, Singapore

Connecting leadership and communication

By Prof Sattar Bawany

The new realities

A leader must be able to communicate effectively. When CEOs and other senior executives in all industries and countries are asked to list the most important skills a manager must possess, the answer consistently includes good communication skills.

According to a published research in 1973 by management scholar, Henry Mintzberg, managers spend most of their day engaged in communication; in fact, older studies of how much time managers spend on various activities show that communication occupies 70 to 90 percent of their time every day.

With the proliferation of social media and cell phones, e-mail, text messaging, if that same study were done today, it would yield even higher percentages. The sheer amount of time managers spend communicating underscores how important strong communication skills can be for the manager desiring to advance to leadership positions; thus, mastering leadership communication should be a priority for managers wanting their organizations or the broader business community to consider them leaders.

Effective communication is an essential element of leadership. Leaders are communication champions who inspire and unite people around a common sense of purpose and identity. They lead strategic conversations that get people talking across boundaries about the vision, key strategic themes, and the values that can help the group or organization achieve desired outcomes.

Leadership communication

Leadership means communicating with others so they are influenced and motivated to perform actions that further common goals and lead toward desired outcomes.

Communication is the process by which information and understanding are transferred between a sender and a receiver. Two common elements in every communication situation are the sender, anyone who wishes to communicate, and the receiver, the person to whom the message is sent.

  • The sender initiates a communication by encoding a thought or idea.
  • The message is the tangible formulation of the thought or idea, and the channel is the medium by which the message is sent. The channel could be a report, telephone call, or e-mail.
  • The receiver decodes the symbols to interpret the meaning of message. Encoding and decoding are potential sources for communication errors because individual differences, knowledge, values, attitudes, and background act as filters and may create “noise” when translating from symbols to meaning.
  • Feedback occurs when a receiver responds to the sender’s communication with a return message. Feedback is a powerful aid to communication because it enables the sender to determine whether the receiver correctly interpreted the message.

Leading strategic conversations

Four elements necessary for strategic conversations by leaders are:

  1. an open communication climate,
  2. active listening,
  3. discernment, and
  4. dialogue

Open communication is essential for building trust, and it paves the way for more opportunities to communicate with followers, thus enabling the organization to gain the benefits of all employees’ minds.

However, leaders must be active listeners and must learn to discern the hidden undercurrents that have yet to emerge. It is through listening and discernment, both with followers and customers that leaders identify strategic issues and build productive relationships that help the organization succeed.

When active listening spreads throughout a group, a type of communication referred to as dialogue can occur. Through dialogue, people discover common ground and together create a shared meaning that enables them to understand each other and share a view of the world.

Leader communication is purpose-directed, and an important element is persuading others to act in ways that achieve goals and accomplish vision. Four steps for practicing the art of persuasion are to establish credibility, build goals on common ground, make your position compelling, and connect with others on an emotional level.

Leaders use rich communication channels, communicate through stories and metaphors, and rely on informal as well as formal communication. Electronic channels can be very advantageous if used appropriately, but their use increases the potential for communication errors, and these channels are not very effective for complex or sensitive messages.

Open communication

Open communication means sharing information throughout the company, especially across functional and hierarchical levels. This runs counter to the traditional flow of selective information downward from supervisors to subordinates. People need a clear direction and an understanding of how they can contribute.

Active listening

Listening well is an essential component of good leadership. A leader can become a more effective listener by learning the skills of active listening. Working relationships become more solid, based on trust, respect, and honesty. Active listening is not an optional component of leadership; it is not a nicety to be used to make others feel good. It is, in fact, a critical component of the tasks facing today’s leaders.


One of the most rewarding kinds of listening involves discernment. Discernment involves detecting the unarticulated messages hidden below the surface of spoken interaction, complaints, behavior, and actions. A discerning leader pays attention to patterns and relationships underlying the organization and those it serves.


Dialogue occurs when active listening and attention to unspoken undercurrents spread throughout the organization. Dialogue is active sharing and listening in which people explore common ground and grow to understand each other and share a worldview.

There is a distinction between a dialogue and a discussion. A discussion explores opposition by individuals who advocate their positions and convince others to adopt those positions. A discussion is resolved by logic or "beating down" opponents.

A dialogue requires that participants suspend their attachments to a particular point of view so that a deeper level of listening, synthesis, and meaning can emerge.


As an effective leader, communication is the primary and most important tool. There is no substitute for good judgement, and change leaders need to be reflective and thoughtful about the ways they communicate. There is also no substitute for ‘Active Listening’, and receiving feedback from the staff and colleagues about how the leader communicates.

A leader may make communication mistakes, but the mark of an effective change leader is that these mistakes are quickly identified through feedback and discussion, and corrective action is taken.

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