A number of leadership programmes have been emphasizing on the importance of communication, assertive decision-making and an appropriate use of authority as essential components of leadership. Communication however, can mean different things to different people. In fact, it often turns out to be one-sided – emerging from the leader and directed to the group.
Consider this, on contrary: At the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis, President John F. Kennedy sometimes left the room during crucial discussions so that his presence would not intimidate participants from speaking their minds. He wanted as many diverse points of view as possible to be aired, so that the quality of the decisions went up. This is an extreme example of a leader who believed that leadership is about being able to allow others to speak their minds and being able to listen to them.
Recently, I was on a long flight where I was seated next to an airline pilot and it reminded me that I had read somewhere that some data indicated that the most number of accidents and near-misses tend to happen with a crew flying together for the first time. However, while there was much to be said even for the settled and stable crews, they were logistically impossible.
The nuances I heard from this pilot were very interesting. The first thing he said was that, however small the window of communication, it was critical that every senior officer went out of his way to spend some time with thejuniors, so that they know they can speak their minds in the cockpit. It would appear that the vital component here is not that a team should have a “challenger” at junior levels but that seniors must take the initiative to bond with their teams so that they feel safe speaking up.
The overall task is clear: to fly safe. If teams don’t communicate well, the safety will be compromised. Given that India is a broad and diverse country, and that pilots work with different crews all the time, this is something more and more officers are deliberately trying to do.
During the course of training programmes that I have run, we have discussed at least two major accidents that could have been prevented if junior officers had the courage to speak up or if the senior officers had been more adept at listening. It is possible to increase and improve the quantity and quality of listening that happens in an organization. Putting simple mechanisms in place to get good quality feedback on appropriate issues is one of the ways. Ensuring that meetings with external stakeholders happen at regular intervals is another.
The learning and development profession should also continue to be more appreciative of innovative methodologies in leadership programmes which help improve the listening skills of leaders. Adept use of the case method by trained faculties not only helps ensure that leaders develop alternative points of view but as participants they also learn techniques to understand and acknowledge others’ views better.
Additionally, even in some shorter-duration programmes, leaders can be encouraged to practice different kinds of listening skills that include reading emotions and hearing underlying emotions in a dialogue or music. If an organization has the time and resources, different kinds of group and reflection-based activities can help leaders pick up this skill.Finally, the case-in-point methodology pioneered by Prof Ronald Heifetz, which uses a combination of both “evoking” and “provoking” techniques, amongst others, is a unique procedure to teach and learn leadership. Sharon Parks has also written an entire book on this method, its underpinnings and why it works so well. Even browsing through this publication will be helpful for a learning and development professional.
Good communication skills is much more than speaking the same language. It is about creating enough space for people to speak up and especially when the stakes are high. The human tendency and our traditions are such that they demand respect for authority. However authoritarianism cannot prevail in a collaborative environment. If so, important messages will be lost and the messenger will be shot instead. The outcomes can then turn out to be very difficult indeed for everyone involved.