Last Word: Leaders Are Defined By Communication Skills

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There’s an old adage that leaders are born, not made.  Whether born or made, great leaders are characterized by a continuous assessment of their skills and a commitment to improving those skills.  Regardless of what list of skills defining exceptional leaders you look at, communication is at the top of the list.  

Leaders are defined by their communication skills.  Poor communication can stop an otherwise skilled individual from maximizing their potential and that of those around them. Being an excellent leader and communicator doesn’t mean being the loudest person in the room or making inappropriate comments about or to those who disagree with you. It is defined by consistent, open, honest, deliberate and transparent communication, even under difficult circumstances.

Leadership communication can be defined as the purposeful transfer of information or news and the sharing of ideas, thoughts and feelings for the specific purpose of influencing a person, group, organization or community. It is more of an art than a science and encompasses verbal, nonverbal, and digital modes.

From a process perspective, communication is simple. The speaker sends a message, the receiver hears and responds, the speaker clarifies and the receiver confirms.  

Unfortunately, it’s never that simple. As a leader, your communication flows from the leader’s perspective. It becomes grounded in the character and values of the organization and should be consistent, regular and deliberate.  When addressing the organization it should be significant and reflect the present and future of the organization with the focus on people, products, service, and performance. A leader should strive to link their message with the company’s mission, vision and values.  

Eighty percent of workplace problems can be traced to a lack of open and honest communication.  In many cases it’s not what’s said, but what’s not said.  Problems cannot be solved that aren’t known or talked about. 

One thing to keep in mind as a leader is that those around you not only listen to your words, but also watch your actions and behavior –  meaning your nonverbal communication is as important as your verbal communication. While they listen to your words, they also watch the direction your feet move.  You need to be deliberate and consistent in all your actions. 

The large volume of digital communication today can also prove troublesome.  Keep in mind that all social media platforms need to provide the same message and in direct, easily understood language.  The message needs to be short and precise.  Additionally, we need to keep in mind that emotions can’t be heard in digital media or email so the need for precise communication is particularly important.  

Whether leading in a small organization or a large one, communication at the individual level is extremely important and brings in perhaps the most important aspect of being an excellent leader –  specifically, listening. Listening facilitates two-way communication and team building.  Team members are more likely to focus on the mission and be productive if they feel their feelings, ideas and thoughts are being heard and incorporated into the organization. For a leader to truly be successful, they must understand what their organization is thinking.  This can represent a new challenge as the message may need to be further refined to be heard as it should be. Improving your listening skills is one way to build trust throughout your organization. 

Listening is clearly the most difficult aspect of communicating.  While we speak at a rate of approximately 150 words per minute, we have the capacity to hear at a rate of approximately 1,000 words per minute. To improve your listening skills, there are several things that you can try including concentrating on what the speaker is saying, their voice inflections and body language. Also, try not to think about how you are going to respond but, instead, focus solely on the message being presented to you. To show that you are listening and understanding, try small affirming gestures and avoid interrupting the speaker or trying to finish their sentences.   

When the speaker is finished, confirm what you just heard by repeating the key points.  Clarify anything that you might not have understood. Ask questions as you need to, and remember the important points by verbalizing them. Good leaders seek out conversations and questions knowing they do not have all the answers.

Good leadership communication can be learned. Focus on clarity, brevity, being precise, building your relationships, being open-minded and listening.  Remember, the message sent is not always the one received. Your job is to make sure it is.  

Bob Cody is Executive Director of Leadership Cape Cod, a nonprofit organization which offers programs to help train and empower leaders to take responsibility for important community roles. For information on the next Community Leadership Institute program, visit