No Communication, No Leadership

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I once heard a top executive at a major corporation say “my job is to keep people guessing. If they know what I’m thinking or what I want them to do, then I’m not doing my job.”

This guy was a VP at 3 companies that are well known and respected around the world by the age of 40; he is now the President of one of the world’s leading manufacturing companies so you might say it’s hard to argue with his results. But in my humble (ok, so maybe it’s not so humble) opinion his methods were awful. Awful enough that he can’t seem to sustain himself at a company for more than a handful of years.

I had the opportunity to watch him up close when we worked together several years ago. His methods burned bridges it didn’t build them, his methods not only didn’t build relationships, it stymied them. He deliberately kept his people at arms length and worst of all, he made a deliberate decision to NOT communicate with them.

When someone in a leadership position fails to communicate many negative things begin to happen, morale slides almost immediately, followed quickly by productivity.

I have a theory as to why that happens; I think people have this “information space” inside of them and that space needs to be constantly filled. If it’s not filled with accurate information from say a leader for instance, then they will find a way to fill it themselves. What they normally fill it with are what we call rumors. Rumors are interesting things, they don’t have to be true, they don’t have to be positive, in fact, all they have to do is fill up that space.

One of the many problems with rumors is that they don’t fill us for long so we always tend to be on the lookout for a new rumor to fill the space. It’s all this searching for a new rumor that tends to kill productivity and it’s the content of the rumors that tend to kill morale. (did you ever notice that most rumors are about bad stuff?)

An authentic leader knows that information is the enemy of rumor. They consistently share every bit of information, company news and financial results that they legally are allowed to share. Authentic leaders communicate well because they know that their people also have a profound interest in the well being and direction of the company, just like they do.

Authentic leaders are intentional in their communications, not trying to communicate in their free time (as if there is such a thing) but scheduling time to make certain that communications are clear, accurate, concise and most of all, consistent.

People seldom follow blindly, so if you hope to lead you’re going to have to tell them where you’re leading them. You’ll have to tell them the what, why, where, and how of your leadership. It really comes down to this: if you can communicate well with your people they may follow, if you can’t or won’t communicate then they might be behind you but they are almost certainly not following.

I can’t finish this post without also pointing out that truly effective communication is a two-way street, so while you’re communicating be sure to pause often enough to ensure what you’ve said has been heard and understood. An authentic leader will never mistake silence for agreement. Encourage open and honest feedback from your people, they will help you to grow as a leader if you’ll let them.

Communicate today, it’s a basic requirement of authentic leadership!

8 thoughts on “No Communication, No Leadership

  1. What a great topic, Steve!

    The behavior you described in the beginning seems to characterize passive aggressive behavior. I was wondering why this seems to be such a common theme in leadership. At least in my experience. Any thoughts or insights on that? Have you found it to be just as common?

    Your theory about rumors reminds me of what I recently read in Don Miguel Ruiz’s book: The Four Agreements. He devotes an entire chapter on the topic of assumptions. Very similar. He shares how most (if not all) of us are taught to make assumptions instead of asking questions and communicating directly with others. So the behavior is very much learned and becomes the automatic response.

    Something happens. Instead of going to a person directly and asking questions to test any assumptions that begin to form, the most common habit is for people to create an entire story in their head about what they ‘assume’ is happening or adding meaning to an event. The story then becomes the ‘truth’ to that person even though it’s not based in reality at all. Then it grows worse if people then turn around and start sharing (gossiping) the story/assumptions they’ve created in their own minds whicih other people will then take up as being the truth.

    In most cases, it’s not the truth it all. Merely assumptions. Stories. Created in a persons mind. Simply because they could not go to another person directly and ask questions to test their assumptions.

    End result? A mess. And a complete distortion of reality.

    I’ve also read some good resources over the years that address communication issues between passive, assertive, aggressive, and passive aggressive personalities.

    I used to be far more passive when I was younger. Learned to be more assertive working in the military and healthcare settings. One of the things I learned is that communication problems can occur when an assertive person communicates with a passive person. It can be interpreted as aggressive. Simply because anything direct tends to frighten the passive person. etc

    My greatest communication challenge to this day still revolves around successful communications with passive aggressive people. I still have not found great success in establish good two-way dialog as these types are the most prone to blocking of all sorts.

    Great insights, Steve. Thanks for posting so soon.

    Sincerely,
    Samantha

    • What wonderful insights you have! I agree that there does seem to be many passive agressives in leadership positions. Sometimes I think this is because too many companies promote those appear “that go along to get along.” When they suddenly find themselves in leadership positions they simply don’t have the skills to lead, and the includes communication skills.

      One of the things that I do with passive aggressive people that you might try is that I seldom “tell” them anything. I ask leading questions that I know the answer to and I know those answers will lead us both to where we need to be. If I “tell” it can be seen as challenging but when they “tell” it’s just easier to accept. We end up at the same place just without all the turmoil and tension. Just a thought….

  2. Wonderful suggestion Steve! I confess, that is definitely going to take quite a bit of practice for me simply because I’ve learned to be so direct in my communications. Will have to learn to be more patient in those settings (with a PA) and try to remember to ask instead of tell. oh boy…yes, that’s going to take some very conscious effort on my part to do! 🙂

    ‘The shortest distance between two points is a straight line.’ It’s a great math concept. Humans? That short space between two points is frequently filled with invisible land mines. More time spent having to disarm or diffuse one accidently triggered then getting to the next destination! haha

    Gotta love the journey though. 🙂

    Thanks for reply Steve.

  3. Steve Borek says:

    Before I became an executive coach I worked for some that played head games like the aforementioned boss.

    Keep them guessing? I’m sure he was very successful at stressing out his team. This means his constituents were spending time on things that really didn’t matter. Plus the fact his people took this stress home with them and possibly caused other problems.

    I’ve read, like you, multiple books on leadership. It boggles my mind why people can’t follow through on these concepts. I takes just as much energy to be a good thoughtful leader as it is to be an awful one.

  4. Steve Borek says:

    Ya, you’ve got a point Steve. The magic is getting them to see, or better yet feel, that being a good leader takes less energy. It goes against their instincts. Less is More.

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