Radio Talk: The Art of Leadership Communication

Talk for Yuvavani,
All India Radio, Thiruvananthapuram.
First Broadcast on 29 July 2006.

There are constants and variables in leadership communication. Variables are much sought after while the value of constants are not fully recognized. Variables constitute style in communication while constants are the life-blood and substance of communication. Wherever constants are recognized and valued there is a sure chance of leadership communication to succeed.

The best kind of success in leadership communication occurs when there is a joining together of constants and variables. The synergy of such an alliance hits you like a tidal wave. Such communication has got depth and mobility. Constants give it depth while variables give it mobile power. The presence of the components of depth and mobility in leadership communication throws upon the leader a mantle of responsibility. A leader therefore has to communicate responsibly for his communication can easily shape or mar the destinies of many others.

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It follows that a good leader makes constants his priority. But then the question is, “What are these constants?” In one word, all constants can be summed up as “trustworthiness.” It is a sum of constants and is not achieved in a day’s time. For a leader to be perceived as trustworthy; he has to be approachable, has to have integrity, should be a man with vision and purpose, and should be one with an ability to motivate others to get things done. When these constants are in place the variables would follow. The variables can include, among other things, the men, the method and the medium a leader uses to communicate.

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For example, a message in the hand of a worthy messenger carries double the impact. World over, when men and women of reputation speaks for a cause, people listen! This is because the world recognizes the value of a worthy messenger.

Again, the method of communication is of utmost importance. Some leaders prefer to use gentle persuasion while others try dominant aggression. It is to be remembered that gentle persuasion is like water seeping into the pores of a sponge while dominant aggression is like the aftermath of an earthquake. Gentle persuasion creates an ambience for further positive communication. It encourages feedback too.

On the other hand dominant aggression leaves scars and eats into the deposit of trust built over the years. One thoughtless moment of dominant aggression can drive a wedge between relationships which may take a Herculean effort to bridge. It can cut off possibilities of dialogue too.

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Finally, the medium the leader chooses also determines the outcome of the communication. This is because the medium used can change perceptions. For example, having a motto displayed prominently at the entrance of an institution is vastly different from having it printed on a coffee mug and placed on every single table.

The first one can send the message of what the leader chose to believe in; while the second one is an invitation to the followers to share in the leader’s vision or mission. Thus it is clearly seen that the medium used can change perceptions. McLuhan’s statement “ The medium is the message” provokes thought in the study of such contexts.

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As you further think about leadership communication, the important thing to note is that variables like men, method, and medium cannot compensate for lack of constants. Constants are like strong pillars supporting a bridge. They give them strength. When the presence of these pillars are perceived by the target group they are willing to accept the communication that comes across the bridge as reliable.

These pillars are built of solid trust. It rests on integrity and relationships built over the years. A leader who keeps his word and delivers what he promises at the appointed times and seasons goes a long way in developing trust. His integrity fosters an intimate but elevated kind of lasting associations. This web is spun with so strong strands that adverse times do not break them; instead they only reveal its strength. Therefore seek to strengthen the constants in leadership communication.

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Leadership communication succeeds when values are enshrined in a man or woman. When he or she leads with a spirit of serving; then the world stops to listen. A leader of this class is one who is other-minded always. The fellow man’s good becomes his topmost priority and concern. Then he becomes the salt of the earth. And the taste of its influence causes others to listen to him. In other words, the constants in him make people listen. They become willing to obey.

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But then what is the secret of such charismatic leadership? Definitely excellent communication skills rank among the best of possible options. When leaders talk well, with clarity and power, with commitment and conviction; their success story is written indelibly in the hearts of men. Examples of such leadership are easily visible in the political arena of the world.

But then they distill down to leadership roles in other levels of society too . The father in a family, a teacher in a school, a team leader of a project or the captain of a cricket team are all leaders from whom others expect quality communication. If those in such leadership roles communicate well; then there is great scope for influence of charismatic leadership.

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The impact of such leadership is that unswerving loyalty becomes the only response possible in followers. It is said that when a surgeon was trying to pull out a bullet that had lodged near the heart of one of Napolean’s soldiers; he said: “Go a little deeper, you’ll find my Emperor there!” Such examples prove that leadership communication is not just about talk alone. It is more. It is a communication with one’s entire being. It is constants in action yet again.

But then something more should be said about leadership communication in a global context. World history is the story of a string of individuals who controlled the world with their mind or muscle or money or a combination of these. Plus it was their ability to talk that adhered people to them. But then some of them used this ability for unethical persuasion. This is a great danger still.

Though the world has never lacked leaders; what it now needs are leaders who can use their communication skills for the good of humanity. Leaders should also give ear to what Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “What you are shouts so loudly in my ears that I cannot hear what you say.” In other words, the constants should be in place if communication has to succeed.

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That means that communication should rise above noise level in the communication jungle of the world, if it has to succeed. The sheer amount of mediocre communication that is happening around you and me is stunning. Amidst the playful noises of the day and the screaming terrors of the night, in between the pouring down of verbal marathons from the visual media and the silent defilement of the scoops of the print media; successful leadership communication finds itself a dying art. Such is the amount of noise in communication today.

Solomon, the wise king asked, “The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone?” And in today’s context, the question points to the need of purposefulness in leadership communication. It calls for a style of restraint and economy of words. Otherwise the world would die because of another flood; this time not of water but of words. Who knows, someday soon, silence will become a paid commodity!

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But for the moment let us focus on purposefulness in leadership communication. It is a direct result of the leader’s vision. This is inseparably intertwined with his constants. And purposefulness is reflected in clarity of thought. The leader has to be clear about his desired outcomes. He, then, should be able to communicate this vision in clear, precise, concrete, and specific terms to those whom he leads.

If there is uncertainty here, the communication that proceeds from the leader will be like a muddied spring from which even cattle refuse to drink. The clarity of the message is therefore of supreme importance in leadership communication. St. Paul, himself a great leader of men, asked: “If the trumpet does not sound a clear call, who will get ready for battle?” The results of leadership communication depends largely on the answer to this question.

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Finally, it is to be noted that great leadership communication always motivates and inspires. For this to happen a leader is to be inspired himself. As Tagore rightly pointed out: “A lamp can never light another lamp unless it continues to burn its own flame.” But it also needs to be understood that motivation cannot happen in vacuum. Instead motivation can only take place in a meaningful communication context.

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For example, the world would never have respected Sir. Winston Churchill to such an extent if his speeches came in another context other than the second world war. The common man hiding in bomb shelters tuned the radio to listen to this man’s voice of courage and hope even as Nazi bombers; flying low and speeding past, were raiding the cities and towns. That context brought out the best in Churchill and allowed him to showcase the trophies of his art.

But again, he had character. So when constants combine with context; it leads to meaningful communication. Again, he was able to sustain his conviction throughout the days of the war. It motivated. It inspired. And won for the world a noted victory for democracy and peace.

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Therefore motivation is always a key aspect of leadership communication. As Peter Drucker noted: “Communication … always makes demands. It always demands that the recipient become somebody, do something, believe something. It always appeals to motivation.” A great leadership communicator therefore inspires and leads by example as he lives out his values in the market place and dares to step down from high pedestals to walk the dusty roads where the masses move and have their being. There, his lamp will light other lamps even as it continues to burn its own flame!

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