There is consistent and irrefutable evidence ( both online and in physical literature) that the ten qualities of a good leader include: being in possession of the ability to inspire and motivate others towards a common goal, having the commitment and passion to consistently implement one’s calling, being firmly decisive irrespective of the situation at hand and resources to make decisions, having honesty and integrity at the core of one’s being as a guiding compass, being an excellent communicator in all situations (proactive and reactive), empowering others through shared responsibility and delegation, having empathy and compassion at heart for all others, being creative and innovative about solution provision, being dependable and responsible at all times and finally, being positive and transmitting this positivity to others. Indeed, this is quite a star studded cast of a leadership qualities list, with all elements forming the aspiration of many a leader. But just as George Orwell in his 1945 masterpiece Animal Farm, satirically posits that all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others, this discussion on leadership correspondingly asserts that all leadership qualities bear significant weight, but most important of them all, is the ability to communicate effectively. If clear communication were to be pulled out, all the other leadership qualities would suffer significantly.
What does this therefore mean for leadership today and how can we harness the power of effective communication as leaders, to create transformation?
Developing excellent communication skills is absolutely essential to effective leadership and this cuts across both the corporate and entrepreneurship divide. Having spent over fifteen years in the corporate space in senior leadership positions across different sectors, including telecommunications, healthcare, training and development, research and innovation, and people development; the fundamentals remain the same – a leader must be able to share knowledge and ideas, in a way that transmits purpose and enthusiasm to others. Whether leading a team in the corporate sphere or an enterprise either products or services related, communicating distinctly and effectively is a non-negotiable condition for leadership excellence. In fact it is so aptly put by Gil Amelio former CEO, Apple that: “If a leader can’t get a message across clearly and motivate others to act on it, then having a message doesn’t even matter.”
Excellent leaders are driven by vision and have clarity of thought with regards to their desired outcome. And because no man is an island and one cannot achieve their vision single handedly, the communication of this vision with passion and purpose serves to rally up others towards the same goal. Leaders must carry along their audience (both internal and external) to have them want and desire the same outcome. It is only then, that the route to success can be adequately mapped out. Leaders must illustrate the end game simply and effectively and leave no areas unaddressed, including invitation of contributory thoughts, ideas, suggestions, and proposals. The concept of visionary leadership and specifically of the feminine type, did not commence in recent times. The leadership style of Indira Gandhi who served as Prime Minster of India from Jan 24, 1966 until March 24, 1977, and then again from Jan 14, 1980 until Oct 31, 1984, clearly illustrates one woman’s tempestuous battle to conquer the insurmountable challenge that defined India’s extreme poverty levels and religious divide. She dreamed of a better nation, a stronger nation, a more productive nation. It was her continuous mantra that the impossible can become possible if only one focuses his or her attention on the outcome and not the challenging journey. In our personal and professional journeys, be they in the regular corporate environment, public or private sector, or within the business or entrepreneurship world, we need to continuously ask ourselves if we have Indira’s vision and resolve to get through ups and downs and rise, even when life rides roughshod over us. Indira was well known for her charisma and communication skills, and many have attributed the formation of Bangladesh to her, based on her resolve to see the bigger picture.
The art of listening
The second communication pillar that drives all great leaders is the art of listening. Any leader worth his or her salt understands the value of really listening. Listening elicits total commitment from others, and it is worth noting that listening is not automatic. It is a skill that must be learned and polished over time. Good leaders understand how essential listening is towards effective communication and that the relationship between listening and trust is inseparable. Leaders who listen, earn trust from their followers and transmit respect and care. Listening to people communicates generosity, and generous leaders are truly loved.
The high impact outcomes of listening are not the preserve of the corporate workplace, but command the very same result of loyalty and commitment everywhere. Whether leading a high power team of senior officials, or a crew of manual labourers, if one wants a very very high performance team, learning to listen to them and respond correctly, will result in their motivation to succeed. In similar light, Eleanor Roosevelt the longest-serving First Lady of the United States, who held the post from March 1933 to April 1945, an earnest politician, diplomat and activist, long epitomized great leadership results achieved by really listening to others. She is remembered as a truly amazing visionary who understood the need to have her ear on the ground and build movements to demolish injustice.
Her innate ability as a community organizer has been attributed numerously to her skill in bringing people together, by listening to what was important to them and earning their trust. To create a significant shift in the fight for women’s rights at such a time when there was resistance to equality and respect, work and training, fair compensation and economic security for women, she listened to cues from the environment and kept pushing for results.Her favourite lesson was that to succeed , one needs a support group, to enable one really listen to others, support each other through challenges and celebrations and most importantly, to have others listen to you and provide sound advice. Eleanor is famously quoted saying : “You really need a gang.”As leaders therefore and in true Eleanor fashion, we need to assess if we are truly listening to others and providing a safe space in which they may trust us with listening to them wholly and truly. Eleanor really believed that even in disagreement, people need to speak and listen to each other. A mantra that saw her speak to everybody in racially charged zones, in the hope to influence them positively through really listening.
Great leaders are also defined by their drive to seek for and receive feedback. And whereas this is easily preached as a good quality towards true leadership, it is only leaders with the utmost desire to lead well, who accept critical feedback in a constructive manner. To receive others suggestions for improvement without being defensive and use the inputs towards continual improvement, requires selflessness and grit. It is said that great leaders are made not born, and that though one may possess the makings of a leader that catapult them in the race to the top, it is only those willing to learn how to accept feedback that lead for greatness and not for ‘self’.
Influential leadership demands that not only should one seek individual feedback, but also about everything around them. Leaders need to listen to the voice of their team members and to feedback from external sources. In the business environment, feedback seeking needs to extend beyond the internal, to observations from customers both actual and potential and other key stakeholders, towards decision making for success. History, and specifically Kenyan history, serves so rich a record of the success of Mekatili Wa Menza, the astounding woman leader who in 1913 led the Giriama revolt against the British Colonial government. She succeeded in blocking British attempts to infringe on the rights of Africans by hiring cheap labour and collecting undeserved taxes. The success of her campaign has been attributed to her ability to draw people together, listen to their biggest fears, and use those to fuel her assault against British domination in a bid to ensure her people’s greatest fears did not come to pass. The British arrested Mekatilili, and imprisoned her in a camp thousands of miles away in Western Kenya. This only served to increase her resolve, and by a feat not understood to date, and attributed to her ability to listen to her surroundings, she walked over a thousand kilometres back to her Giriama people. It is said that this miraculous journey through forest and wildlife infested zones succeeded because Mekatilili was astute at talking to others, listening to their advice, and proceeding as such.
Her leadership was unusual as not only were Giriama women rarely involved in political matters, but to this level was of critical acclaim. Mekatilili’s story challenges us to contemplate our leadership style and assess our ability to listen to others, seek feedback, and use it to garner personal and professional success. Leaders are said to be lonely at the top. With Mekatilili’s lesson on seeking out others, this need not be the case. After her successful revolt, the British failed to gain control of Giriama country, and were compelled to accommodate a Giriama government, with Mekatilili heading the women’s council.
Communication is fundamental to leadership, and we should all provide ourselves the opportunity to reset our leadership buttons, whilst riding on the shoulders of the great women who have gone before us. We must communicate to influence in a bid to transform the world for generations to come.
Carolyne Gathuru is the founder and director of strategy at Lifeskills Consulting. She has a wealth of experience in customer service strategy development and training. Email : firstname.lastname@example.org