Center for Organizational Leadership

Empowering Effective Leaders

Strong Leadership Requires Intentional Communication

By Dr. Andrea Bishop

Dr. Bishop is the director of Harding University's Center for Organizational Leadership

Strong leadership cannot exist without thoughtful, careful communication. Leadership and communication are inextricably linked and cannot be separated, nor should they be. Alexander Lyon writes that communication isn’t simply a secondary workplace endeavor used only to assist with other things like finance or IT. Instead, he says, communication “is the central generative activity in organizational life.” Communication is the center of the workplace and the heart of leadership. It is the focal point of any organization. Communication generates new thoughts, new practices and new strategies. It defines the culture of families, schools, workplaces and governments, for good or ill. Simply put, poor communication equates to poor leadership while strong communication equates to strong leadership.

I’ve taught writing and communication for almost 17 years, and one thing I’ve learned is that most people assume a “this is just who I am” attitude about their own abilities. We seem to believe people are either inherently good or bad writers, speakers or communicators. It’s as though communication is an inherited gene like blue eyes or curly hair. While permanently changing the texture of my hair or the color of my eyes might not be possible, I can improve how I write, speak or listen. Becoming a better communicator is not only feasible, but also an honorable goal for everyone. If we want to become more effective leaders, we can start by becoming more effective communicators.

One of my favorite communication concepts is the idea of the “rhetoric of respect,” which I first learned about from author Tiffany Rousculp. Rousculp argues that a rhetoric of respect recognizes the diversity of thoughts, approaches and abilities of others. A rhetoric of respect rests on understanding the worth and esteem inherent in our colleagues. When we lead with a rhetoric of respect, we speak, listen and act with respect. When leaders utilize this strategy with their coworkers and employees, they begin to tear down barriers that contribute to unhealthy communication practices and build a new foundation on which people at all levels of the organization feel valued and heard.

Similar to Rousculp’s rhetoric of respect is Ike Lasater ’s concept of  “nonviolent communication.” While the name of this concept is off-putting for some, I encourage leaders to educate themselves and consider implementing in the workplace nonviolent communication methods, based on compassion and empathy. This concept relies on an understanding that all humans share the same essential needs:to be valued, heard, supported and trusted.

Of course, nonviolent communication is antithetical to what we often experience especially in corporate America where a more aggressive communication style is the standard.  However, such an aggressive standard is counterproductive for leaders.

Lasater states that in a Western society we are implicitly taught how to analyze who is at fault, who is to be blamed and, therefore, who is to be punished. As leaders, we are especially good at rooting out who is at fault in any situation, but we often are less skilled at pressing pause, withholding judgment and seeking to understand rather than to blame.

One of the foundations of nonviolent communication is the “training wheels sentence , ” which helps us practice observations , feelings , needs and requests . The training wheels sentence works like this:

"When I hear/see/observe ___,"

"I feel ___"

"Because I need ___."

"Would you be willing to ___? "

An example of this strategy at work is when a project manager approaches his team and says, “ When I heard that we missed our deadline yesterday, I felt frustrated because I thought we were all on the same page and we all understood the need to submit our plan to the customer on time. Would you all be willing to work late this evening to make sure we complete this project today?”

Observation, feelings, needs, requests: this is nonviolent communication.

One of the leadership courses I teach is called Organizational Communications. It is foundational to the Master of Arts in organizational leadership program at Harding University, and it helps graduate students — many of whom are CEOs or CEOs-in-the-making — begin to see the inextricable link between good leadership and good communication. In this course, we study communication strategies, practice writing workplace documents and build a crisis communication plan for specific workplaces. In times of crisis, organizations often revert to a standard of blame and redirection, but when we are in the habit of offering a rhetoric of respect, reinforcing our conversations with empathy and being intentional about our communication choices, we can avoid the blame game.  As leaders, we must reflect upon how changing our own communication practices can improve how we lead.

If we want to be more effective leaders, we must consider our communication habits and strategies. Perhaps these two concepts of nonviolent communication and rhetoric of respect offer insight on the communication culture at work in our organizations and strategies for improvement. Communicating clearly with kindness and respect can help us negotiate, deescalate arguments and offer a template for sharing thoughts and concerns. When we truly consider what it means to communicate with care and empathy, we see how a communication culture built on trust, kindness, respect and transparency inevitably creates a healthier workplace.