Communication Leadership as a Tool for Change

How to be a great communicator

by Wally Metts. Ph.D., Director of Graduate Studies in Communication

Good leaders are good communicators. We all know this. Vision has to be communicated. Goals have to be communicated. Correction has to be communicated.

James Humes, a speech writer for five presidents, once said, “the art of communication is the language of leadership.” But even if you can communicate clearly, you may not be a good leader.

I once had a supervisor who made what he wanted abundantly clear. I just didn’t care. I was working as a respiratory therapist, long before I became a teacher and journalist. He was insistent that the staff wipe down the machines at the end of the shift, including the wheels. He wasn’t very interested in the patients and what they needed; he was even less interested in his staff and what they knew or cared about. He was a manager with a checklist, not a leader with a vision.

In 1978, James Burns introduced the concept of transformational leadership, an idea that persists in leadership theory today. He saw power and leadership not as things, but as relationships, framed by moral purpose and aspiration. Transformational leadership was, he said, a process by which "leaders and their followers raise one another to higher levels of morality and motivation."

This process of raising one another is difficult but necessary. The difficulty? There are issues to navigate— respect, tolerance, taboos, law and language. There are channels to master—memos, email, social media, presentations and more. There is fear to overcome—the fear of being misunderstood or even disliked.

But the process of learning how to do this is also necessary. In an age where the very idea of civil discourse is threatened, where everybody seems to be yelling at everyone else in an echo chamber, leaders are needed who can raise their teams or organizations to those “higher levels.”

The Apostle Paul wrote that we should “speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15).” Combining our motive with our message in this way is an evidence of maturity, he argued. And every industry needs mature, thoughtful leaders who can do this, models of integrity and fairness who get the job done by inspiring others and changing the culture so everyone is aware of how their actions affect others.

Getting people to look beyond their self-interest requires us to look beyond ours, of course. We can start by mastering communication, creating clear and compelling messages. We have to choose better words and different tools. This may require training and practice. But ultimately transformational leadership requires transformed leaders.

To change yourself you may need a mentor. You may need to rethink your management approach, from managing projects to managing people. You may need to become more disciplined and productive. You may need to go back to school. Or back to church. But certainly raising a team or organization to new levels of morality and motivation requires you to get there too. This is, as Burns noted, a process.

Where will you begin?

About Wally Metts Professor of Communication, Spring Arbor University Online

Wally Metts is an award-winning author and editor, he has contributed to dozens of periodicals and been instrumental in the development of several major programs at the university, especially those related to online learning. He is a fifth-generation Floridian, an elder at the Countryside Bible Church in Jonesville, MI, and a home school dad. Burns, J.M. (1978) 'Leadership,' New York: Harper and Row.