The voice of leadership

29 April, 2019

Find your voice as a leader to gain in influence and effectiveness

Whether you’re an aspiring young leader or an established member of the leadership team, your “leadership voice” is a critical component of your leadership toolkit. Think about how you communicate. Are there any key beliefs that shape the way you interact with people at work? How do you encourage your team members? What stories do you like to tell? How do you facilitate collaboration and handle crises? In what ways do you persuade others to adopt your viewpoint? How do you participate in discussions with colleagues?

Together, these aspects add up to your leadership voiceDo you feel it reflects the kind of leader you want to be?

To be a credible and influential leader, you need to find the right voice for your interactions – whether you’re at a meeting, chatting with your team about upcoming plans, or sharing a story at the lunch table.

So, this week, my message focuses on developing a strategic leadership voice that is true to yourself. How can you communicate more powerfully, in order to build trust as well as increase impact?

In order to tap your full potential, you need to develop a unique yet appropriate voice. Ideally, it should resonate strongly with your personal values and leadership style. While the core beliefs governing your communication must be consistent, you can tailor the specifics to different situations. Your voice is a crucial aspect of your professional brand – it can make or break careers.

The impact also extends to your organisation. Your voice determines the way in which your leadership is perceived, which in turn affects employee engagement, productivity and retention. Leading with a strong, clear voice fosters loyalty and high performance. On the other hand, inconsistent and unclear communication fractures trust and hurts morale.

To develop your leadership voice, you need to be deliberate about it.Here are seven recommendations to help you cultivate a more strategic and influential leadership voice: 

1. Align with your personal values

Executive coach Paul Larsen believes that the distinctive voices of leaders are often lost in large organisations. In an interview with Skip Prichard, he says:

I have found that…the creative talents, or voices, of leaders are stifled into an expected pattern of behavior.  Leaders learn quickly that to succeed is to “go with the flow” and not make waves.  Their unique voice can be easily silenced.

To develop your personal leadership voice, Larsen recommends identifying your core values, i.e., “the principles you believe are important in the way you live and work”. Once you have a clear sense of your beliefs, shape your communication accordingly and (most importantly) follow up with action – otherwise you run the risk of “not walking the talk”. Values-driven communication and action enable leaders to be more courageous and influential – not to mention more content and happier.

2. Articulate a vision for the future

Great leaders are visionary. They go beyond the narrow focus on their own role/team and embrace a broader viewpoint. Not only do they have a vision for the future, but they are also able to communicate it meaningfully. Your voice as a leader must be compelling and motivating, connecting the dots between day-to-day tasks and long-term goals, between individual functions and the bigger enterprise picture. Whether you’re implementing a new strategy or making recommendations, explain how these steps will help your team as well as the organisation achieve their objectives.

3. Play by the context

In her Harvard Business Review article, To Sound Like a Leader, Think About What You Say, and How and When You Say It, Rebecca Shambaugh explains how ignoring context can hold you back:

How often do you find yourself throwing out an unformed idea in a meeting, not speaking up when people are looking for your ideas, or saying something that doesn’t quite fit the agenda and suddenly getting that “deer in the headlights” feeling? … these types of tactical errors come down to failing to understand the context of the call, meeting, or discussion that you are in.

To determine the best way to participate in a group situation, pay attention to the context. For instance, if you’re the authority on the subject at hand, your ideas are invaluable. If you’re the final decision-maker, it’s your role to solicit input from everyone and make the final call. If you’re one of several qualified participants, your job is to present your views and help to tie different ideas together – rather than hogging the spotlight. So, use context to identify and adopt the appropriate leadership voice.

4. Be the anchor in a storm

One of the defining traits of leadership is remaining calm in the midst of chaos. In moments of crisis, your voice should act as a grounding presence and bring clarity to those around you – rather than fuelling panic. Dispel rumours, stick with facts, and be transparent as far as possible. Don’t play the blame game or dwell endlessly on the problem – instead, use your communication to move the group into problem-solving mode. Make doubly sure that your message is clearly understood, because there’s a lot more scope for confusion in such circumstances. Don’t assume – check for understanding.

Before you walk into a meeting that’s likely to become tense or upsetting, hold a key motto in your mind, such as “listen, absorb, then respond” or “don’t take it personally” or even simply “stay cool”. Also work on reining in your inherent biases – these tend to come out in the form of knee-jerk responses or “us versus them” narratives when things go wrong, which can damage your trustworthiness and reputation as a leader.

5. Diversify your work relationships

In the article mentioned above, Shambaugh explains that one of the best ways to develop strategic, leader-like thinking is to interact with a wide variety of people, so you don’t get stuck with tunnel vision:

When you cultivate and invest in broad strategic relationships, it helps you avoid getting caught up in day-to-day minutiae. It’s easy to lose sight of the significance of cultivating new and diverse relationships when you already have a full plate – but part of being able to access a strong executive voice is expanding your knowledge beyond your specific position, department, or area of expertise.

Shambaugh advises reaching out to people beyond your immediate team and functional domain. Try to learn how their role fits into the organisation as a whole, what they’re trying to achieve, and if there are ways in which you could collaborate or support one other.

6. Find ways to connect

As you climb the leadership ladder, small talk or telling stories can seem unnecessarily time-consuming. However, if your voice loses the human touch, it becomes very difficult for people to connect meaningfully with you. If you really want to inspire your colleagues and teams, you’ll need to invest some time and effort in staying connected as you work together.

In the Harvard Business Review article, You Don’t Just Need One Leadership Voice – You Need Many, Amy Jen Su highlights the value of enhancing your storytelling skills. A compelling story can help you drive home a point, close a deal and create an excellent rapport with your team. Leaders who can tell a good story are memorable and impactful. Su also suggests making time for ice-breaking or small talk at the start of a meeting:

So often, we want to get right down to business, so we skip the niceties or pleasantries that help to build relationships with others. Where possible, and especially with colleagues who value that kind of connection, spend a couple of minutes to connect before diving into the work.

7. Amplify others’ voices

As a leader, your voice carries weight and authority, putting you in the ideal position to facilitate fairer, more inclusive team interactions. Pay attention to the dynamics of your team: Are some people taking up all the airtime? Are other, more reserved team members being silenced, even when they have something to contribute? Is the discussion around an issue becoming one-sided?

Use your leadership voice to correct this imbalance by creating the opportunity for every team member’s opinions to be heard. This will allow valuable information and ideas to surface, which might otherwise be lost. It will also benefit your team members themselves: the dominant ones will develop the art of listening, while the timid ones will learn to speak up.


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