non-verbal signals.

Hence, we need strategies for communicative leadership that are realistic. In larger organisations, I would suggest the following pragmatic approach:

  • Top executives must be great communicators.
  • High-ranking executives must be solid communicators.
  • Mid-level managers must communicate well regardless of their aptitudes for communicative leadership.

In concrete terms, what does this mean for organisations?

How to ensure communicative leadership

Based on the above deductions on communicative leadership, I would argue that, at least for larger organisations, this is the most realistic and most fruitful approach:

  • Top executives — great communicators — recruiting.
  • High-ranking executives — solid communicators — training.
  • Mid-level managers — communicates well — processes.

Recruiting top executives with great communication skills

As for top executives, an organisation simply can’t afford to hire poor communicators for these types of positions — which makes this a responsibility primarily for the board of directors and the HR function.

If an organisation hires top executives with poor communication skills, there’s only so much a communication department can do to mitigate negative effects cascading from the top.

Examples of action items:

  • Determine if HR are evaluating and weighing communicative leadership in their recruitment processes.
  • Measure and track communication maturity continuously.

Training high-level executives to become solid communicators

High-ranking executives must also express their leadership at a high level, albeit not as high as top executives. Any lack in such abilities should be mitigated with continuous training in communicative leadership — facilitated by the communications department.

Example of action item:

  • Build solid onboarding video trainings on communicative leadership for newly recruited high-level executives.
  • Invest in communicative leadership training using well-recommended and specialised consultants.

Processes to ensure good enough communication from med-level managers

As for the vast majority of leaders in an organisation, mid-level managers, recruiting top communicators is unrealistic and training is likely to be costly and produce highly variable results from individual to individual. Their communication as leaders, therefore, must be strictly regulated by transparent processes.

Examples of action items:

  • Launch a transparency initiative to ensure that subordinates have access to all directives given to their mid-level managers.
  • All work orders given by mid-level managers should be given also in writing via a digital collaboration platform.

A few words on clarity and leadership

Are you a mid-level manager yourself looking to improve your leadership communication? Great!

Some of you might think that communicative leadership is due to more esoteric qualities such as charm, charisma, and verbal abilities, you might be surprised. While natural abilities are part of it, communicative leadership in practice mostly comes down to … clarity.

Creating redundancy military-style

I did my military service as a Sergeant and Platoon Commander back in 1999-2000, a typical mid-level position. I often found myself in front of young soldiers awaiting orders — often in rough conditions with little to no sleep or food in below -25 degrees Celsius temperatures.

A typical assignment could be to order soldiers to load up their terrain vehicles, traverse the terrain, and meet me at a designated rendezvous point for further instructions. At the rendezvous point, then, I would find half the platoon missing, with empty bandwagons, and the wrong gear to continue the training.

For this particular reason, the Swedish army has certain practices for giving orders. One such practice is that you should always have your instructions repeated back at you. This is an humbling exercise for most — and it certainly was for me.

I quickly learnt that over-communication is always preferable to under-communication. Orders should be given in a structured, precise, and redundant manner. I can still hear my military voice somewhere in the back of my head:

“If possible, take a minute to prepare giving orders so that I can be precise and clear.”
“Give the order and go over it again for as many times as it takes.”
“Always ask subordinates to write your instructions down, no matter how good they say their working memory is.”
“Always ask subordinates to repeat your instructions back to you.”

Armed forces all over the world have been perfecting this art for millennia.1

Practice using the following checks

As an ambitious mid-level manager looking to improve your toolbox, use these checks to ensure that your communicative leadership is always redundantly clear.

  • This is what we are doing. Is this clear?
  • This is why we are doing it. Is this clear?
  • This is who who will be doing it. Is this clear?
  • This is how we are doing it. Is this clear?
  • This is when we are doing it. Is this clear?
  • This is where we are doing it. Is this clear?
  • This is for whom we are doing it. Is this clear?

Does it feel like you’re always communicating? Does it feel like you’re always providing too much information?

Good. That’s how it’s supposed to feel!

Cover photo by Jerry Silfwer (Prints/Instagram)


  1. I recommend Extreme Ownership: How U.S. Navy SEALs Lead and Win by Jocko Willinck for an in-depth look at a military approach to leadership and communication.


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Jerry Silfwer
Jerry Silfwer, aka Doctor Spin, is an awarded senior adviser specialising in public relations and digital strategy. Currently CEO at KIX Communication Index and Spin Factory. Before that, he worked at Kaufmann, Whispr Group, Springtime PR, and Spotlight PR. Based in Stockholm, Sweden.

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