The Best Communication Habits of Top Leaders


Debra Davenport, Faculty

Expectations of today’s leaders are perhaps higher than ever. Not only must leaders continually innovate to maintain a competitive edge, they must also navigate the tumultuous political environment, stay ahead of the technology curve, and effectively motivate and engage their various stakeholder audiences. Without superior communication skills, leaders will be hard-pressed to meet these exceptionally high expectations.

Over the last 20+ years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with and observe over 500 leaders – some of whom were outstanding, and some who struggled painfully to perform. One attribute every outstanding leader had in common was the ability to deftly communicate with both internal and external audiences. Not surprisingly, those leaders at the opposite end of the spectrum typically demonstrated poor communication and interpersonal skills. These leaders were often observed engaging in gossip, subterfuge, backstabbing, and self-aggrandizement. They barked orders, kept to themselves, and refused to listen to their people or their customers.

Perhaps the most critical of all communication skills is the art of listening. Dale Carnegie wrote, in How to Win Friends and Influence People (still considered to be the seminal book on public relations):

“One of the great listeners of modern times was Sigmund Freud. A man who met Freud described his manner of listening: ‘It struck me so forcibly that I shall never forget him. [The] attention he gave me, his appreciation of what I said, even when I said it badly, was extraordinary. You’ve no idea what it meant to be listened to like that.”

Top leaders also understand the importance of practicing the following communication habits:

Transparency: According to Norman, Aviolo, and Luthans, “authentic, transparent leadership has been described as representing the extent to which an individual exhibits a pattern of openness and clarity in his/her behavior toward others by sharing the information needed to make decisions, accepting others’ inputs, and disclosing his/her personal values, motives, and sentiments in a manner that enables followers to more accurately assess the competence and morality of the leader’s actions.” Simply put, great leaders tell the truth and never hide information that may be important to their employees and other stakeholders.

Frequency: The frequency of a leader’s communications reveals a lot about his or her own level of engagement and commitment to the organization. Internally, employees want to know what the leadership team is doing, what changes are being considered, and how new products, services and/or policies may impact their work. External audiences want to be kept informed about the company’s legitimacy, actions, innovations, customer satisfaction, and CSR initiatives.

Simplicity: According to Aaron Levie, CEO and co-founder of Box, the "radical simplification of everything" is trending in Silicon Valley. Levie states that the most successful companies (or products) are those that offer the least amount of complexity for the maximum amount of value. This premise is also true in the realm of communication. Clear, unambiguous, and intelligible messaging is essential – and particularly critical in global organizations where language and culture can create barriers to understanding. This is a hot topic in my Strategic Global Communications courses where students learn about the nuances of communication across cultures and how this can impact an audience’s cognition and acceptance of an organization’s message. Leaders who understand the value of simple and strategic communication can more effectively engage their audiences, employees, and other stakeholders.

Sincerity: Authenticity and empathy are highly sought-after leader attributes; they indicate a leader’s level of emotional intelligence, locus of control, and genuine concern for others. According to this article from the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, leaders who convey sincerity in their communications foster organizational congruence.

Finally, top leaders understand the concepts of meaning-making and sensemaking. Audiences, both internal and external, must be able to find meaning in the organization and make sense of its mission, vision, and values. Otherwise, a disconnect will occur and critical messages may be ignored or misinterpreted.

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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.

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