Communication is defined in the Oxford dictionary as “expressing ideas and feelings or of giving people information”. That seems simple enough and yet, many struggle to develop and apply leadership communication skills. Acquiring and using the common language of leadership means understanding all the subtle cues and complexities of behavior that have existed for millennia.
The Alliance of Language and Leadership
Leadership has changed from being authoritarian, for example Jack Welch who turned around GE in the 80s, to being more inclusive and people focused. Today, leadership communication skills are seen as central to being people focused.
Effective leaders know how to use language to convey trust, passion and action. Moreover, these days, people are disenchanted by fake news and unreliable politicians so they crave authenticity. That’s why the common language of leadership is useful and provides a powerful insight into one’s intentions and general behavior.
Imagine being on board a ship that suddenly hits a hurricane and the captain panics? As you and the crew look for reassurance and direction, the captain is locked away in the control room. All they can do is stare at maps in hopelessness and despair. No one wants to be in that situation and yet, how many times does it happen in the corporate world?
Instead, picture the leader who stands up confidently to reassure you that no challenge is insurmountable and that we have the resources to get through it as long as we work together? The sense of calm and appeal to camaraderie and inner strength motivates people to action. That’s the common language of leadership.
Communication is part of that complex system of spoken and physical language. We don’t just follow a two way process though. We also create mind maps of how we view the world and make meaning from them.
Having great leadership communication skills goes far beyond simply sending out a message. In fact, you provide an intricate blend of the following:
- A framework for mental wellbeing. Studies show that negative words trigger stress and anxiety inducing hormones. Take this one step further and you can actually hack your brain with positive mood-enhancing hormones. For example, a transformative leadership speech will give you a natural high because you feel you’re in safe hands and part of the group.
- Leadership identity. We need language to articulate our values and to define who we are so we can align with those around us. The common language of leadership leverages those values to create a dream, the most famous one being Martin Luther King’s speech.
An emotional connection. As research shows, communication is more than just words. It also allows us to make meaning of all the various sensations and perceptions we’re constantly experiencing every day. Leaders know how to tap into this to make an empathic connection so aligning people towards a common goal.
Developing Leadership Communication Skills with a Coach
Any form of communication, whether spoken or written, is more successful if there’s self-awareness along with an appreciation of the audience’s state of mind. Philosopher John Searle talked about Speech Acts that integral coaches use to their advantage as do great leaders who understand the importance of self-awareness in leadership development.
The idea behind the Speech Act theory is that good communication is a form of contract where each person speaks, listens and fine tunes opinions. Leaders, according to speechwriter Simon Lancaster in his book Winning Minds, do this well by meeting their audience’s emotional needs in return for loyalty.
Similarly, coaches are in tune with their clients and give them the space they need to express their emotions. They also listen to the choice of words for clues about what’s really going on behind the scenes. Many people who go for coaching don’t even know their deepest drivers or fears. So, it takes a skilled coach to read between the lines and open up someone’s mind.
Coaches help people refine leadership communication skills and importance of communication in leadership:
- Observe your distortions. It’s very hard to be our own observer and to catch the way we speak and how we convey emotion. A coach can highlight not only the choice of words but also the cognitive distortions many of us fall victim to. How many times have you overgeneralized or assumed you should be x or y?
- Insight into mindset. Crises test us all, especially leaders. When those leaders respond mindfully and with wisdom, they ensure that their needs are met as well as those of others. By contrast, many come to coaches blaming those around them for being incompetent. Coaches help leaders find a more balanced viewpoint with softer, more inclusive language.
- Practice longer term horizon. It’s rare to find someone who can truly think beyond a few months and their immediate tasks. The common language of leadership though is to go beyond today and to prepare for the future. Visionary language motivates people, not to-do lists.
How to Leverage the Common Language of Leadership
Studies show what many of us might have instinctively known for some time that words create emotions. Great leaders use this to their advantage by using feel-good or can-do words. Of course, they also need to strike the balance with not overdoing it and sounding fake.
The common language of leadership has been around since the Ancient Greeks as Simon Lancaster amongst other great thinkers often refer to. Aristotle himself defined something called the Rhetorical Triangle that training courses still use today.
Just as a child knows how to gauge their parents’ moods to get something they want, so top coaches and leaders alike know how to meet their audience’s emotional needs. This is just as true for individuals as it is for teams.
As adults, we need strong emotional intelligence to regain that authenticity we had as children and understand the importance of authentic leadership. This isn’t about manipulation but about fulfilling that unspoken contract where both parties have something to offer and to gain.
What does this mean for leaders and how can they apply it to convey authenticity that encourages action?
- Ethos or trustworthiness – we all need to gain trust from those we speak to. Metaphors and life examples are a great way to do this because it helps people visualize the speaker in action.
- Pathos or emotion – by building on metaphors, great leaders inject powerful words, often through a story, to conjure up emotions to create a call to arms, so to speak.
- Logos or logic – reason is still an important part of our decision making and people need clear data and logic as well as emotions. Although, once you’ve built on emotions and trust, logic is just a simple tick in the box.
A coach will keep reminding you of this because most people’s natural instinct is to rely solely on logic. That’s not how you win hearts though.
What’s Your Plan for Moving Forward?
As social creatures, we need communication to help us belong and contribute to this world. Moreover, top leadership communication skills are important if you want to get a loyal following and a movement to make the world a better place. Language is a way to be both authentic and empathic, but it needs practice so that the stories and metaphors feel natural to the audience.
A coach guides leaders to develop those skills while pointing out where language perhaps takes them down the wrong road. Don’t underestimate that guiding hand as you train to become a more balanced leader with the emotional intelligence to commit to what you and your audience need.
About the Author
Anne Duvaux is a neuroscience leadership coach who was previously HR director focusing on Leadership & Development as well as coaching. In a past lifetime, she was a chartered engineer and is also multilingual having lived in 9 countries and 13 cities.
As an Associate Certified Coach with the ICF and more than 20 years’ experience setting up, partnering and leading teams across Europe and Asia in both corporates and early-stage companies, Anne understands how to navigate the challenges of leadership. Today, she brings a mindfulness angle to provide a balanced approach to life’s hurdles.