Effective leadership, particularly in a professional environment, entails a lot of things, including self-discipline, critical thinking and emotional intelligence. First and foremost, it entails effective communication, capable of exploring and explaining ideas in the clearest and most engaging way possible. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got the tactical prowess of Napoleon; if all that happens when you open your mouth is that those around you tune out, you’ll never conquer France.

In this article, we’ll explore some habits of the best leaders and communicators, and some tips on how to implement them in your own life.

  1. They Listen

Communication is fundamentally the conveyance of ideas, but those ideas don’t just spring fully formed from the void, or your brain or Google. The best leaders have the best teams, and the best teams have the best ideas, and your first task as a leader/communicator is to gather those ideas together and be an effective listener. To do that,

  • Ask questions to which you don’t know the answer
  • Accept unexpected responses
  • Remember the three Is: inquire, investigate, interpret
  1. They Think First and Speak Second

When I was a kid, I had a tendency to get really excited and jabber on for days. When that happened, my dad had a very simple solution: He would look me in the eyes and in a firm voice, he’d say, “Stop. Look at me. Take a deep breath. Think about what you want to say, and then say it.”

He also liked to say, “Measure twice, cut once.” That’s my dad for you.

In professional communications, both of these pieces of advice can be invaluable, as they can save you from the pitfalls of impulse or ego. There’s a tendency in a crowded room to want to talk for the sake of talking, to be the first person to open their mouth and get there – and it can often come at the cost of actually having anything worthwhile to say.

  • First, think about your position
  • Next, gather your thoughts
  • Finally, express them clearly and concisely
  1. They’re Assertive and Passionate

If shows like “How It’s Made” have anything to teach us, it’s that a passionate, assertive communicator can make even the most esoteric subject thrilling. If you care about your subject, your audience will too – and if you don’t, they won’t.

  • Care about your subject-matter
  • Figure out why you care about your subject-matter
  • Figure out how to make others care as much about your subject as you do
  1. They Know Honesty Is the Best Policy

Despite what advertisers or politicians might wish were the case, generally speaking, people can smell BS a mile away. Unless you’re a KGB operative, chances are overwhelmingly positive that you’re not half as good at lying as you think you are, and those around you can sense when you’re not being straight with them.

That doesn’t mean you should get better at being crooked – it just means you should tell the truth to start with.

  • Say what you really mean
  • Don’t tap-dance around the truth
  • Don’t take an angle; speak straight
  1. They Keep It Real

Just as people can sense when you’re not telling them the truth, they can also sense when they’re not being spoken to in a truthful fashion. There’s a marked, noticeable difference in the cadence of a used car salesman and that of a preacher, politician or teacher.

Assume that other people are exactly as perceptive as you, and exactly as familiar with different modes of communication. Then ditch every mode of communication that isn’t simple, straightforward and authentic. Be candid. Be frank. If necessary, be blunt. Do not try to spin people or handle them – because being spun is nauseating, and being handled is demeaning.

  • Locate the line between “Fellow Human Being” and “Highly Professional Business Associate”
  • Position yourself on the “Fellow Human Being” side
  • Now walk away from the line
  • Keep walking
  1. They Think Globally and Speak Locally

Strong communication requires strong critical thinking, and strong critical thinking requires an ability to see the big picture. Effective communication also requires the ability to be specific, to distill the big picture down into a single comic-book panel that conveys one idea in a clear, efficient way. Platitudes and generalizations are useless. Communication is the means to an end, and for a leader, that end should always either be requesting information, or inciting action.

  • Think big
  • Speak small
  • Anticipate your audience’s unspoken question: “Yeah, but what’s this got to do with me?”
  1. They Express Humility

A good military strategist knows when to cut his losses and cede a battle – but even better, he knows which battles to avoid. Likewise, a good communicator knows when to admit they’re wrong, when to concede a point and when to avoid speaking on a subject they’re not informed about.

Most importantly, a good leader knows when to confess his or her own ignorance, and even how to use a confession to force others to communicate more clearly.

  • Don’t be afraid to admit when you’re wrong
  • Don’t be afraid to admit when you don’t know what you’re talking about
  • Use your ignorance as a tactical weapon
  1. They Know When to Shut Up

If leadership is conducting the battle, then communication is relaying orders: Be brief and to the point. Get in and get out. No chatter on the mission channel. Loose lips sink ships. After you’ve listened, thought about what you wanted to say, and said it … stop talking. Let your words do the work you designed them to do, and keep your mouth shut until and unless you have something useful to say.

Always remember: Choosing not to communicate is a form of communication, too.

  • Recognize productive silence, and strive to maintain it
  • Remember that “say nothing” is always an additional open
  • Be aware of what saying nothing means in any given situation
  1. They Know When to Make Noise

Responding effectively to external events is only half of effective leadership. The other half is doing things proactively: setting new goals, evaluating progress, anticipating problems and preventing them before they arise. Communication is no exception, and in a team-based setting, it can be the single greatest tool you have to accomplish those tasks in other areas.

  • If you see something, say something
  • Speak up early and often
  • Say what others were afraid someone would say, but don’t forget …
  1. Leaders Speak for Other People

A teacher teaches others. A cook cooks for other people. Remember at all times that communication is a service, and it’s not just for yourself or the audience: Effective leaders take the risk of speaking on behalf of others. They say the things that others are thinking, in the manner they’re not capable of saying it. They express the rumblings of the majority, but also the whispers of the minority. They contrast and synthesize ideas. They offer analysis and commentary. They help those with a voice express their thoughts more clearly, and those without a voice express their thoughts at all.

  • Keep an ear to the ground
  • Get a sense of what others are thinking
  • Figure out how to express the idea of another, without your own ideas tainting it

Leadership = Communication

Leadership is communication, and communication is leadership. The two are inseparable ideas, and you can’t do one without doing the other.

It’s no wonder, then, that bad leaders are bad communicators. They don’t listen, they don’t think, they spin lies, they think they know everything, they don’t speak up when they should and at the same time, they don’t know when to keep their mouth shut.

In seeking to emulate the communication habits of the best leaders, the simplest solution is this: Evaluate the qualities that make them the best, then apply those qualities to communication.

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Sarah Landrum is the founder of Punched Clocks.

2 Comments on 10 Communication Habits of the Best Leaders

  1. Mariah
    August 4, 2015 at 2:27 am (6 years ago)

    This post is so rich with meaningful nuggets of leadership truth about communication. I think the advice “Choosing not to communicate is also a form of communication” helps me see things in a new perspective.

    • Sarah Landrum
      August 4, 2015 at 12:55 pm (6 years ago)

      Thanks, Mariah! I think that’s one of the hardest habits to learn, but definitely one of the most important as a leader!


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