It's all talk

If you ask a leader what they do all day, you will get some interesting answers. A few would say that if they have done their job properly, they actually do very little on a day-to-day basis. What they mean by this is that their organisation and people are in such great shape that everyone knows what they have to do, and are left to do it. The leader's role, if all goes well, is like the conductor of an orchestra - keeping everyone on track and in time, with minimum visible effort.But that's the nirvana. And even in the best organisations, leaders are doing a lot even if it appears otherwise. Everything a leader says, and everything they do, has an impact on the people around them. The livelihood and ambitions of their employees depend on decisions made by the leader, which means that employees listen to and watch them closely. In other words, the way in which leaders communicate with their followers - by which we mean direct and indirect communication, both verbal and physical - underpins everything they do and how they are perceived. And yet many leaders consistently fail to pay enough time or attention to the way in which they communicate.There is little that a leader does that isn't about communication in some form. As we discussed in our previous column, the leader is responsible for setting the vision for their organisation, and for communicating that vision to their followers. That, in itself, is an enormous task. If a leader is introducing change into an organisation, communicating the reasons for the change, the way in which it will be achieved and the benefits it will bring, is the most important element of the change programme. If the leader fails to communicate effectively, the initiative is bound to fail.These are just two of the 'big' communication issues. But every organisation also runs on more mundane (but no less important) communication. The big decisions underpin a business but it is the small, everyday actions that make sure that the big decisions are successfully followed through. Martin Johnson, the former captain (and now coach) of the England rugby team describes this distinction between the two types of communication as 'Big Talk' and 'Little Talk'. 'Little talk,' as he puts it, 'makes the big talk happen.' This means giving direction and encouragement, but also reassurance and praise. Often, the biggest sapper of morale in an organisation is the absence of a 'thank you' or 'well done' from management.It sounds simple, but communication is a complicated beast. The management writer and consultant John Kotter once made the point that 'a message is not necessarily accepted just because it is understood'. Modern leadership is all about persuasion, and that means that it's not enough to tell your people to do something - they must have faith in you as a leader if they are going to obey. This phenomenon is seen most clearly in political campaigning. Invariably, it is the most persuasive, or likable, or believable candidate that comes out on top, occasionally irrespective of their policies. Campaigners are keen to show us the 'real' man or woman behind the politician, hence the inevitable discussions about favourite biscuits and the wooing of Mumsnet.The point is that in the modern world, we are looking for more than just competence from a leader. We want credibility and integrity. We want to respect them and preferably, like them. Once a leader's credibility is lost or damaged, followers lose trust in their leader and begin to doubt the quality of their decision-making ability. Once this happens, the leader's days are numbered.The credibility of a leader depends largely on the perception of their honesty, and the consistency of their words and their actions. Most business leaders would argue that honesty is usually the best policy, simply because in the world of Twitter and the internet, people are perfectly capable of finding out the truth for themselves. In fact, technology has made the lives of leaders far more difficult when it comes to communication. Email is a notoriously difficult conduit to master - it allows leader to communicate with a large number of people instantly and simultaneously, but it is also anonymous and must compete with dozens of other messages, some of them far more interesting (such as the latest office gossip).Perhaps the most important point to remember is that communication is a two-way street. The words and phrases that management tend to use in describing their communications strategy - informing, cascading, briefing - betray the view that many leaders see it as a strictly one-way process. This is why it is relatively easy for a leader to become isolated from reality - one of the biggest risks once you reach the top is that people will tell you want they think you want to hear, and not what they actually mean.The simple truth is that a leader is far more likely to earn the trust, respect and loyalty of their followers if they pay attention to what they have to say. Leaders should listen, to earn the right to be heard.

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