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Leaders Sinking? The Surprising Key to Survival

duck drowned - failure and SOS concept

Leaders today are often drowning in a sea of high expectations. If they can’t deliver, their teams (and perhaps their companies) may not stay afloat. But the challenge has an interesting twist. Even if leaders possess a wealth of product knowledge and insights, there’s one skill they can’t survive without.

It all comes down to communication.

Great leadership doesn’t exist without great communication. Having oceans of industry expertise isn’t enough. Leaders are truly successful based on how well they speak and write. How well they can articulate their vision. How they explain shared goals and reiterate key messages. How they motivate others to action. How they empower their direct reports.

As a leadership coach, I recently met with a client who was living proof of this principle. Adam (not his real name) was ridiculously smart and excelled at big-picture, long-term thinking. However, he was struggling because his staff only saw him as a deadline wrangler and not a strategic leader. His team members never understood what he was thinking, and they were perpetually irritated and confused. As Adam’s company prepared to undertake a significant change initiative, his director was understandably concerned about Adam’s ability to lead a team through the process.

What we quickly discovered in our sessions together was that Adam’s basic leadership skills were solid, but he was missing the fundamentals for good communication. That’s a much bigger problem than you might initially think.

It’s non-negotiable.

Think of a fully loaded luxury car without an engine or a 5-star resort with no plumbing. Those are deal-breakers. They might have a lot to offer on the surface, but those missing pieces are non-negotiable.

The same concept applied to Adam. Without the ability to communicate effectively, none of his other skills could get noticed. That unfortunate deficit was actually wiping out any potential leadership value he had to offer. Besides having a negative impact on his team and his company, poor communication skills were creating an ominous roadblock for Adam’s career.

It’s essential—but not easy.

While communication is a “must have” in the leadership skill toolbox, it’s not something you can quickly add by reading a few books or signing up for a one-hour webinar. Communication is a multi-dimensional, multi-layered activity, and people work for years to master its subtle nuances. Verbal messaging. Non-verbal cues. Written statements. Listening. Making adjustments for the audience. So many moving parts!

So where should you begin if you want to boost this all-encompassing skill? The key is to break down the learning task into manageable chunks so it doesn’t seem overwhelming. Start with a single facet—maybe written communications, listening skills, or presentations—and add on over time. Trying to tackle everything at once can leave some people feeling unmotivated while others slide into deer-in-the-headlights mode with no clue how or where to start.

Plenty of resources and training options are available, and I know firsthand that individual coaching is an excellent way to customize and jumpstart the process. Virtually everyone has room for improvement with communication skills, so it’s helpful to approach this as an ongoing educational endeavor. To put that in perspective, I can’t remember working with a single client throughout my coaching career who did NOT have at least one element of communication as a goal for improvement.


When leaders make communication a priority, the results can be extraordinary. Great leaders know how to clearly express what they expect from their teams and their peers. Not just so the information can be understood, but so it “sticks.” It makes an impact. And it’s memorable. They listen like it’s an Olympic sport and they’re going for the gold. They know how to paint a full-color vision with their words. They inspire as they inform.

Communication isn’t simply an important part of leadership; it’s arguably the most important part. So if you or your company are serious about expanding your success, don’t ignore the need to improve your leadership communication. It shouldn’t be an afterthought; it’s the essential solution.

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