Communicating as leaders

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As part of the Academy’s two year story, we have asked a range of people from across health and social care to share their own stories and experiences of what leadership means to them.

One snow-covered February, tucked away at a venue in the wilds of Hampshire, I was embarking upon my first formal leadership programme.  Within minutes I was struck by an unintentional lesson that has remained with me ever since.

I was greeted by the smiling programme leader: “Ah, welcome, you must be Steve, and we will all remember you because of the Von Restorff Effect”.  Confused and concerned that the programme was going to be way over my head, a quick Google told me that a clearer statement might have been “… and we will all remember you because you are the only male amongst the thirteen on the programme”.

Two things have resonated with me since that day:

  1. That leadership lessons can come from almost anywhere
  2. That good, clear communication is at the heart of effective leadership.

This applies no matter where we are on our leadership development journey, and no matter what the leadership challenge we face. What has been less clear to me until quite recently, is the true extent to which the second statement is important, and the implications behind it.

Laden with meaning

What we say as leaders is only a small part of our communication.  Peter Fuda, the Australian leadership guru, said: “We judge ourselves by our intentions, and we judge others by their actions”.  The insight within this simple phrase has been a powerful influence on my own behaviours as a leader.

How we choose to spend our time, and with whom, sends out a stronger message than almost anything we will ever say.  Every action we take as a leader is a form of communication laden with meaning for others.

As an example, a private sector Chief Executive told me that he recently went to work wearing a favourite black tie.  Two senior members of staff separately approached him within minutes to ask if there was going to be a significant announcement that day.  Unbeknown to him, he had been wearing the same tie on two previous occasions when announcing the start of change programmes which had major implications for staff!

Reflecting on this should give pause for thought to all of us as leaders.  It is clear that if we want to create a shared purpose to change and improve (how many think leadership is about maintaining a status quo?), either within our own organisation or across many, that the change must start with ourselves.

As leaders we need to consider carefully how we consciously, and subconsciously, communicate.  Communication is a powerful tool, and as with any other tool, it can cause problems if not used in the right way.