Courageous leadership communication ARTICLE BY Natalie Benjamin

It was management consultant, Tom Peters, who said that there’s no such thing as a great leader who communicate poorly and I couldn’t agree more. Communication doesn’t just lie at the heart of great leadership; it’s the lifeblood running through any organisation. Communication makes or breaks organisational change, employee engagement and getting that well-crafted strategy off a piece of paper and into action. But, despite communication’s importance and inherent familiarity with us all, it takes particular skill and courage to communicate with employees clearly, passionately and sensitively each and every day! Before we look more closely at leadership communication and the role that courage plays, it’s worth taking a step back and thinking momentarily about courage itself. History shows that courage ranks people morally. In fact, Aristotle recognised courage as a cardinal virtue – a golden mean. Alongside prudence and justice, he named it as a habit of the soul. Aristotle considered that, to be truly brave, one must have fears and the ability to recognise them with ease through deep self-awareness, a well-trodden concept in leadership commentary. It doesn’t take a deep dive into the literature to recognise how much emotion that courage and its quest evoke and that’s not surprising when you look to its linguistic roots. The word courage comes from Latin ‘cor’ which literally means heart. There are always multiple definitions in any tale of courage but fear and risk are always the central characters. I would argue, therefore, that courage doesn’t just lie at the heart of leadership; it’s the backbone to impactful communication. This article aims to link some of the thinking about courage explicitly to communication and specifically to leadership communication in organisations. Surprisingly, courage appears largely unexplored in the communication discipline. So, firstly, what is courageous leadership communication? In Lane4’s experience of working with senior leaders, HR professionals and internal communications practitioners over the last sixteen years, we’ve noticed six consistent themes requiring courageous communication. 1. Ownership of the message. It is inevitable that leaders will, at some stage, deliver something that they don’t like or haven’t created. It won’t always be easy to really ‘own’ that message and to deliver it with authenticity to others. 2. Giving tough feedback. Giving tough feedback often takes courage. Many of us will have an impulse to tell people what they want to hear because it may evoke fewer or more favourable reactions. But courage is not about not being scared. It’s being scared and still doing it anyway. Courageous communicators don’t allow their actions to be influenced by fears of reaction or disappointment. 3. Sharing bold decisions. There’s a reason that leadership is not always easy. At the crux of it lies making tough, bold and often unpopular decisions that people won’t always like. This is synonymous with courageous communication.

4. Against preferences. Going against your natural personality traits can take courage. For example, a natural introvert might find standing up in front of a group difficult. Everybody’s looking at them. They’re visible and vulnerable to employees’ comments and views which can often evoke fear. But introversion is a preference, not an excuse when it comes to communicating courageously. 5. Really listening. Standing up and speaking takes courage but so does sitting down, really listening and helping people to make sense of organisational messages. It’s one thing perfecting a presentation, it’s another to open the floor up for questions, giving people a voice and really meaning it. What if they ask you something you don’t like or, worse still, to which you don’t know the answer? M.A.D. – MESSAGE, AUDIENCE, DELIIVERY I’ve written previously about the full spectrum of communication approaches available to leaders and, critically, the often overlooked informal and everyday conversations that can really influence organisational change. I’ve also suggested that operating in your ‘safe’ communication forum (an email, for example, rather than getting out among employees to have real conversations) is a preference or an act of convenience rather than an excuse when you’re a leader. It certainly takes courage to operate outside your preference but that’s no excuse. It should be a non-negotiable requirement of all leaders, particularly at the most senior level, to operate outside their communication comfort zones. As important as the delivery mechanism of any piece of leadership communication is, truly great leadership communication is about more than powerful delivery. Two key things must happen before – working out your message and understanding the needs of your audience. In fact, I often say that it’s M.A.D. to think about where you’ll tell your story before you think about what your story is and who needs to hear what from it. Crafting a compelling message was the first thing I learnt at journalism school and it didn’t stop there. It was drilled into us by some of the most respected news journalists in the industry – who, what, why, when, where and how. In fast paced-news journalism the message serves primarily to inform. The newsworthy element is if it’s the first time something’s happened, if it’s had the biggest impact or if it has the potential to affect many people’s lives. But, in my transition from news journalism to business communication, it didn’t take long to appreciate that leadership communication or a leadership message isn’t news reporting. In fact, in many ways, it’s far more complex. It’s not there just to tell people about issues and what they need to do (inform). It’s there to get people involved by getting their input (involve), capture people’s imagination (ignite) and invite participation (invite) No small feat then. So, if we think broadly about why leaders may need to be courageous (tough message, against preferences, fear of feedback) then it’s important to think closely about what makes for an effective message. As hard as leaders must focus on how they want to be when they stand up in front of people, they can’t afford to forget the message. An effective message is free from ambiguity. Its intent is clear. And, let’s not confuse this message with its content. A leader’s message is the whole reason for communicating. It’s the 30 second take away. If they had to strip everything out of a half an hour team meeting except one sentence, it’s what would remain. It’s the opening line of an email rather than the closing line. An effective message takes preparation,

even for the most experienced and skilled leaders. This is even more important when it’s a tough or seemingly complicated message requiring courage. Thinking about the message, asking trusted and expert views (including peers, Internal Communications and HR) and gathering feedback are all vital preparation points. CRAFTING AN EFFECTIvE MESSAGE -Why am I speaking? -What do I want people to do, think, feel? -If it’s a tough message, how might they react? -What does the audience want to hear? -What is the audience afraid to hear? -What can your communications do to create unity and engage?


Many of us have an impulse to tell people what they want to hear, often convincing ourselves that it’s better for them that way. But, I have seen too many leaders soften a message to make it easier for them to deliver and to avoid a difficult reaction. Courageous communicators deliver tough messages despite discomfort, often finding that once they develop a reputation for straight talk people will return the favour and trust is built.

1. Think about verbal and non-verbal communication and its impact on message effectiveness. Arriving late to a meeting can seem relatively mundane but alignment between actions and words, known as behavioural integrity, helps to build trust. Do you or your leaders say they care and then vanish for days? Is there an open door policy to discuss change but closed doors throughout the business? Do you or your leaders say information will be shared next Monday and deliver it on Friday with no explanation? These things matter. People are perceptive to, and critical of, any mismatch between words and actions. 2. Leaders are responsible for creating conditions for other people to be courageous, including meaningful opportunities to make sense of tougher messages. Being honest is more difficult than it sounds but leaders have to make conscious and courageous decisions to support transparency and create a culture of candour in their teams and throughout the organisation. Their positions as chief role models for candour should not be underestimated.

3. Practice having tough conversations because, as necessary as honesty is, inadvertent damage happens when leaders speak honestly about difficult subjects without due preparation and consideration. 4. Set information free. Absolute transparency is neither possible nor desirable in organisations. People know and understand this. Too often, however, it’s easier to not share than make tough decisions about what can be shared and the impact it may have. Silence is not a strategy, however, and deciding what information is withheld sits at the heart of courageous communication. Leadership communication is complex, requiring both courage and thought to deliver messages that engage employees in the direction of travel of an organisation. Without effective communication, leadership severs its connection with the people who make organisations perform. Communication drives engagement and, it’s through engagement, that organisations maximise the potential of their most valuable assets – their people.