The new realities of leadership communication can be viewed from the context that we are moving to an era of organisational conversation. However, as business leaders we often fail to fully appreciate the ability we possess, for both good and ill, to influence people and situations through the simple choice of the words we use.
The new global reality of leadership communication has come about as a result of five things: economic change, organisational change, global change, generational change and technological change.
This has resulted in the increasing demand within the service industry and has evolved to become more economically significant relative to knowledge work. Economic change has also supplanted other kinds of work as society constantly seeks advanced ways to process and share information.
Organisational change has created a flatter hierarchical structure with the frontline employees involved in more value-creating work with bottom-up communication being important for decision-making whilst global change has created a diverse and widespread workforce whereby you are navigating across geographical and cultural lines which has caused the interaction to become more fluid and complex.
As generations evolve, it has caused a younger workforce to expect peers and authority figures to communicate with them in an energetic and two-way fashion. This gap has resulted in conflict and misunderstanding between the elderly workforce and the new generation workforce whose work ethic is totally different owing to digitalisation. Technological change has caused the reliance of an older and less conversational channel to be plausible. Social media platforms have become more powerful and widespread.
Coping with change
In all this maze of global changes, intimacy is the first stage for establishing a connection with our employees. However, in order to obtain the intimacy, we must have great interaction and dialogue. One thing certain is our teams are listening closely to what we say. It therefore becomes imperative that the very best communicators select their words carefully and work hard to ensure that followers understand their meaning. This necessity to speak and write clearly is a truly basic leadership objective, but ever so difficult to consistently execute.
Lessons from Abraham Lincoln
Let me at this point share the communication prowess of one American Leader Abraham Lincoln and see what today’s leaders can learn from this greatest communicator of all time. I am pleased to share his 272 word long speech which he delivered in 1863 at the National Cemetery. This powerful speech serves as a reminder to us of the power of an idea well expressed to move people to think differently and, sometimes, change the world.
Suffice it to say Lincoln had less than a year of formal schooling but he read constantly from an early age in an effort to educate himself. He became a master communicator whose innate yet carefully honed abilities as a storyteller and humourist enabled him to reach and teach ordinary people in unforgettable fashion. His deep study of the Holy Bible and Shakespeare influenced the lovely diction of his speeches.
Lincoln’s masterpiece, the Gettysburg Address, forever changed the way Americans think of themselves. He explained the meaning of the sacrifice of so many lives on the battlefield just a few months prior. He asserted the Declaration of Independence and its central idea — equality — as a matter of founding law. The Civil War, Lincoln told us, was the great struggle around and testing of this new principle. As historian Gary Wills said, “By accepting the Gettysburg Address, its concept of a single people dedicated to a proposition, we have been changed. Because of it, we live in a different America.”
Few people, even among great historical figures, possess Abraham Lincoln’s gift for language. Of speeches that compare with the Gettysburg Address, for me, only the inspirational words of Martin Luther King Jr come to mind, delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963, telling his countrymen: “I have a dream today…”
Choice of words
There is a popular historical myth that Lincoln penned the Gettysburg Address on the back of an envelope as he rode the train from Washington DC to Pennsylvania. To the contrary, the speech was carefully composed beforehand at the White House. He wrote and rewrote it, revising the speech even as late as the morning it was to be delivered. Lincoln was incredibly particular in his choice of words, and he worked hard to get the message just right. He knew that his followers, and even future generations, would be paying close attention. In that way, he was a teacher to all of us who would aspire to be leaders who communicate well.
With written communication, take the time to be thoughtful. Who is your intended audience? What message do you want to convey? How can you write that piece — whether a short e-mail or a full-blown speech — in the simplest, most concise way, yet still get your point across (remember Lincoln’s 272 words)?
Communication builds credibility
Nothing is more frustrating for a team of people than to read something their boss or colleague has produced that causes confusion. Credibility is lost and time is wasted. Proofread what you write. Better yet, have someone that you trust check your work. Be open to suggestions and make changes accordingly.
Like Lincoln did, practice your writing. As with any other skill, writing ability can be developed over time with effort, repetition and feedback.
The spoken word can prove more difficult because we frequently don’t have time to be as reflective as we might with a writing assignment. We are often called upon to give an opinion quickly without the benefit of all the information we need to make a judgment.
Mandeya is a certified executive leadership coach, corporate education trainer and management consultant and founder of Leadership Institute of Research and Development (LiRD). — email@example.com/ or firstname.lastname@example.org, Facebook: @lirdzim and Mobile/WhatsApp: +263 719 466 925