Organizational Communication: The Buck Stops at the CEO’s Desk

Many students are often surprised to learn how great a role leadership plays in organizational communication efforts.  This reality typically becomes crystal clear in my Crisis Communication course where students analyze various case studies, including the Costa Concordia disaster, the Tylenol crisis, and the Volkswagen emissions scandal.  In each of these crises, the leader’s response either exacerbated the issue or quelled an even greater disaster.  

Being a great leader requires exceptional talent, vision, maturity, and people skills.  As we’ve seen in the cases of Enron, Martha Stewart, Wells Fargo, Chrysler, Maddock, Penn State, and numerous others, atrocious leadership happens.  Sadly, many leaders do not understand that “the buck stops at the CEO’s desk.”

Lessons in leadership are extremely important in organizational communication.  Not only must communicators have the ability to deftly engage and counsel all levels of leaders, they must also recognize when leaders are unethical, ineffective, or when they pose other risks to the organization.  You see, bad leadership is typically the root cause of most organizational challenges and, while artful messaging can help minimize damage, it cannot permanently mask serious internal problems.  

Communicators must also understand that their own reputations are linked to their clients and employers, so if a leader is unwilling or unable to make necessary changes, it’s best to disassociate and move on.  

In my firm, we utilize a number of leadership and organizational development assessments with our clients to better understand the leaders and employees with whom we’ll be working.  However, when a communicator is also an employee, it can be difficult to suggest this idea to the CEO.  This brings up an important point about the hiring process: you must always ascertain with great clarity the depth, scope, and level of your role before you accept a strategic organizational communication position.  For example, if you will not have a seat at the boardroom table, if you will not have the ear of the CEO, and if you will have multiple layers of management above you, it might be wise to consider the amount of impact you will really be able to make in that organization.

If, however, the senior leader is coachable, communications-savvy, and eager for input, you will likely be in a strong position to effect positive change and audience perceptions (both internal and external).

So how can you identify strong leadership qualities?  I suggest looking for the following behaviors:

1) High emotional intelligence.

If you’re not already familiar with Daniel Goleman’s seminal book, Understanding Emotional Intelligence, this is a must-read.  High EQ leaders possess finely-honed skills in the areas of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management (pp. 16-17).  What this means is that these leaders can expertly manage themselves, their emotions, and their interpersonal relationships.  They are empathetic, engaging, confident without being egotistical, and acutely aware of their own strengths and weaknesses.  High EQ leaders appreciate feedback and coaching because they are committed to their own personal and professional development.

2) Internal locus of control.  

Locus of control is a person’s belief about their destiny.  Those with an external locus tend to believe that their destinies are shaped by world and other people, whereas those with an internal locus believe they create their own destinies.  An internal locus is highly desirable, especially for those in leadership positions.  You can learn more about LOC and take a free online assessment here.

3) Personal leadership.

Just because someone has the letters CEO after their name doesn’t mean that s/he is a true leader.  One of my former colleagues, the late Dr. Ray Russell, coined the phrase, “You can’t be a leader if you can’t lead yourself.”  An expert in the area of personal leadership, Dr. Russell taught the importance of personal accountability, responsibility, empowerment, and achievement in his book, The Miracle of Personal Leadership.  Another excellent read on this topic is Jim Collins’ book Good to Great.

4) Engagement.

Effective leaders never hide. They do not sequester themselves in their top-floor offices, and they do not communicate important messages through other people. Effective leaders are visible, transparent, open, honest, and highly participatory. They’re not afraid to roll up their sleeves and join their teams to ensure a successful outcome. It’s important to be aware of any fear-based behaviors because these often manifest in organizational dis-ease, dysfunction, and crises.

5) Integrity.  

High-caliber leaders exemplify this quality in everything they do. Their word is solid, their business practices are above reproach, and their behaviors are grounded on a respectable, prosocial values system that guides their every move. When they do make a mistake, they immediately take ownership and make the necessary corrections. They never point the finger of blame at others (another example of fear-based leadership).

I share these leadership qualities with you not only to make you aware of how others should lead, but also how you should lead. You must understand that your role as a strategic communicator is critical for an organization’s success. How you demonstrate and model leadership attributes with your clients, employer, and colleagues says everything about who you are – and if, indeed, you can be trusted to serve as the organization’s ethical compass. Learning to Lead is a good book to help you get started building your leadership competencies.

Never underestimate how your own actions, communications, and business practices are observed and scrutinized by others; they can make or break your career. A wise strategic communicator will invest the time and effort required to develop top-tier leadership skills so that s/he can be a credible advisor to the C-suite and beyond.  

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Debra Davenport Ph.D. is a member of the online faculty of Purdue’s online Master of Science in Communication degree program. The program can be completed in just 20 months and covers numerous topics critical for advancement in the communication industry, including crisis communication, social media engagement, focus group planning and implementation, survey design and survey analysis, public relations theory, professional writing, and communication ethics.

About the Author

Debra Davenport is the president and CEO of Davenport Public Relations, a full-service firm with offices in Phoenix and Los Angeles.  She is a faculty member with Purdue’s Brian Lamb School of Communication where she teaches in the Strategic Communication masters program.

*The views and opinions expressed are of the author and do not represent the Brian Lamb School of Communication.