Six Essential Leadership Communication Skills

Image by: Mas. A symbolic representation of two people communicating.
Image by: Mas. A symbolic representation of two people communicating.

One can’t lead if you can’t communicate. And while all the thirty verbal skills are important, these six communication competencies are essential in being an effective leader. They are:

    • Organizational Communication
    • Small Group Communication
    • Public Speaking
    • Cultural Communication Skills
    • Persuasive Skills
    • Feedback

Organizational Communication Skills

“The first function of an executive is to develop and maintain a system of communication.” — Chester Bernard, 1886-1961 President, USO: The Functions of the Executive (Harvard, 1938

This diagram presents the classic model of how information flows through bureaucratic organizations.
Image by Murray Johannsen. This diagram presents the classic model of how information flows through hierarchical organizations.

“Communication works for those who work at it.” — John Powell

In the old days, organizational communication was limited to four types of information flows: upward, downward, lateral and rumors. Today, managers have to worry about verbal communication through these four channel plus electronic communication mediums such as telepresense, virtual meetings, SMS, voice mail, emails, wikis, etc.

The skilled manager focuses on organizational leadership communication. Organizational communication flows is absolutely essential skill for anyone who occupies a leadership role in the organization. Prior to the use of the internet, it consisted of four major communication flows:

     ·  Upward
     ·  Downward
     ·   Lateral, and
    ·   Rumor control.

Now, however, there are new electronic communication mediums, mediums creating both opportunities and problems. For example, email is great communication tool for many. For too many, however, it is becoming a burden. It used to be, that only leaders functioned in an environment of information overload. Today, all levels of the organization have that problem.

Small Group Communication

Leaders face a great challenge when it comes to insuring that group communication works properly. This essentially means playing the right micro communication roles.
Painting by: Lawrence Alma-Tadema (1836–1912) The Colosseum. Leaders face a great challenge when it comes to insuring that group communication works properly. This essentially means playing the right micro communication roles.
 An old nun who was living in a convent next to a Brooklyn construction site noticed the coarse language of the workers and decided to spend some time with them to correct their ways. She decided she would take her lunch, sit with the workers and talk with them. She put her sandwich in a brown bag and walked over to the spot where the men were eating. She walked up to the group and with a big smile said: “Do you men know Jesus Christ?” One of the workers looked up into the steelwork and yelled, “Anybody up there know Jesus Christ?” One of the steelworkers yelled down a “Yea. Why”? The worker yelled back “His wife’s here with his lunch.

To improve skilled communication in groups, one must take a very different approach compared to that used in interpersonal communication. If you think about it, business and government is just another stage–one in which you play a role. You may be a bit player, but most everyone gets some type of title. For example, the role played by the vice-president of a small bank is similar to supervisor in a manufacturing firm, although VP title sounds better.

Besides focusing on the task and maintaining good relationships, a meeting leader must also deal with a number of self-orientated roles. These are largely destructive behaviors that prevent the group from doing what it supposed to do while creating a great deal of frustration. Thus, the all too common comment heard after the meeting is over that it was, “It was a tremendous waste of time.”

Communication in a group adds a whole new level of complexity to leadership. That’s due the fact that in many meetings, there are three major processes running at the same time:

  • A meeting process,
  • A problem solving process and
  • A communication processes.

To complicate matters further, the person running the group can play either the classic leadership role or a facilitator role. While both make use of same communication microroles, they are used in a different manner. The leadership role is more directive, typically making use of many statements. The communication style for the facilitator role, on the other hand, is more indirect, requiring as it does the use of questions.

To be a meeting leader in groups, you must learn how to play communication roles. There is over 25 of these roles. They can be broken out into three categories:

  • Relationship,
  • Task and
  • Self-oriented.

Task roles get the job done, relationship roles maintain harmony and good feelings. However, when people pay self-oriented roles, it leads to all sorts of problems. So effective group communication boils down to playing the right task and relationship roles while minimizing the disruption caused by self-oriented roles.

Public Speaking

“Communication is the real work of leadership.” — Nitin Nohria

One of the pivotal events that changed history was a speech the served as a catalyst of the crusades.
Painting by: Francesco Hayez (1791–1882): Pope Urban II Preaching the First Crusade in the Square of Clermont. One of the pivotal events that changed history was a speech the served as a catalyst of the crusades.

It’s been said that the most common fear of the common man (or woman) is public speaking. Most of that fear is really anticipatory anxiety, where someone imagines an upcoming catastrophe that fails to materialize.

The art of mastering public speaking skills consists of getting good at improving verbal communication skills in:

  • verbal content and visual elements projected on a screen, and
  • The nonverbal elements of the presentation.

But paradoxically, people slave over the visuals and devote less time to the verbal and the nonverbal elements. This produces business presentation which can be characterized as pretty but boring, usually shortened into pretty boring.

Few in leadership positions know how to speak in public. And since most presentations in government and business tend to be boring and monotonous, your greatest challenge in most business presentations is to stay awake. The typical business presentation should be advertised as a cure for insomnia.

Great leadership speeches have a structure. The structure has long been known, but few business presentations use it.

Cultural Communication Skills

Amedeo Preziosi (1816–1882): A Café In Istambul.
Amedeo Preziosi (1816–1882): A Café In Istambul. As on can see, while coffee is coffee, the social environment is must different.

The French eat a lot of fat and also suffer fewer heart attacks than the British or Americans.

The Japanese drink very little red wine and suffer fewer heart attacks than the British or Americans.

The Italians drink excessive amounts of red wine and also suffer fewer heart attacks than the British or Americans.

CONCLUSION: Eat and drink what you like. Speaking English is apparently what kills you

Individuals in business and government need to learn how to adapt their verbal communication patterns to take into account cultural communication differences. It’s not enough to speak the same language, you have to use it properly in a cultural context.

No where is the more obvious than in the verbal communication rituals needed to form a positive first impression. To do so, you must be culturally congruent, must incorporate another’s behavioral patterns into your own. So rather than shake hands, you might use a wai in Thailand, a bow in Japan and a kiss in Brazil and France.

Cultural communication values consists of a number of interpersonal skills, among them forming a positive first impression. According to the research, 30 percent of meaning is communicated nonverbally. It’s actually higher than this if you are talking about first impressions.

Impression management is technically a series of verbal and nonverbal techniques that come into play when we first meet someone. It’s culturally specific in that all cultures have a greeting ritual that is done when people meet.

That ritual can be modified when it comes to meeting someone from a foreign culture. For example, when two Koreans meet each other it would be coming to bow. However, when a Korean businessman meets a Western one, it becomes something I call “the half bow with a hand shake.”

Persuasive Skills

“Think twice before you speak, because your words and influence will plant the seed of either success or failure in the mind of another.” — Napoleon Hill

Lambert Jacobsz. (circa 1598–1636): Elisa and Gehasi. In the art of conversation, some points are made nonverbally.

“I frequently lose arguments with myself.” — Explanation used to explain why a person ate another chocolate just after saying that they were not going to eat any more.

It’s been said that the most common fear of the common man (or woman) is public speaking. Most of that fear is really anticipatory anxiety, where someone imagines an upcoming catastrophe that fails to materialize.

The art of mastering public speaking skills consists of getting good at improving verbal communication skills in:

  • The verbal content and visual elements projected on a screen, and
  • The nonverbal elements of the presentation.

But paradoxically, people slave over the visuals and devote less time to the verbal and the nonverbal elements. This produces business presentation which can be characterized as pretty but boring, usually shortened into pretty boring.

Few in leadership positions know how to speak in public. And since most presentations in government and business tend to be boring and monotonous, your greatest challenge in most business presentations is to stay awake. The typical business presentation should be advertised as a cure for insomnia.

Great leadership speeches have a structure. The structure has long been known, but few business presentations use it.

Use of Feedback

“Few managers want to deliver it, most subordinates don’t want to receive it. Yet, there is little improvement without it.” — M. Johannsen

Image by Murray Johannsen. One can package information in different ways. Most of these are methods controlled by the sender. But the receiver also can choose how it is received.
Image by Murray Johannsen. One can package information in different ways. Most of these are methods controlled by the sender. But the receiver also can choose how it is received.

“Feedback is the breakfast of champions.” — Unknown

Communicating to provide feedback is necessary if one is to improve performance. Those with a high need to achieve, those who constantly seek to perform at their best and improve their skills, understand the need for feedback. In fact, they often ask for it.

But these are a small minority. The vast majority want to live in the “ignorance bubble” undefined getting an “attagirl” or an” attiboy” on occasion, but deathly afraid of hearing about mistakes and screw-ups.

Cynics might say that at work, we don’t want champions, we want workers. True, True. Still, one shouldn’t keep the workers in the dark about their own performance. Too many times we hear someone at work frustrated with a bad performance appraisal, seemingly blind sided by an arbitrary and capricious manager who seems to be out to get them. In reality, it simply a case that the manager did not give enough feedback. After all, one should not be surprised at what the appraisal says.

In systems theory, there is two types of feedback, positive and negative. Both are absolutely essential if you are to have high levels of performance. But bosses find it difficult to give negative feedback and subordinates find it hard to receive it.


Leadership Skill Development