It’s a debate as timeless as the age-old controversy about the chicken and the egg. Do effective leaders learn to become superior communicators and relationship builders? Or do people with exemplary communication and teamwork abilities naturally have an aptitude for leadership?
Recently, the Wall Street Journal’s online edition, citing the need for – and lack of – these leadership qualities in business, asked its readers if business schools should “put more focus on communications and interpersonal training within their programs, or should the programs require a greater degree of proficiency in these skills in the students they admit?” Inevitably, the discussion revolved around the question of whether communication and relationship skills are inherent or learned.
One reader contended that a person not already inclined to communicate openly could never really acquire the skill. Another claimed that by focusing on team projects and class discussions, business schools clearly provide this valuable training. But most agreed that business schools should both look for students with superior communications and relationship abilities and then show them how to refine their abilities. At Ivey, that is certainly the case, as it should be.
As Ivey Professor Gerard H. Seijts illustrates in his compelling article about the behaviours of effective leaders, communications and interpersonal skills are absolutely critical, especially when a crisis erupts or when leaders “have to navigate the rough seas of organizational change.” And since “most businesses operate in a complex and uncertain environment”, the best business leaders possess foresight, decisiveness and the confidence to take risks – behavioural traits gained by communicating and working with others.
He further observes that when problems occur, leaders need the “visibility” that arises from remaining in touch with your people at all times. Equally vital is a leader’s eagerness to communicate widely because there is “no such thing as over-communications during a crisis”. He also underscores the critical leadership ability of being able to “connect with people” – to engage them, secure their commitment and gain their trust. Most important, he shows how these mindsets not only help during a crisis, they inevitably help to avoid crises. Effective communication and interpersonal skills provide leaders with an acute understanding of what could happen, how to minimize surprises, and how to keep your people on side – no matter what occurs.
Can people learn to communicate and relate well with others? As I have seen, absolutely. Do leaders need to listen, speak and interact with people effectively? Absolutely. Are leaders born or are they made? I believe that the best leaders learn to lead. They come to appreciate the value of candour and trust. They seek to understand and be understood. And they know that communicating and relating well with people are the only ways to achieve the calibre of leadership that endures.