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How Clear Communication Defines Leadership

By Dan Beckham

Strategic direction demands specific language, not vague and overused clichés.

The first obligation of a leader is, of course, to lead. But leading always begs a question — toward where? The quality of leadership ultimately must be judged by the degree to which followers arrive at an intended place that’s worth going to.

A description of that place worth going to is often called vision. It is a picture painted with words that describe an organization’s aspirations realized. The path to that vision usually will embody a degree of uncertainty and resistance. How the path will be navigated can be described properly as strategy. Absent uncertainty and resistance, there’s no need for strategy. A to-do list will suffice. When the degree of uncertainty and resistance is low, an organization may get by with mediocre and even poor leadership. The more intense the uncertainty and resistance, the more important the quality of leadership becomes.

Clear Communication

Today, there’s wide agreement in health care that levels of uncertainty and resistance have risen. Driving this is a confluence of catalytic forces. Obviously, reform efforts have had a major impact, but so have rapidly shifting demographics, advances in technology, a lingering recession and new competitors. Rising levels of uncertainty and resistance generate rising levels of complexity, including increased volatility. Volatility describes loss of predictability related to the frequency and amplitude of swings in situations where consequences can be threatening.

Leadership relies on communication. The need for clear communication increases in direct proportion to the level of volatility an organization faces. Volatility is characterized by lots of noise. By noise, I mean signals that lack relevance. Volatile situations are also rich in the potential for confusion and unintended consequences. In such situations, the quality of leadership is invariably a reflection of the clarity of communication regarding where the organization is going and how it intends to get there.

Clarity requires specificity. Specificity yields precision. It enables focused concentration of resources, both human and financial. It also delivers efficiency because it reduces misdirection and wasted effort. And perhaps more importantly, it reduces the confusion and anxiety that ambiguity generates. Confusion and anxiety are dispiriting, and they chew up precious energy and emotion. Too often, it is when organizations most need clarity that they get empty slogans, overused catch phrases and conventional wisdom dressed up as destinations worthy of commitment.


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