Leadership Communication

John McGurk from the CIPD introduced the session by suggesting communication hadn’t always been part of HR but is increasingly becoming more important. 

The speaker was Kevin Murray, a South African communications specialist. He started with a story of a text message he received from his daughter who was on a flight where there was an emergency, the plane descended 30,000 feet and oxygen masks dropped. She asked him to tell her kids she loved them. She emailed him a photo of her taken by a man in the neighbouring seat on the plane but said her battery was running out and they were intending to try to land the plane at a local airport and she would text them when she had landed.

He then received a text saying they had landed safely. 

Naturally, this gave him a big fright. The man who had taken the photo of his daughter had tweeted the picture and already had seven media interviews lined up by the time they landed. Kevin pointed out that the Singapore airlines media team probably had no idea of the incident and yet international media was being briefed, with pictures, “live” as it happened. 

This is the new world we are in – media stories develop with incredible speed. Companies face so much scrutiny and stories can develop so quickly. 

The potential impact of this on companies led Kevin to think about companies’ intangible assets. Over the last ten years, his research showed that the value of intangibles had overtaken the value of tangible assets. “Intangibles” includes skills and competencies, processes and systems, reputation and trust, knowledge, culture and values, relationships and leadership and communication. Perceptions of leadership in the organisation can change a share price by up to 35%. As leaders we have to build the value of the intangibles in a world where they are growing at a great rate. The problem is they are driven by people’s emotions and that makes them highly unstable.

Kevin said leadership is courage, it’s about people who seek out problems and fix them before they become crises. There are massive implications for communications in this. Leaders are almost always smart, demanding, driven people – but some of them fail and some of them succeed. He started with the hypothesis that those who failed could not take people with them. He interviewed the CEOs of 70 organisations, which he had transcribed, giving him 600,000 words to study!


He used this to develop a model of “The 12 principles of inspiring leaders”. 

Kevin started with a dictionary definition: “Language is a system of communication used by a country or community”. He realised the successful leaders were using a system. He took this to create his model.

He noticed that the military leaders he interviewed kept referring to “Mission-oriented command” – a system of leadership still used in the British and U.S. armies, developed in the 1800s by the Prussians, who call it “Auftragstaktik”. It was developed from a battle in which the French beat a far better equipped and much larger Prussian army. 

Everybody needs to understand our overall intent. They must make decisions at their level within a framework – but if the framework gets in the way, you can go outside it to achieve the overall intent. Alignment and agility are key.

The main requirement is for leaders to be authentic. The core behaviours for Kevin’s 12 principles were:

– draw on your passion to inspire others
– have a strong sense of purpose* and a clear set of values
– be focused on the future
– get outside or “Bring the outside in” – contact between employees and customers gave more inspiration than any inspiring manager. 
– conversations drive engagement – they have to be systematic, powerful and honest

(* Purpose was not profit: profit is a success measure, not the end in itself.)

What skills enable them to do that?

– be audience-centric
– listen
– have the courage of your convictions
– use stories
– give out the right signals
– prepare, prepare, prepare 
– never be satisfied

Kevin told us the brain functions differently when it hears a story. He asked who felt the pain he did when he told us about his daughter. Most hands went up. Stories have the power to get beyond the barriers to get to people’s hearts. It is crucial to leadership. 

He said a big area we don’t pay enough attention to are the signals we send. They can be micro (eg frowning) or macro (eg policies you have but don’t follow). They are inadvertent signals we are sending and yet they drive the culture of organisations. 

None of the leaders thought they were perfect communicators. Kevin asked how they learned what they knew – most said by osmosis, making mistakes and trusted feedback. 

Kevin told us about the research he continues to do, with leaders self assessing themselves and then workers assessing their leaders. He made some interesting comparisons: media, marketing, advertising & sales were top for inspiring sectors; travel, transport and distribution were the lowest. 

He went on to link this to employee engagement – interestingly saying that the debate about engagement was “over” (which isn’t really my experience!) as “by whatever metric you choose” it has been proven to be critical. 

From his research, Kevin has identified two important conclusions:
– Quality relationships are about mutual respect and relevance
– How you make me feel determines how I behave

At a conference he attended, people were talking about individuals such as Nelson Mandela and Margaret Thatcher as being inspirational leaders. He felt this was wrong, so he asked people at the conference “Who is the boss who most inspired you and why?”. Most people answered that they believed in them, possible more than they believed in themselves. They put their trust in them. 

I particularly liked this quote:

“We shouldn’t train people to be inspiring, we should train them to be inspired” 

The purpose of conversations is to find the innovation we need. In so doing, you don’t have to be a great orator you have to communicate, listen and connect. If you can get these relationships right and build a connected workforce, you create one of the greatest intangible assets of an organisation. 


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