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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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!
- 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.