There isn’t a position on your organizational chart that can’t be better executed by someone who understands not just the power and importance of good communication, but who understands how to be a great communicator. A recent Nonprofit Center email blast about an upcoming communications class* cited author and presidential speechwriter James Humes making the connection between communication skills and leadership. He once famously said that if Winston Churchill had used a speechwriter instead of sharing his own words, Britain would be speaking German.
The communications class emphasizes how being an effective communicator is among the most important of life skills. Every day we are part of a two-way process of transferring information and understanding what is shared with us.
Whether it’s interacting with a donor, co-worker, regulator, supervisor or supervisee, the most successful people are the best communicators. That includes both the messages you deliver and also how you listen and react to others.
True on so many levels. Search leadership traits online and you’ll get 245 million results. I don’t need to look at any one of those hits to know the kinds of descriptors that I will find, as I’ve read enough about leadership over the decades to know. Lists of the desired traits of a great leader run the gamut from visionary and strategic thinker to caring and compassionate. But there is one trait that belongs on every list and that is communication skills. Communicating means the total package that encompasses what is said and what is not; it is about behavior as much as it is about words; it is a two-way street involving speaking, listening, behavior, actions.
In talking about leadership, we must always be mindful that leaders come in all shapes and sizes and, yes, positions. We talk about leadership as position and leadership as practice. In other words, some people are deemed to be leaders because of the position they hold: executive director, program director, parent, teacher. Others, however, are leaders by practice, because of the way behave, regardless of their positions. Sadly, not all those who are in leadership positions are good, let alone great, leaders; and, equally sadly, and, of course, ironically, some really terrific leaders lack the title but practice great leadership. And some fail at both.
As I listened a few weeks ago to a radio discussion about the Baraboo, Wisconsin High School prom picture on the steps of the town courthouse, I could not help but think what a terrible failure of leadership—by position and practice—this was. The picture, recently made public, shows a good number of the happy, laughing boys of the Class of 2018 on their way to the prom giving the Nazi salute. The oddest thing to me about the discussion was the focus of the conversation: should the boys have been punished or not? There were comments about their youth, their naïveté, the need to send messages, etc. And the whole time I’m listening to this conversation, not yet having seen the photo, I’m thinking: why aren’t we talking about the adult who took the picture (the radio program said the photographer told the boys to wave good-bye to their parents), saw the result and still not only took the picture, but then sent it out via social media? If you are looking for an example of failed leadership—both in position and practice–look no further. Unless the pre-prom, high school scene has changed in the nine years since my son’s, the photo-taker was not the only parent/guardian/adult watching the picture shoot unfold. Where were the leaders? Inaction—standing by and watching—is a form of communication and leadership. We condone by the failure to condemn.
But if you want a more literal understanding of the importance of communication in leadership, let’s look at the speech patterns of females. Given that women are the majority employee in the nonprofit sector, given that there are more women executive directors of nonprofits than there are women CEOs of for-profit organizations, speech patterns of females are exceedingly important.
It used to be that this was a phenomenon of young females, but uncorrected, which so much of it has been and is, it has become a speech pattern of too many women of all ages. If you’ve not noticed it before, you will now: the statement as question. It is the rising question mark inflection that females put at the end of their declaratory statements. And it is the doubt, the uncertainty, the possibility of being wrong that this rising inflection brings to even the most fact-based statement a female makes. The cadence makes the speaker sound unsure and hesitant about everything she says, thereby opening the door for the listener to dismiss everything she says. Thus, the female leader with this speech pattern becomes her own worse enemy, seeding others’ doubt in her abilities to lead. Women of all ages must learn to make a declarative statement just that, otherwise their leadership will always be in doubt.
While paying attention to how we communicate, we must also pay attention to the content of that communication and its fit with our audience. Recently, I got an invitation from a PR firm to interview one of three people. I get these offers daily, and my usual response is to write back a simple, “no, thanks, not interested.” But this subject line drew me in. It asked if I wanted to interview three people who had left a “lucrative career” in the for-profit sector to go off and do good work in the nonprofit sector. I did not send my usual, perfunctory email. Rather, I didn’t mince words saying why would I want to celebrate three people simply because they left a lucrative job when I daily interact with people far more deserving of celebration for whom a lucrative career was never one of their goals, having always aimed for work in the nonprofit sector? Clearly, in this writer’s mind, those who chose to give up money to work on behalf of others are more admirable, and a better story, than those who have always chosen the betterment of society over the betterment of self. My final message was very clear: remove me from all future communication.
When you think back on some of the world’s greatest leaders, you’ll find that they were all great communicators. They recognized that while talking about their ideas, they needed to do so in a way that connected with their audience, engaging their hopes and dreams.
I end this where I began, with James Humes, who admired Winston Churchill as one of the great orators of modern times. As a boy, Churchill stuttered and stammered, spoke with a lisp and presented with a timid demeanor that wouldn’t command the respect of his peers, let alone an empire and the rest of world. While no doubt blessed with an innate talent for words, he devoted himself to bringing that power to life, making it his “only ambition to be master of the spoken word.” While I could move onto examples of how communication has also been used to promulgate evil, we’ll save that for another time.
*Effective Communications to Build Relationships, Engagement and Understanding, presented four times annually by The Nonprofit Center.