Communication is a leadership essential.

It has always been important, but in today’s fast-paced, connected business climate where superior service and profitability are welded together like no other time in modern history, the CEO—indeed any executive—who is not an effective communicator will face some daunting challenges in achieving sustainable success.

What does it mean to be a good communicator?  There are many fine books on the subject.  Today, I would prefer to use examples of real people. 

Here are some examples from the world of politics:

  • President Reagan helped define good communication in the world of politics and governing.  As a former actor, knew how to effectively and, most times, effortlessly, deliver a great speech.  He was a true retail politician—the bigger the crowd, the more important the moment, President Reagan knew how to deliver ideas. 
  • President Clinton was a great communicator as well.  His 2012 convention speech in support of President Obama helped redefine for many Americans what the campaign should be about.  He also has the ability to connect with people in small groups and one-on-one meetings.  Last year I led a search for a Vice President of Development.  One of the candidates had the occasion to attend several meetings with President Clinton.  “He is an amazing communicator,” the candidate said.  “When you are with him, he has this magical ability to make you think that you are the most important person in the room.  It is uncanny.  This helped him establish connections with people which, in turn, facilitated his ability to sell his ideas.”

Both men achieved a great deal domestically and in the foreign policy arena.  Both men had what I call core or legacy communication skills. 

  • Both Presidents Lincoln and Roosevelt were great communicators.  What they had in common was an ability to be both eloquent and folksy using stories that motivated people to see their point of view.
  • President Obama is a great speechmaker and, by all accounts he is articulate, intelligent, and a good listener who processes information quickly.  But the jury is still out whether he will be rated a good communicator because there is a certain aloofness born out of his focus on ideas rather than interpersonal relationships and the ability to use stories that help get people—members of Congress—where he needs them to be.

In the world of business through much of the twentieth century, a CEO was thought to be a good communicator if he could deliver a decent speech to the community, civic and professional groups, customers, and employees.

  • Gordon Bethune, the retired Chairman of Continental Airlines built that organization from one of the worst to one of the best of the legacy carriers because he was a talented executive and he knew how to communicate with people.  He was not a polished speaker like Presidents Reagan or Obama, but he was an excellent communicator because he knew how to motivate people. United employees who were fortunate enough to work for Mr. Bethune at Continental still speak of him as an esteemed colleague, a friend, someone they admire and respect. 
  • Herb Kelleher, the retired CEO of Southwest Airlines is another example.  His folksy communication style was a magnet for loyalty and fueled a unique corporate culture where employees loved their work and would go the extra mile to serve customers.

I use Messrs. Bethune and Kelleher because they were great story-tellers.  That was an important part of their communication style. 

Some executives shy away from discussions regarding their effectiveness as a communicator because they do not like to make speeches, or they are concerned that more communication could lead to a mistake that they will later regret. 

That is too bad.  It only limits their ability to motivate employees to a higher level of performance.

I would like to hear from you about CEOs you have worked for that were great leaders because they were great communicators and story-tellers. 

 © 2012 John Gregory Self