Think back to your most effective communication experience. This can be an experience where you led others, or an experience where someone else led you. Got it? Good. Now, think about how communication influenced that leadership experience. I suspect that we could agree that it’s hard to serve as an effective leader without effective communication. According to Hackman and Johnson (2013), “One factor that contributes to variations in leader effectiveness is communication style” (p. 38).
One personal example I can share was during a time I served as a spokesperson for the U.S. Pacific Fleet. There was a tragic collision at sea between a U.S. Navy submarine and a Japanese fishing trawler, where nine Japanese crewmembers perished (U.S. Pacific Fleet, 2001). There were debates among U.S. Pacific Fleet staff members about what should be included in the initial press statement, and who should provide the initial statement. Our commander, a four-staff admiral, listened to the different recommendations and ultimately decided that he would personally make a statement to the family members, accepting responsibility for the incident and promising to do all that he could to find the remains of those lost at sea. This leader understood the importance of personal communication based on transparency and trust, especially following a crisis. This style of communication transcends effective leadership, but we can also explore different styles of communication based on the leader, followers, and situation.
While there have been numerous leadership communication styles researched over the past half century, most of the styles compare authoritarian, democratic, and laissez-faire styles of leadership communication, or they contrast task and interpersonal leadership communication (Hackman and Johnson, 2013). This may be a little confusing, but basically one can learn a leader’s style by paying “close attention to the leader’s communication” (p. 41).
The reason this is important, is that “leadership is first, and foremost, a communication-based activity. Leaders spend much of their time shaping messages that are then presented to a variety of follower, constituent, and stakeholder groups. It is also true that the more leadership responsibility one has, the more one’s job focuses on communication” (Hackman & Johnson, 2013, p. 21).
If you agree that leadership is primarily a communication-based activity, what are the pros and cons of each style. Should one try to be more authoritarian, democratic or laissez-faire? Should a leader focus communication on the tasks or use a more interpersonal style? The answer, of course, is that it depends. “To be effective, leaders must both tailor their communication styles to the self-identification level of their followers and, at the same time, help followers change how they view themselves” (Hackman & Johnson, 2013, p. 65).
In other words, “the selection and effectiveness of leadership styles depends on the storage and activation of symbols and symbolic networks. Here are some implications of this approach for aspiring leaders” (Hackman & Johnson, 2013, p. 65):
- Develop your knowledge and experience base.
- Acknowledge the power of categorization.
- Know your audience.
- Performance counts.
- Be flexible.
- Focus attention on the “we” not the “me.”
Let’s return to the initial example of effective leadership. Can you remember enough about the experience to describe the leadership communication style used? Would this same style work in a different situation or with a different group of followers? What style are you most comfortable using? The answers to these kinds of questions will help the next time you need to choose a leadership communication style that will work best for the situation and your followers. By practicing different communication styles tailored to the situation and followers, the next time you’re asked to share an effective leadership experience, you’ll have a lot more choices from which to choose.
Hackman, M.Z., & Johnson, C. E. (2013). Leadership: A Communication Perspective (6th ed.). Long Grove, IL: Waveland
U.S. Pacific Fleet (2001). Collision Summary. Retrieved from http://www.cpf.navy.mil/subsite/ehimemaru/legal/Executive_Summary3.pdf
Alvin Plexico, 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.