In the “Education Life” section of the New York Times this past spring, Duff McDonald asked the questions, “Can you learn to lead?” and “What does one learn at graduate business school?”
He went on to point out that the biggest topic in business schools today is “leadership,” then quoted a few of the lofty goals such programs espouse. Examples? “Leaders who make a difference in the world” (Harvard Business School), and “Brave leaders who inspire growth in people, organizations and markets” (Kellogg at Northwestern).
Duff then described various approaches to teaching leadership, citing Ann L. Cunliffe’s advice to include “challenges” like “thinking critically, seeing situations in new ways, being able to deal with uncertainty and ambiguity, learning from experience and mistakes, knowing yourself . . . being passionate about what you do.”
In point of fact, however, what Duff left out and what to the best of my knowledge is left out of undergraduate, graduate and Ph.D. business programs is the art of communication — because leadership excellence requires more than being just an effective speaker; it requires communication mastery. Therefore, I respectfully submit that the question to consider is not only, “Can you learn to communicate?” but “Can you learn to communicate as a leader?”
Can you learn to communicate leadership?
I have taught communication mastery and leadership globally for decades as the creator of the voice and leadership training program Vocal Awareness. As such, I recognize the critical distinction between teaching students how simply to be business leaders and, as I teach them, how to “embody a leader” in business.
“Embody a leader” is not simply a turn of phrase. In my book, Vocal Leadership: 7 Minutes-a-Day to Communication Mastery, I describe the difference between training an effective speaker who merely conveys data/information, and teaching future leaders to become effective communicators/storytellers. In short, voice is power. It is not simply what we say but how we say it.
How often in business meetings does someone walk in and merely put up a PowerPoint deck and begin streaming verbal data? In that regard, the business-school classroom is a microcosm of the business-world boardroom. We teach the material but don’t consider what I call “the message and the messenger.” The information may be there, but strategic communication is not.
The art of speech in the digital age
We live in the age of what I call the “fingers and thumbs generation.” We are losing the art of public discourse.
In the ancient Greek agora, or urban assembly place, leaders were chosen from among the great orators of the time; their unamplified voices were so powerful they could be heard and understood throughout the marketplace, commanding attention. In both Greek and Roman times, according to Anthony Everitt, biographer of the legendary Roman orator Cicero, the finest schools taught rhetoric, or the art of public speaking. Diction and style, physical delivery and memorization were skills considered essential to a successful political career.
Compared to today, Everitt states in no uncertain terms, “Public speaking in this complex sense is extinct.”
Certainly leadership can be taught, communication can be taught — but it is not. Whether schools of business management are turning out future global leaders, business leaders, senior executives and/or managers, opportunities are being squandered by not communicating as effectively as possible. I am sure courses are taught by instructors who truly strive to convey important, valuable information. But, they do so as unconscious “public speakers.”
Speech is habit
So, what does it mean to embody leadership? The first thing to consider is that speech is habit. We do not consciously or strategically think about breath, body language, eye contact, visceral language (communicating the emotion of words), vocal quality, pitch or timbre.
Are we aware of what our leadership identity is — what in common parlance is called our brand? Do we prepare for every public encounter by practicing embedding the messages and goals we want to impart to our students?
We don’t think about these things, we just speak. But, if we are teaching leadership, we must embody leadership, not only in what we say but how we say it.
Communication mastery, like all forms of mastery, requires, as Malcolm Gladwell wrote in Outliers, “10,000 hours.” In the arts and in athletics, this amount of time is the norm for those who become leaders in their fields. In communication, however, few spend this requisite time to deserve the description “mastery.” We don’t learn, much less practice, the importance of vocal warm-up; the significance of tactical breathing and support; pitch, pace, eye contact; efforts to overcome personal anxiety; the use of essential elements of storytelling; and so on.
But we should. Like our ancient Greek and Roman predecessors, our mission should be to speak with voices imbued with authenticity and authority — a goal achieved by disciplined, rigorous training and practice. It’s a common axiom that to teach and lead effectively, one must first lead by example.
In this way, perhaps even subliminally, we inspire and ennoble our students as well as our business team to recognize the intrinsic value of mastering the art of communication on the path to leadership excellence.
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