Communication: The Most Important Key to Leadership Success
Effective leaders need to master the six basic functions of management: leading, planning, organizing, staffing, controlling, and communicating. But what’s the one golden thread tying all of those functions together – and the most important key to great leadership? Clear communication. Leaders need to be able to communicate well. In order to be effective, a leader needs to focus on three elements: mission, people, and teamwork. Communication impacts all of these areas.
The first element, mission, sounds like a very military word, but a unit mission is no different than accomplishing the tasks required for your business to succeed. I don’t know how many times in my military and business careers that I have heard phrases such as “what we have here is a failure to communicate” or “I have no idea what the boss wants” or “what are we trying to accomplish here”. Prioritization is key, because the number of tasks that need to be performed far outnumber all the tasks that any of us can get done in a given day. So a leader has to prioritize those tasks. What’s your vision, your objectives, i.e., what are you trying to accomplish? Ensure that the entire team understands them. One of the ways is to ask your subordinates questions about your guidance, what they think about the vision, mission or priorities. We say something, think it is understood, and then walk away, only to find out later that someone is headed in the wrong direction. It may not be because they are obstinate or have their own agenda; it just may be because they didn’t understand what you said. So a good leader has a responsibility to make sure that his or her subordinates know and understand what he or she told them and what his or her priorities are. The priorities may change frequently, so you have to give people the authority and power to come back to you for clarification. That sounds very basic, but I think it applies from the very senior level all the way down to the junior-level personnel. An effective tool used in the military to manage any ambiguity or misunderstanding is called the “brief back.” A brief back -- sometimes called a back brief -- is exactly what it sounds like. The person or people receiving the instructions, guidance, etc. give a synopsis of the information that they just received. The person originally giving the instructions can then determine whether the message was received properly and clarify as required.
The second element is people. This is where leader development comes in, not only from a strategic sense, but also from the perspective of what’s coming next. A good leader has the responsibility for preparing people for what may come next and giving them the tools to deal with uncertain situations. That’s true whether you’re going to change the organization or are about to cross the line of departure and go into combat. We need to prepare junior people to take over and lead our organization, or others like it, and take over positions of increasing responsibility. In the military, people (or human intelligence) are a leader’s best source of information. The same holds true in the corporate world and most other organizations. Technology has drastically altered the environment in which we operate. This technology has increased the information available to the leader and decreased the time available to him or her for decision making. As a rule, leaders have not learned to limit the information fed to them and how to separate the information critical to mission accomplishment from the volumes of information available. In the military, the commander expresses his or her information needs using the terminology “Commander’s Critical Information Requirements” or CCIR. CCIR communicate information that the commander needs to clarify the situation and considers critical to determining a course of action. CCIR is a tool to ensure that information transmitted to the commander is meaningful and readily recognized as critical to his mental vision of the situation. This technique is equally applicable to the business world.
Teamwork is the third element. Teamwork is vital – a lesson I learned from playing lots of team sports and also from a lifetime of service and leadership. If you build and sustain a great team, you can accomplish just about anything, even when it’s extremely risky and difficult. If you concentrate on an overarching philosophy theme of mission, people, and teamwork; illustrate the importance of it; and exemplify how to apply it, then your subordinates will look at it the same way. If they start to realize they are cut off from you in some military (or business) operation, can’t talk to you, and are facing a dilemma, by referring back to the priority tasks of taking care of their people and maintaining a very good team, they can’t go wrong.
Good communication impacts each of the three elements. Poor communications is one of the biggest obstacles to maximizing success. A big part of communication is relationships. If you have a relationship with someone, you can solve any problem. If you don’t have a relationship with them, everything is a problem. Communication is a job that is never done. It starts right after you take over a new leadership position when you describe your leadership philosophy and priorities and goals for the organization and continues throughout the duration of your assignment with new information and changes and updates about which your people need to be made aware. No matter how well you think you are communicating, you can never do enough, and you have to keep pouring on the effort and communication. It’s important for people to understand that people around you will believe that what you are thinking about is what you are, in fact, talking about. You can have very good thoughts, but if you only talk about other things, those thoughts are never available to your audience. So often in our dealings with other people, we only talk about what we are worried about, even though there are other things in our mind that are equally important. You might go before an audience that you care about. You are worried about their future and how the business environment is going to impact them. But if you get up there and only talk about your numbers, their conclusion is you are only thinking about the numbers.
Likewise, information sharing is vital, especially during the execution phase and after an activity, project, or mission has been completed. Excellent military techniques used to share information are “After-Action Reports” (AARs), lessons learned, and debriefings. An AAR is a detailed critical summary or analysis of a past event (such as a military action) made for the purpose of reassessing decisions and considering possible alternatives for future reference. Lessons learned document the experience gained on an activity, project, or mission – either positive or negative – that is important enough to be communicated to one’s peers to help incorporate or eliminate its occurrence in future undertakings. Debriefings are often used to question a soldier when he or she returns from a mission in order to assess the conduct and results of a mission in order to obtain useful information or intelligence to be used on future missions. AARs, lessons learned, and debriefings are all good ways of communicating valuable information throughout an organization.
Information is the lifeblood of an organization. It’s a dominant element of organizational power, and its value increases the more it is shared. Withholding of information to enhance personal power is a garbage game that leaders should not tolerate. The organizational culture should foster collaboration through information sharing. An organization cannot thrive, and junior leaders cannot mature, if information is concealed for personal power. The senior leader needs to set the example by communicating information, being as transparent as possible, and establishing trust. Staff meetings, small group meetings, town hall meetings, one-on-one meetings, and publications like newsletters, announcements, and web pages are all methods used by healthy organizations to share information. It’s important that information flows up, down, and laterally within organizations. In addition to staying adequately informed at the top, the leader needs to create opportunities to get information outside of formal channels. I often told officers, selected for command, that if they wanted to stay current on organizational health, they should have meetings with the spouses. Leaders need to be in touch and need to be trusted. A lot of information can be picked up at social functions or just be walking around at work and interacting with people. Leaders need to engender and earn respect. Fostering an open exchange of relevant information and discouraging information hoarding will help build a high-performance team.
Transparency is equally important, but there is a caveat. It is not always possible to be fully transparent, especially when classified and sensitive information must be protected and can’t be shared with everyone. Corporate merger and acquisition data is an example of information that needs to be close hold. There are also times when a decision made right now with the best information available is infinitely better than a refined decision made after a lengthy process of gathering all relevant information. There is a balance that applies in most situations, and one size does not fit all in terms of transparency. The test of your actions, decisions, and behavior is whether they ultimately lead to success and whether they are validated in after action reports.
Bottom line, clear communication is the most important key to a leader’s success. So to grow as a leader and manager, you must learn to be an effective, compelling communicator. Regardless of whether you are talking about business, politics, sports, or the military, the best leaders are first-rate communicators. Their values are clear and solid and what they say promotes those values. Their teams admire them and follow their lead. The best leaders motivate and inspire their people through clear communication. The best organizations promote discipline, accountability, and strategic alignment with clear communication. And market leaders sell their products and services with compelling ads and marketing campaigns – in sum, by clear communication. No matter how powerful your message may be or how competent you are, if you can’t clearly communicate to your team, customers, and audience you will never reach your maximum level of leadership success.