Now is the time for communication professionals to focus on how they lead others
Let’s go back about four years to a training session I was running for public sector communicators. During the discussion, a director of communication explained to us the exact moment when she realised she’d become a leader. It was when she finally understood that what she said and did really mattered to the people around her.
Every career is punctuated by similar moments of epiphany when we view ourselves and others differently. That is why I’ve always been interested in discussing these revelatory episodes with professional communicators, particularly their impact on how they think and behave as leaders.
Combining these practical experiences with other insights helps us all to become better at a job for which professional communicators receive little or no preparation. Leading teams of people is a significant responsibility, yet we tend to be promoted on the basis of being good communication practitioners rather than good leaders. Learning tends to be on-the-job and unsupported by training and other development interventions.
This is fine, in one sense, given as leaders we tend to get better by doing. Most people also end up working with good and bad leaders so develop their own ‘mental map’ of what good leadership practice looks like and - just as importantly - what it doesn’t look like.
However, being a good leader is challenging work, especially given its association with change and crisis. It is therefore not surprising the pandemic is laying bare leadership success and failure across our institutions, organisations and communities.
In this context, especially when we think beyond the immediate crisis, it is important for those leading communication teams to be clear about their leadership priorities and challenges. Focussing on these issues is necessary because as your career progresses so do your leadership responsibilities, at the same time as more technical strategic communication knowledge is taken-for-granted.
Communication leaders also need to address what is widely regarded as the biggest challenge in leadership development, the so-called knowing-doing gap. In many ways, what leaders should do is relatively easy to understand. For example, while every leader has to make judgements about what is right for them and their situation, in times like these people tend to agree on the need for leaders to help others make sense of what is going on; establish a sense of direction; as well as aligning and motivating the people around them.
Knowing what should be done is though only one part of the equation. The real challenge lies in the delivery of these aspirations. To do that, leaders need to understand themselves, be emotionally intelligent and tuned into their immediate working environment. Without this knowledge and the ability to act on it, lies a world of frustration.
However, what we also know is that everyone has the potential to be a good leader. Key capabilities and competencies can be learned, supported by a wealth of guidance out there from fellow professionals who face similar challenges, as well as an ocean of research from around the world.
Given our functional expertise it is also heartening to reflect on the idea that leadership is primarily a communication based activity. Its effectiveness depends on an ability to interact successfully with people. Quite simply, leadership and communication are joined at the hip which is a great place for us all to start.
Author: Professor Paul Willis
- Before becoming an academic, Paul held a range of senior leadership roles in communication practice, including head of department and executive board director.
- Sign up to Paul's upcoming Westco Academy course "Being a leader: course for local government communicators"