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Leadership Communication: Addressing a Gap in Leadership Development Programs


Leadership matters. Indeed, given the sheer annual investment in leadership development training, one must conclude that many organizations recognize the importance of leadership development to meeting organizational objectives. In fact, of the $60 billion dollar investment in training in 2012, nearly half of the training spend focused on leadership related training (ASTD, 2012). Of course, this author’s experience in a Fortune 500 company is consistent with the broader industry reality; leadership development is typically an organizational priority. However, Kellerman (2012) argues that most leadership development pedagogies are overly concerned with leaders and “are oblivious to the fact that followers matter” (p. 183). In truth, most leadership development programs focus participants on an external understanding of leadership, coupled with an exploration of the participant’s inner landscape. However, very little attention is paid to the central role of communication in uniting organizational leaders and followers alike.   Moreover, little attention is paid to leadership communication praxis, the process whereby leaders use leadership theory to institute communication practices that create self-knowledge, unity, and collaboration. Thus, this author suggests leadership development programs make leadership communication an implicit element of training efforts to focus theory and align self-knowledge with followers through the act of communication.

Towards a Model for Engaging Followers with Leadership Communication Skills

Before outlining an active training model for improving leadership communication skill, more clarity is required on the specific problem. As noted in the introduction, organizations spend billions on leadership development program, yet much of the focus is on understanding theoretical concepts and improving self-knowledge. Indeed, the idea that leadership is an inner journey is en vogue—the Leadership Challenge, Palmer’s Courage & Renewal Retreat, and Harvard’s Program for Leadership Development are but a few examples. In truth, many leadership scholars and practitioners agree that self-knowledge is a critical for leadership (Avolio & Gardner, 2005; Carey, 1999; Kouzes & Posner, 2011; Palmer, 2007). For example, Kouzes and Posner (2011) suggests credibility is the foundation of leadership, but argue that credibility depends on “how well you know yourself…your values and beliefs, your skills and deficiencies, what success means to you and the level of commitment you are willing to make” (p. 47). Having participated in several of these types of programs over the years, this author agrees the inner journey is the appropriate starting point of any leadership development effort.

Equally, most of the programs emphasizing theory and self-knowledge focus largely on leaders, deemphasizing the role of followers and often ignoring praxis, the application of knowledge into action. Indeed, Freire (2012) defines praxis as “reflection and action upon the world in order to transform it” (p. 43). In fact, many leadership development programs leave the transformation of knowledge into action to the program participant—a situation this author believes hampers the effectiveness of programs. Thus, the situation raises an important question. What is the world that leaders seek to transform and how do leaders turn reflection into action?

In fact, it stands to reason that leaders seek to transform the world of themselves and their followers. Of course, understanding the type of transformation required is a matter of dialogue—on shared values and shared vision—with followers (Kouzes & Posner, 2007). Therefore, turning reflection into action to transform the world requires communicative action. Specifically, praxis requires specific knowledge of leadership communication, and the skills to apply the knowledge in a real-world situation. Thus, this author suggests that leadership development programs address praxis by incorporating specific knowledge and practical application of leadership communication skills in their curriculum, while promoting the attitudes that encourage participants to apply their new knowledge and skills to engage their followers. What follows in this paper is one approach to address the praxis gap in leadership development programs using a model based on leadership communication skills.

Theoretical Foundation

Before defining the training approach, it is worthwhile to outline the theoretical foundations of leadership communication through a brief conceptual literature review of recent research in the fields. To begin, in a comprehensive text on leadership communication, Barrett (2011) defines leadership communication as:

The controlled, purposeful transfer of meaning by which individuals influence a single person, a group, an organization, or a community by using the full range of their communication abilities and resources to connect positively with their audiences, overcome interferences, and create and deliver messages that guide, direct, motivate, or inspire others to action. (p. 6)

Thus, leadership communication is a specific domain of knowledge. Whereas, the popular press and management literature commonly recognizes the inherent link between leadership and communication, for the most part, scholars treat leadership and communication as independent fields of study. In order to understand how the communication of leaders can affect leadership outcomes, this author sought out literature linking communication with leadership outcomes.

In one recent study, Neufeld, Zeying, and Yulin (2010) found transformational and transactional leadership were positively linked with communication effectiveness suggesting that people exhibiting strong leadership behaviors are also seen as effective communicators. Moreover, communication effectiveness was positively correlated with leader performance. In summary, Neufeld, et al. (2010) find communication effectiveness is a significant mediator of transformational and transactional leadership on perception of leadership performance. Indeed, the authors argue “without effective communication, leadership is essentially irrelevant” (p. 241). Having established an empirical link between leadership performance and communication effectiveness, this author will now look at how a leader’s communication styles affect leadership outcomes.

While there are a variety of instruments measuring communication styles, they lack parsimony and integration (de Vreis, Bakker-Pieper, & Oostenveld, 2010). However, de Vries, Bakker-Pieper, Siberg, van Gameren, and Vlug (2009) undertook a comprehensive lexical study of communication styles to arrive at the seven main dimensions of communication style: a) expressiveness, b) preciseness, c) niceness, d) supportiveness, e) aggressiveness, f) assuredness, and g) argumentativeness. Furthermore, de Vreis, et al. (2010) found many of these communication styles were strongly related to perceived leader performance, team satisfaction, team commitment, and knowledge sharing behaviors.

Indeed, the authors found that transformational leadership is to a large extent, grounded in communication styles, while transactional leadership “is much less communicative” (de Vreis, et al., 2010, p. 376). In addition, transformational leaders “are characterized by an assured, supportive, argumentative, precise, and verbally non-aggressive communication style” (de Vreis, et al., 2010, p. 376), while transactional leaders are characterized by an assured, precise, and aggressive style. Finally, preciseness may be the most important communication style for transformational and transactional leaders alike, because leader preciseness was “found to have significant positive relations with perceived leader performance and satisfaction with the leader…[and]… was, together with leader’s supportiveness, the most important predictor of subordinate’s knowledge collecting from a leader” (de Vreis, et al., 2010, p. 377). Thus, leaders should invest in increasing communication effectiveness and improving their use of specific communication styles.

Approach

In order to increase a leader’s communication effectiveness and improve their use of communication styles, this author recommends embedding specific leadership communication training into existing leadership development programs. Indeed, the idea is to supplement leadership develop program’s focus on leadership theory and the inner leadership journey with a perspective on praxis based on communicative action. To wit, this author will explicate a leadership communication segment using the active training style advocated by Silberman and Auerbach (2006) and commonly used in leadership development programs.

According to Silberman and Auerbach (2006), the critical question in any active training program is “what you want the participants to value, understand, or do with topics” (p. 41). Therefore, this author will begin by outlining the objectives of the training segment, beginning with the overarching objective:

Participants will understand the need to improve their leadership communication skills, understand what specific improvements they can make, and understand how to improve.

In addition, participants will be able to:

  • Understand the role of ethics in leadership communication
  • Describe effective leadership communication styles
  • Project a positive ethos in their communication
  • Use non-verbal communication in projecting a positive ethos
  • Recognize the importance of supportiveness, assuredness, and preciseness in leadership communication
  • Emphasize specific styles in their communication
  • Understand the need to tailor communication to their audience
  • Make their communication more precise
  • Apply leadership communication principles in a variety of settings

High-level Structure of Content

The training material will incorporate the latest research on communication styles and leadership in a practical delivery model that helps learners understand and modify their communication style. In addition, the material will be organized using Aristotle’s three types of persuasive appeals—logos, pathos, and ethos (Barrett, 2011). While the learning will focus on using all three types of appeals in the leadership communication process, ethos will play a central role. Indeed, learners will be encouraged to develop and project a positive ethos during leadership communication by linking thought, word, and deed, while minimizing distracting communication. Moreover, the learning will focus participant attention on elements of practice that lead to positive perception of leadership communication. For more information, see the associated Powerpoint presentation.

Delivery

Ideally, this author will deliver the leadership communication training segment in person as part of a larger leadership development program. However, recognizing the limitations of online learning environments, the delivery format is designed for both in-person and online delivery as a brain-friendly lecture. Thus, the lecture will include an introductory exercise, a preview of the content including an opening summary, an illuminating exercise, and a demonstration (Silberman & Auerbach, 2006).

Feedback

While the primary feedback mechanism for this segment will be peer feedback, this author will follow-up the training segment with an online training evaluation to assess reactions and behavior intentions. Unfortunately, given funding and time limitations, this author did not assess learning.

Conclusion

In summary, billions are spent annually on leadership development programs, yet little attention is given leadership communication, despite the centrality of communication to leadership. Moreover, communication can bridge the gap between the inner leadership journey and praxis, or the outward manifestation of leadership. This paper—and the associated training it describes—is a contribution to understanding how to design effective leadership development programs. Indeed, leadership communication focuses the participant attention on praxis, the point where the rubber hits the road.

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About rjrock

Husband, Father, Friend, Business & Technology Executive, Student, Veteran, Leadership and Communication Scholar, Lifelong Learner, Sailor, Musician, Basketball Player, Camper, Harley Rider, Dog Lover, Lover of the Lived Experience, Coach, Mentor, Tutor

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