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A brief history of Leadership Communication

Paul Stewart
Paul Stewart
Tuesday, June 11, 2024

At the core of leadership today, lies conversation. Meaningful, impactful dialogue that inspires, aligns, and empowers. The evidence is clear. True leadership thrives in the realm of human connection and meaningful dialogue.

A brief history of Leadership Communication
"Conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits. When minds meet, they don't just exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought. Conversation doesn't just reshuffle the cards: it creates new cards."
- Theodore Zeldin – Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives

Today, there is no shortage of popular thought leaders - Simon Sinek, Brené Brown, Judith E. Glaser, Patrick Lencioni, Kim Scott and Douglas Stone et al – that have explored and exposed the power of leadership conversations. (see bibliography of top-sellers below).

But it’s not a new concept.  The idea that the quality of leadership communication is foundational to team and organisational engagement, in shifting cultures, enabling change, and lifting performance has deep origins. And it’s been validated, directly and indirectly time and time again.  

Looking Back to Move Ahead

Leadrly embraces this philosophy, facilitating transformative conversations that drive confidence, engagement, performance and change. Here’s just some of the thought leadership through time that has informed the Leadrly approach.

Mary Parker Follet (from 1880s)

An American management scientist and consultant, Mary Parker Follet’s thinking was demonstrably ahead of her time. Remember this was the industrial revolution when ‘Taylorism’ was strongly in vogue propagating the view that ‘workers time was to be used efficiently – no time for talking!  

In contrast, Mary Parker Follet defined management as "the art of getting things done through people". Her perspectives on leadership communication underscored the importance of fostering collaboration, resolving conflicts, empowering participation, and articulating a shared purpose and vision within organizations. Effective leadership communication is essential for promoting integration, coordination, and synergy among individuals and teams, ultimately contributing to organizational effectiveness and success.

Douglas McGregor's Theory X and Theory Y (from 1950s)

This pivotal theory was about motivation at work. A systems-based theory the combination Theory X (directive and extrinsic) and Theory Y (empowered and intrinsic).  

The premise; People are human beings, whose behaviour is driven by emotion, not logic. Theory Y, which emphasizes participative management and trust in employees' intrinsic motivation, underscores the significance of open communication and dialogue between leaders and team members in driving performance.

Together with Rensis Likert (best known for developing the psychometric-based Likert Scale), McGregor identified participative leadership styles, characterized by open communication, collaboration, and shared decision-making, as key drivers of employee engagement, satisfaction, and performance.  

Taiichi Ohno ‘the father of LEAN’ (from 1950s)

who developed the Toyota Production System (now called the Toyota Way) with support from Eiji Toyoda. It emphasises ‘respect for people.    

Leaders in the Toyota Way actively listen to employees, engage in dialogue, and demonstrate empathy and understanding. This open communication creates a sense of psychological safety, where employees feel comfortable speaking up, sharing their ideas, and contributing to improvement initiatives.

Edgar Schein's Organizational Culture and Leadership (from 1960s)

Edgar Schein's research on organizational culture and leadership shed light on the role of communication in shaping organizational dynamics and performance. Schein emphasized the importance of leaders' communication style in shaping organizational culture, fostering trust, and facilitating collaboration. His work highlighted the pivotal role of leaders in creating an environment conducive to high performance through effective communication practices.

Martin Seligman (from 1960s)

Often referred to as the father of Positive Psychology, he was first known for his work on ‘learned helplessness’ in the 1960s and 70s. By the 1990s he focused on the counter-narrative – ‘Learned Optimism’.  Seligman’s concepts focus on fostering well-being, resilience, and a positive mindset, all of which are crucial for effective leadership communication.  By focusing on strengths, fostering optimism, building resilience, and promoting a growth mindset, leaders can create a positive, engaged, and high-performing team environment.

Chris Argyris' Work on Organizational Learning (from 1970s)

Chris Argyris' research on organizational learning highlighted the role of communication in facilitating learning and innovation within organizations. Argyris emphasized the importance of dialogue, feedback, and reflection in driving continuous improvement and adaptability. His work underscored the value of open communication channels and a culture of psychological safety in promoting organizational performance and resilience.

Thomas F. Gilbert's Work (from 1980s)

Studies by this prominent psychologist demonstrated that by improving the quality of team communication, you have a profound impact upon performance. This ‘revelation’ was pivotal to the emergence of approaches such as Open Book Management and Balanced Scorecard. What we talk about matters!  Gilbert emphasized the importance of clear communication channels, feedback mechanisms, and supportive leadership in driving performance improvement initiatives.  

John Kotter, the 'godfather' of change management. (from 1980s)

Kotter is a renowned authority on leadership, change management, and organizational transformation. His insights on leadership communication, storytelling, and change are reflected in several of his publications, including: Leading Change; The Heart of Change; Our Iceberg is Melting, and; Change Faster.  

His perspectives increasingly orientated towards leadership communication, engaging emotionally and using storytelling to enable change. He emphasizes the importance of inspiring and engaging people through clear communication, compelling narratives, and emotional connection.  

Peter Senge (From 1990s)

Peter Senge's seminal work "The Fifth Discipline" explores the concept of the learning organization and its role in driving innovation and adaptability. Senge argued that effective leadership communication articulates a compelling vision for the future and aligns individuals around shared goals and values.  

Senge posed that communication is the lifeblood of sharing knowledge, insights and best practices among individuals and teams.  He emphasises the importance of ‘dialogue’ as a core practice. His description of dialogue goes beyond traditional forms of communication by creating space for deep listening, inquiry and reflection.  It encourages people to suspend judgement, explore diverse perspectives and co-create shared meaning.  

David Cooperrider (from 2000s)

Cooperrider's work on Appreciative Inquiry emphasizes identifying and leveraging an organisation’s strengths, rather than focusing on problems and deficiencies. Effective leaders use Appreciative Inquiry principles to shift conversations toward positive outcomes, successes, and opportunities, which fosters a more optimistic and empowering environment. With an appreciative mindset, leaders emphasise strengths, foster collaborative dialogue, create a shared vision, and encourage a reflective conversation. This helps build a positive culture, and enhances engagement.  

Janelle Barlow and Paul Stewart (from 2000s)

In their book Branded Customer Service, Barlow and Stewart highlight the importance of leadership communication in aligning brand values with employee behaviour, empowering employees, ensuring consistency, fostering feedback, role modelling, building a customer-centric culture, and supporting continuous training and development. They state that leaders should foster an environment where open dialogue is encouraged, and feedback is actively sought and acted upon. This ongoing communication fosters a culture of generative improvement.

Shawn Callahan (from 2005)

His book ‘Putting Stories to Work’ emphasizes the power of storytelling as a vital tool in leadership communication. While citing many others that highlight the power of story-telling, Callahan’ offers, arguably, the most practical perspective. Stories create emotional connections and build trust between leaders and their teams. They make leaders more relatable and authentic. They help convey complex ideas, values, and visions in a way that is easy to understand and remember. Well-told stories capture attention and inspire action. They can motivate teams by illustrating the impact of their work.  And they help people make sense of change, reducing fear and resistance by providing context and meaning.

The list could go on. But these stand-out in shaping the Leadrly approach. And the conclusion is clear.  Leader-led conversations are fundamental to building organisational and team alignment, engagement and collaboration. Ultimately, (all other things being equal) the better dialogue the greater outcomes will be achieved.  

So, the ‘what’ leaders need to focus on is abundantly clear – having better conversations.  Leadrly supports them to do just that.

"The art of communication is the language of leadership."
- James C Humes

Bibliography: Top sellers focused on leadership conversations

  • Conversational Intelligence – Judith E. Glaser
  • Crucial Conversations – Kerry Patterson et al.
  • Dare to Lead – Brené Brown
  • Fierce Conversations – Susan Scott
  • Radical Candour – Kim Scott
  • The Five Dysfunctions of a Team – Patrick Lencioni
  • The Coaching Habit – Michael Bungay Stanier
  • Difficult Conversations – Douglas Stone et al.
  • Start with Why - Simon Sinek  

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