(Forbes first published my article here)
You may hold the position but lack the influence. If you sit behind the boss’s desk, people may have to follow your directives, but they don’t have to show up with enthusiasm and demonstrate loyalty for the long term. Leaders, on the other hand, wield more power when and where it counts.
You’ve heard this axiom from motivational speakers and read it in books: “You don’t need a title to be a leader.” But what you do need are the communication skills to influence someone to follow you—to accept your ideas, to sign off on the proposed action, to fund the project, to encourage their network to “show up” for you.
In practical terms, here’s how those leaders distinguish themselves solely by their communication:
Contrary to popular belief, persuasion, a neutral word, can be used for good or bad. You can persuade someone for noble purposes or selfish interests. When politicians, athletes, movie stars, or managers slip into crass or manipulative behavior, we boycott their events, badmouth their leadership, and say they have no class.
But when a physician persuades an obese patient to lose weight for the sake of better health and longer life, we applaud. When a parent persuades his drug-addicted nineteen-year-old to check into rehab, we support the parent’s efforts. When an engineer delivers a persuasive proposal challenging the feasibility of remodeling a building to city safety standards, we trust that her measurements are accurate and her conclusions are ironclad.
Without a doubt, leaders must know how to articulate their ideas persuasively both orally and in writing.
They do not force you to trudge through all the trees to convince you that you’re surrounded by a forest. That is, they have the ability to gather a lot of information (incoming emails, calls, meetings, conversations, reports, industry news) and synthesize it to draw sound conclusions.
A common malady in our day, they do not let information paralysis set in. Instead, they have an uncanny ability to analyze, discard, and combine it to make sound decisions they can explain to others.
For example, if you’re serving on an advisory board at work or in the community, you might lead the group to do some creative thinking with these questions:
Or if you are talking with a team member (not particularly someone who reports to you), you might guide them to rethink their performance and outcomes on a marketing campaign with the following questions:
Questions—and their answers from the other person—cause reflection, refocus, and guide in the appropriate direction.
Nowhere is this communication characteristic more noticeable than in a physician’s office—particularly in a large medical office or clinic with 20 to 50 staffers interacting with patients. As a caregiver for my elderly parents during the past few years, I’ve had many occasions to talk on the phone with healthcare staffers to set appointments, ask about test results, discuss treatment options, and provide insurance and financial information.
Just by voice volume and intensity (or lack thereof)—even if the caller were speaking a foreign language—I can tell you the “status” of another person calling before they even identify themselves fully. For example, when the cardiologist’s PA (Denise) calls, the voice is firm, clear, confident. When the cardiologist’s nurse (Teré) calls, she sounds childlike: timid, weak, uncertain.
The next time your credit card company or phone carrier fouls up and you have to call them about an issue, try this experiment: Listen to the voice and see if you can determine whether you’re talking to a follower or a leader, who will “own” and correct the problem.
To communicate like a leader means to speak up in a firm, clear, confident voice.
Learn more ways to improve your strategic thinking skills with Communicate Like a Leader: Connecting Strategically to Coach, Inspire, and Get Things Done