Leadership : A Failure to Lead - A Failure to Communicate

John Baldoni is a leadership communications consultant who works with companies and non‑profits organizations. He is the author of several books on leadership including Great Communication Secrets of Great Leaders (McGraw-Hill, 2003).

He can be reached at jbaldoni@lc21.com and his website can be found at www.johnbaldoni.com.

Two recent high profile catastrophes cast light on an age‑old problem. The first was the breakup of the Columbia shuttle as it speed across the Texas sky on February 1st, 2003. The second was the sudden power outage on August 14th that affected some 80 million consumers in the Eastern part of the United States and Ontario. The first accident cost the lives of seven astronauts; the second accident cost a loss of faith in the power grid as well as billions of dollars. While both accidents were different in root causes, both shared a single similar fault – a failure to communicate. 

The most glaring communication failures make headlines, but failure to keep people in the know or to report an emergent problem are hardly unique to disasters. Communication lapses in fact are so recurrent that the very phrase, "failure to communicate" - popularized a generation ago in the Paul Newman movie, Cool Hand Luke - seems to be a near universal. Communication beakdowns occur routinely, but it takes a spectacular event like the Columbia disaster or the Eastern power outage to remind us how consequential they can be. What can we do to ensure that communications flourishes to the betterment of the enterprise ? 

Scan the horizon. Nothing remains the same for very long. Leaders are responsible for looking outside the organization to discover what customers are thinking and purchasing - and how competitors are responding to the changing market conditions. By scanning the organization's horizon, leaders help their organization anticipate the future to avoid blindsiding by it.

Keep an ear to the ground. Leaders listen to what people are saying - but also what they are not saying. Problems occur in all organizations, but it is the well lead organization that learns about incipient problems before they emerge. Front-line military officers, for instance, frequently look over the shoulder of their troops not only to assure performance but also to learn of early warning signs of threats to performance. 

Ask questions. One of the surest ways to find out what is going on within an organization is to pose questions. Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon, is an inveterate questioner. He helps keep himself up to speed by incessantly posing queries during his many forays around Amazon facilities. 

Create feedback loops. It is useful to install devices by which employees can voice an opinion and receive a response. Feedback systems are easy to implement with e-mail, but providing a thoughtful response requires a commitment to active communication. But then again, that's what communications is all about – two-way feedback and follow-up. 

MBWA. David Packard pioneered "management by walking around" as he built Hewlett-Packard. Doing so took him out from behind his desk and into meeting, hallways, cafeterias, shop floors, and sales centers where the real work occurred, and his MBWA has become an industry standard.

Integrate communications into your disaster plans. Have a disaster plan in place with two‑way communications, and test it so that employees feel comfortable with it. Most fire, rescue, and trauma teams maintain such plans and rehearse them regularly. In the absence of a rehearsed disaster plan, effective communication is one of the first casualties of a catastrophe. 

Communication is the glue that holds organizations together. It helps prevent calamity and fosters performance. Through self-conscious development and frequent practice of the art of organizational communication, communication failures should become communication successes. 

Link to Wharton Leadership Digest

© Copyright © 2004 John Baldoni

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