Leaders Communicate

“Leadership is solving problems. The day soldiers stop bringing you their problems is the day you have stopped leading them. They have either lost confidence that you can help or concluded that you don’t care. Either case is a failure of leadership.”
~Colin Powell

Visionaries are considered a rare breed. They have an ability to see a completed project or a successful event when others see an empty whiteboard or a vacant lot in an undesirable part of town. When they attempt to communicate vision, they are trying to bridge a divide; between skill sets, personalities, socioeconomic status or even world view. For this effort, they are admired and often receive a PASS for not being able to effectively and strategically communicate, what they can so easily envision, to the masses. They thoughts and ideas are seen to somehow transcend the rest of humanity; making them unable to illuminate the path for those who willingly carry the torch across the finish line.  

While visionaries are credited for their innovation and inspiration, those who are fully committed to assisting them in meeting these common goals struggle to see their part in the bigger picture. So, the problem seems to be two-fold. Rather than ask questions or raising thoughts or suggestions, managers and team members hear the words of the vision, take it at face value and set about to interpret the strategy, processes, policies, procedures and oversee the people who will make the dream a reality without adequate understanding.

One reason this can happen is that many organizations have nurtured a culture which discourages questions or alternate opinions. Somehow asking a question makes you less of a team player. Another reason managers fail to speak up might be because no one else is asking any questions; therefore, you assume that everyone else must know something that you don’t. Remember 5th grade when the teacher would ask… are there any questions? No one raised their hand, but you discovered the next day when the assignment was due and few students had completed it correctly that you weren’t the only one with a question… and that your question had the same answer that others needed to know but failed to ask.

I have had the pleasure of working with many directors and managers who are excellent communicators and who have become quite adept at “managing up”, in efforts to keep the organization’s vision moving forward. Unfortunately, their influence only goes so far. They run out of meaningful answers to their teams’ questions, because process and procedure details are unclear. Once managers receive the vision direction, they need time to digest the information for meaningful dissemination. Motivated to remain productive in their collaborative efforts with the leader, the lack of understanding causes managers to revert to saying something that my generation vowed never say to our children… Because I said so. Those words aren’t used, of course, but the phrases are just as ambiguous.

As much as I would love to see effective and meaningful communication become a grass roots movement or a bottom-up revolution that overtakes the top tiers of leadership… in general, that’s not how organizational change takes place.

Colin Powell, one of our country’s greatest assets (in my opinion) saw his role in the lives of US military members as an important one. Leaders such as he are willing to put forth the same effort that is expected of those they lead; displaying a personal commitment to ensure meaningful, goal-oriented communication organization-wide. There are several ways to begin this growth process as a visionary leader.

One way is to surround yourself with team members who compliment your skills – people who are smarter than you are in their areas of expertise. Let others help you see the vision from a variety of perspectives and articulate it in ways that make it easy to be owned by everyone. This action helps in creating buy-in and developing unity among team members across hierarchical levels of the organization.

Second, make yourself vulnerable by delegating important assignments to these individuals within the scope of their expertise. Be sure to include strategists on the team – people who can provide win-win opportunities during the process. Managers are valuable in moving the vision forward as well as accurately and effectively conveying the mission perspective and purpose to those who are on the front lines (servicing customers directly).

The outcomes of these activities will be evident as purposeful and clear strategy and process align with the vision to produce positive and sustainable results. I’m excited to hear your experience so leave me a comment to let me know how it goes.


Meaningful Communication

“Love is that condition in the human spirit so profound that it empowers us to develop courage; to trust that courage and build bridges with it; to trust those bridges and cross over them so we can attempt to reach each other.” ― Maya Angelou

Welcome to COMM Envy!

Sustainable, legendary, temporal, functional, iconic… What kinds of bridges will you build?

The dissemination of information is often force fed as a substitute for thoughtful, meaningful communication. The function of these two actions couldn’t be more different. The conveyance or dissemination of information is often meant to be impersonal, with the goal of making something known, while requesting or requiring no response. Meaningful communication may start with the dissemination of information, but its delivery is provocative and purposeful; in anticipation of and literally requiring a response to validate its existence. In high school or college, you may have been taught to start a conversation with an open-ended question (requiring more than a YES or NO answer), which is a great! Without a response, our attempts at communication will hold less meaning for ourselves or others.  

Meaningful Communication (my personal definition)… that which makes a difference; leads to positive and purposeful results; presenting value to the table of ideas, forging a path of free-flowing conversation which makes way to suggestions that reveal solutions, which may have been long masked by opaque and seemingly debilitating thoughts or obstacles.

Have you ever been in a conversation when someone says exactly what you need to hear, in a way that you needed to hear it? The words satisfy your head and melt your heart all at the same time. It’s like cool rain on a hot day… or a breath of fresh air in the Shanghai smog on a Tuesday afternoon. It’s the type of interaction that can turn a day full of heavy, mundane, treadmill-like tasks into a weightless and exciting adventure. It can transform a web of complicated problems into a colorful tapestry waiting to be unraveled.  I know it sounds unrealistic… but it’s happened to all of us. The question is… How?

Meaningful communication can only take place in an atmosphere deemed to be non-judgmental; a safe space, conducive to positive interaction and mutual respect. Ideally, the scene should be free from penalty, blame, shame, anxiety or comparison. Participants should remain firmly planted in the present, with common goals and objectives focused on solving issues of relevance to all.

This may sound utopian, especially since we are all flawed and unable to manage some of these inner emotions all at once… But our inability to obtain perfection isn’t an excuse for us not to improve our current state.  Besides, wouldn’t you like for more of your meetings and interpersonal encounters to yield this kind of response?  Just think of the increased clarity of purpose and productivity you and your teams would experience!

Meaningful communication starts with listening for what we haven’t heard before; then opening our eyes, minds and hearts to the possibilities represented… not only by what we’ve just heard… but also by what we’ve just experienced.

Does that mean we should bow to the whisper and whim of everything we hear? Of course not. To communicate meaningfully doesn’t mean that we will always agree. It does, however, require self-awareness and mutual respect for the thoughts and ideas of others. It’s also important to note that we will be tempted to run away from inner growth rather than toward it. My advice: extend patience… with yourself and with others during this journey. This is a marathon, not a sprint. Run your race, hydrate and keep moving forward. You won’t regret it.

Still reading?


Let’s start by gather the ingredients.

Ingredient #1: YOU  

Meaningful communication cannot take place without an investment from you. Don’t panic – I’m not trying to sell anything here.  I’m talking about your willingness to listen… and in some cases to change; to be exposed to and maybe even embrace fresh perspectives, to respect the expertise of those around you – giving up on the idea of being the smartest person in the room, putting yourself in their place and allowing yourself to become vulnerable where you may lack experience, wisdom or insight. You can create an environment for meaningful communication to flourish.

Maybe you have biases which cause you to hear from certain people in certain ways, or not to hear from them at all. This is sometimes called selective hearing.  We all have biases and recognizing them is essential to honing your communication skills. Ask yourself: Did I hear what was said or did I hear what I think she/he meant based on previous experience?  Is it possible that I could be hearing a change in attitude or a different thought than was conveyed last week? Is the change real or is this just a fleeting attempt at empathy to be followed by more of the same?

Hearing and listening are two very different actions. Hearing implies the engagement of the physical ear and the mind. Listening on the other hand further engages emotions. It requires a level of interest in and empathy toward the person with whom you are engaging. Similar to my earlier example, not only do you hear and understand, but you begin to feel what’s being said. Some refer to this as hearing with your heart.

Example: If a family member, friend or colleague says something that you know is out of character for them, as someone who knows them and as someone who cares about them, you can consciously filter the comment (take it with a grain of salt, so to speak – not allowing it to affect you personally) and reach out to them in conversation to explore the potentially deeper meaning.

What about your own thoughts and ideas? Are you able to relate them to others without fear of manipulation, scrutiny or rejection? Deciding that what you bring to the table is both valid and valuable may be the beginning of your journey to create opportunities for meaningful communication in your circles of influence.  

Recommendations for the week:

  • Be patient with yourself and others. We have trained ourselves to be independent rather than interdependent. Communication may not come naturally as a result.
  • Remember:  You add value!
  • Listen for what you haven’t heard before and seek to understand.
  • Speak with the intent to build bridges, not walls. No one is an island. Let’s start by nurturing ourselves as we prepare to engage in meaningful communication with others.

Ingredient #2… Next Week