What sets apart extraordinary leaders from lackluster ones? What do the most respected leaders have in common? Research shows that leaders spend more than 75 percent of their time communicating, and extraordinary leaders have developed unique communication skills as part of their personal leadership practices. And, to top it off, business scholars frequently cite communication competency to be the single most important leadership skill for executives.
My colleague Sunnie Giles is founder and president of Quantum Leadership Group--a firm that provides executive coaching and leadership training. Giles recently explained to me that communication is a skill that most leaders need to improve. As a result, I asked Giles to write a guest column for my Inc.com readers--describing the communication skills used by today's very best leaders.
The words that follow are all Giles's.
Poor communication trickles down through organizations and costs large companies a whopping $9.3 billion, or $26,000 per employee. Meanwhile, organizations across the country spend billions of dollars a year on leadership training, with results that are often short-lived. Research conducted by Hogan and colleagues even suggests that half of all leaders are "derailed," costing their companies upward of $1 million each.
If these statistics are true, then communication seems to be an essential element of leadership. But what makes communication so difficult? What are the critical communication secrets that stellar leaders possess? What are the leadership practices they use consistently? These are the questions I've obsessed with as I've worked alongside and coached top executives at Fortune 500 companies and entrepreneurs alike. The answers reflect both science and art. I have distilled practices of superb leaders who are highly self-aware, flexible, adaptable, and balanced between chaos and stability. I dub these men and women Quantum Leaders, and most of them go on to become truly extraordinary leaders. They are acutely aware that they must first manage themselves to achieve successful communication with others. The first five skills relate to managing self and the next five skills to managing relationships.
1. They choose beliefs that lead to positive mental models
Quantum Leaders understand how their choices lead to their emotional experience of the world and their mental state. If they choose to believe they are a victim, they will feel helpless and alienate others by making them feel guilty. If they choose to believe they are inadequate, they feel depressed, disengage from others, and lack confidence. By choosing positive mental models about themselves, top executives draw on the brain's extraordinary capacity to deliver on our beliefs and create positive outcome.
2. They rely on the wisdom of their body
Quantum Leaders have developed a high level of emotional awareness and can correctly identify the sensation and location of an emotion in their body. Emotions are intricately linked with physiological sensations. When we are unaware, our emotions and bodies are separated, which creates discomfort or confusion. Top executives recognize this discomfort, can trace it to the source, and resolve the conflict. They consciously nurture the personal awareness necessary to communicate effectively.
3. They are fearless about being authentic
Quantum Leaders courageously open themselves up to others. It takes equal measures of confidence and humility to be vulnerable. Vulnerability in turn creates safety, liberating the organization from battles for survival to help everyone unleash innate creativity, drive, and self-organization. Top executives refuse to hide behind polite discomfort, creating safety for others to openly offer differing views.
4. They never blame or accuse others
Quantum leaders take responsibility for their emotions. They've developed enough emotional awareness to recognize that the "You make me so x" statement is a folly. Therefore, they never blame others for how they feel. As masters of their emotions, they consciously decide how they will feel and how they will react. By practicing focused awareness, Quantum Leaders avoid blaming and accusing others by not projecting onto others their own leftover negative mental models from past experiences.
5. They are grounded and centered
Quantum Leaders are a constant, much like a 300-year-old oak tree that's not uprooted by the strongest of storms. When listening, they don't get triggered by assigning their own meaning to what others say and react automatically. They can imagine what it must be like for the other person by stepping into his or her moccasins. At the same time, they are comfortable in their own skin and therefore do not attempt to please others. When others express their needs, the Quantum Leader doesn't turn it around and make it about him or her. When a team member states, "I don't feel fulfilled in my job," the Quantum Leader doesn't hear, "You are a bad leader." Instead, they hear, "I need help." This ability to be grounded creates safety for others and allows each person's reality to exist with equal merit.
6. They are unapologetic about their boundaries
Quantum Leaders know where they end and others begin. They don't feel guilty about articulating their needs clearly. They don't try to please others at the expense of their own self-respect. At the same time, they are equally respectful of others' needs. They don't encroach others' boundaries and take them for granted or expect more than what proper boundaries warrant. They are highly differentiated, and they respect the unique perspectives of others and diversity of thought, which is essential for empowering others to unleash their innate self-organizing nature.
7. They listen for the emotion behind the words
Quantum Leaders don't pay as much attention to the words themselves as they do to the emotion behind the message. Identifying the underlying emotion eliminates the defense or pretenses and helps them quickly cut through all the noise that stands between them and the core issues at play.
8. They are curious, not judgmental
While listening for emotions, Quantum Leaders are open to and curious about all possibilities. If a colleague comes across as irrational, ridiculous, or overreacting, they become curious and carefully explore what is happening without jumping to a conclusion. They know that judgment shuts off avenues for important discovery and learning. During this discovery, they can put aside their own emotions and pay focused attention. They can empathically imagine what must have happened for someone to create the reality that comes across as irrational, and they can validate that reality for that person.
9. They see patterns
Quantum Leaders have one ear on what others are saying (content) and the other on the interaction pattern (process). They are constantly scanning themselves, other people, and processes to identify patterns and changes in the patterns. They can step outside the termite mound and look at it. Through this constant, unbiased observation, these extraordinary executives notice early indicators of an underlying issue. They then use their judgment-free curiosity to discover the source and manage it proactively.
10. They create safety and belonging
Quantum Leaders know their most important job is to create safety and belonging in their organization, which sets members free to unleash their innate creativity, innovation, passion, and drive on the basis of self-organization. Whether delivering an address to the entire organization--or within a one-on-one meeting--Quantum Leaders convey a sense of community. They nurture their people under their wings. Top executives create a culture that does not tolerate behaviors that threaten that sense of safety and belonging, such as bullying, kingdom building, or favoritism.