Leadership is a lot like a ropes course – you are confronted with challenge after challenge, each one testing your skills and giving you an opportunity for personal development and team growth. In this series, we are looking at elements of “The Leadership Ropes Course” that all leaders need to face – and master!
Jumping off a platform to catch a trapeze and swing to another platform isn’t easy … especially when the platforms and trapeze in question are more than twenty feet off the ground. Most people, when they are on the first platform, decide that it is a great place to stay: solid, secure, steady. Why take a leap when you might miss the trapeze and never make it to the second platform? Better to stay where you are.
As a leader, part of your role is to help your people make the Power Leap to go from where you are today to where you want to be tomorrow. That might be expressed in terms of vision and mission, goals and objectives, metrics and measurements, or any other business challenge or change.
Your primary tool to encourage your people to leave where they feel comfortable and strive for new accomplishments is communication. James Sipe and Don Frick in their classic book Seven Pillars of Servant Leadership affirm that “Effective communication is a primary way of serving others while lifting up the vision of the organization. Exceptional communicators inspire others to stretch their thinking, clarify their values, and take constructive action.”
Look at the word Sipe and Frick use: “exceptional communicators inspire others” (italics added). “To inspire” is from the Latin inspirare meaning “to breathe into.” That’s what a great communicator does for his or her team. Communication is not about coercing or coaxing others to take a leap. Great leadership is about breathing life into your team so that your people share your vision and are motivated to live into that vision.
If you aren’t sure about the power of communication, consider Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech. In his oration, he showed how his vision was tied to the hopes and dreams of every person, regardless of race. In doing so, he was a tremendous force for change because he motivated countless others to live into that change.
Fortunately, being an exceptional communicator does not mean you must be able to speak like Martin Luther King, Jr. Exceptional communication breaks down into elements all leaders can master:
- Clarity. People cannot get behind something that they do not understand. So, as a leader, you need to be able to clearly communicate where you are going. What does that “second platform” look like? What exactly is the vision? How do you define the goals? What metrics are you seeking to achieve? What is the change that needs to take place?
- Connection. Along with providing clarity, you must help your team connect with the future vision. They need to know why the leap is necessary for the business and – this is vital – what is in it for them as individuals. When your team members make a personal connection to where you want to go, you can be sure they will get there.
- Community. Let your team know that you are all going forward together. This is a leap, but it is a communal leap. You, as the leader, are not telling your team to jump while you sit back complacently. You will be at the forefront, demonstrating that the leap is doable and the goal attainable.
- Cheer. When people face the Power Leap on a ropes course, they often need to be encouraged and cheered on by their teammates to leave the platform and jump for the trapeze. Similarly, you need to cheer your team on, encouraging people to move forward.
- Consistency. Consistency is a hallmark of great communicators. You need to reinforce the vision with your team constantly so it becomes deeply embedded in your team’s DNA, transforming not just their actions but their mindset and motivation.
Some years ago, we worked with a C-suite executive who was determined to align his department around a specific vision, a concrete mission, and a defined set of core values. Everybody had a printed edition of this information in their office or cubicle. Whenever there was a staff meeting or a team meeting, the vision, mission, and values were reviewed and applied to the task at hand. People were rewarded for putting them into practice. The result? In internal surveys of performance, motivation, satisfaction, and outcomes, his department scored the highest out of all the departments in the company. Every. Single. Year.
Why? Simply because this executive was a servant-leader “serving others while lifting up the vision of the organization.” He used exceptional communication to “inspire others to stretch their thinking, clarify their values, and take constructive action.”
What he and countless other great leaders have accomplished through exceptional communication, you can, too!