Leadership + Communication = Inspiration: They go together like peanut butter and jam…

Leadership + Communication = Inspiration: They go together like peanut butter and jam…
By: Bart Egnal

Consider the following two statements:

Statement 1: Having great communication skills does NOT make you an effective leader.

Not much to debate here, right? We all know people who are exceptional communicators but whom we would not describe as leaders. 

  • The wonderful conversationalist we can talk to for hours on end and feel energized by their charisma.

  • The subject matter expert who can explain the most complex technical concepts in language, story and metaphor that leaves us with total clarity.

  • The colleague whose strong listening skills and empathetic communication leave us feeling heard after a hard day. 

Each one of these people has undeniably strong communication skills; yet in none of these cases do we describe these individuals as leaders (this is not a failing or criticism… simply a reflection that they have chosen not to be leaders or hold that role formally or informally).


Which brings us to…

Statement 2: You can’t be an inspiring, effective leader WITHOUT great communication skills.

Let’s unpack this contention for a moment. If you (like me, and all of us at The Humphrey Group) believe in this idea, you understand that you can’t practice leadership effectively without strong communication skills. 

Now, let’s look at some examples of how leadership is undermined by poor communication skills.  Consider the following examples:

  • The committed new leader who wants so badly to help her team excel that she delivers feedback bluntly to the point of alienating her people, demotivating them rather than inspiring them to lift their performance.

  • The caring executive who believes maintaining relationships with peers is critical – to the point that he shuns productive conflict around projects he is co-leading, resulting in missing goals. 

  • The new CEO who relentlessly focuses on raising capital, and fails to switch tone and messaging when speaking to their team, leading to disengagement in the organization. 

These are all individuals who want to lead and inspire, and who are in leadership roles. Yet in each case, their poor communication skills undermine their ability to impact and lead. 


Which leads to…

Where to begin? Well, it all starts with your mindset: you need to approach communication as the foundational path to inspiration. 

I’ve written before that a leader’s role – regardless of title, role or responsibilities – is to reach audiences and inspire them to act. 

In some cases, inspiration is done on a major stage, such as when a CEO shares her “big picture vision” with all her employees at an annual conference. But far more often inspiration is practiced on the “side stage” in the everyday moments that make up the bulk of leadership communication. Think of the meeting where a VP is trying to lift up a team that is five months into a gruelling year-long organizational transformation. Think of the community presentation where the executive director of a struggling non-profit is trying to inspire people to volunteer to help a strained organization tackle food insecurity.  

What ties all these moments together is that you cannot be successful in demonstrating leadership unless you bring intention to your communication. The key is to start with the right mindset:

  • Get your beliefs clear. We talk about leadership as an “inside-out process” at The Humphrey Group. That means that you have to begin with knowing your own beliefs and convictions. I’m not talking about general beliefs and convictions, I’m talking about the specific ones you need to share with your audience. What do you believe about the project? What is your conviction about how to face setbacks? What ideas do you have to make the year ahead a success? You’d better know and write those down before you open your mouth.

  • Be audience-centric. If you want to inspire others, you must invest the time and energy to understand what matters to them and why. Last year I had the pleasure of working with an industrial company to help them prepare for their bi-annual investor day. One of the things that made our work in crafting the story to share with investors was the thorough “perception study” they conducted of all their institutional investors and analysts to learn about their audience's perspectives, concerns, and questions. This allowed us to know where the audience was coming from and where we wanted to take them.

  • Tailor your messaging to the audience. The last way to approach communication through the lens of leadership is to adapt not only your messaging but also your style and tone to the audience you want to reach. With your knowledge of the audience in hand, tailor the focus and content of your communications to ensure they appeal to and move the listener. This means not only adapting the message but also choosing language and examples that will resonate with them. 



So in summary, if you aspire to lead one day, or are already seeking to practice leadership, you must approach communication as the essential pathway to inspiring others. 

And if you’re looking for a bit of inspiration on this topic… subscribe to our Forward Slash newsletter, or consider listening to thought leaders I have on my podcast, The Inspire Podcast. Now go forth and inspire!