“[…] everything you do is an example, and people look at everything you do and take a signal from everything you do.” – Richard Anderson, former Chief Executive Officer of Delta Air Lines

Communication is not just a key leadership skill, it’s the very process through which leadership is exercised.

As a leader, communication goes way beyond what you say. It’s who you ARE – what you do, how you behave, what you decide, and what you emote. Your actions are constantly evaluated by those you lead, and they set the tone for their own actions, decisions and behaviors.

The successful leader must therefore always heed these five principles.

I. PWYP because they will DAYD

“Example is not the main thing in influencing people. It is the only thing” – Albert Schweitzer

Practice What You Preach because they will Do As You Do. It sounds so obvious, yet this is where so many leaders trip up and miss the opportunity to establish credibility and trust.

In the face of the daily pressures from difficult colleagues, looming deadlines, and that overflowing inbox, consistently embodying the values and vision of your leadership requires a level of mindfulness and self-control. But the leader who practices what they preach – consistently, however big or small the decision, or action – will demonstrate the credibility and trustworthiness that are critical for any leader who is trying to get people to follow and support her or him to achieve a vision.

For inspiration, read up on Jim Sinegal, the co-founder and former CEO of Costco, and Dan Gilbert, the founder and now Chairman of Quicken Loans. They are both fantastic examples of leaders who truly practiced what they preached in their every decision and action and who as a result have build incredibly successful companies.

II. Control your silent signals (because they speak volumes!)

“People may hear your words, but feel your attitude” – John C. Maxwell

When we speak, there are non-verbal aspects of our delivery that influence how our message is received and interpreted: our physical appearance, the territory and personal space we maintain, facial expressions, gestures & posture, eye contact, vocal cues and time & pacing.

If left un-managed, these hidden cues can undermine our message. Our body has a knack for revealing the truth about how we really feel, despite what our words are saying. In fact, when our verbal and nonverbal communications are incongruent, people are more inclined to believe the nonverbal.

Let’s briefly look at how each of these aspects actually influences our communication:

  • For better or worse, your physical appearanceis the first message people receive, and it forms the basis for judgments about the kind of a person you are. So, consider this carefully. What kind of personality do you want to project as a leader? And do you need or want to dress to fit in or to stand out? By the way, we are not advocating any kind of “corporate uniform”. In fact we are huge fans of Clara Gaymard, who until recently was the CEO of General Electric in France and was known for her elegant motorcycle style. Moreover, you can also use your clothes strategically. For example, Christine Lagarde, the Managing Director of The International Monetary Fund, uses her signature bright scarves to “bring the eyes upward,” forcing viewers to focus on what she says.
  • Territory and personal spaceare two aspects of nonverbal communication that are often overlooked. How one manages the space between oneself and one’s audience can powerfully impact the sense of intimacy or authority with which a message is delivered. Do you locate yourself amongst your audience or separate from it? Do you want to be at eye level or do you want them to have to look up at you?Importantly, these dynamics play out during any interaction, whether it is an ad hoc conversation in your office with one person, a planned meeting with a group or an all-company presentation. . Managing your location and space across all such interactions is key to managing your communication effectiveness as a leader.
  • Gesture and postureare much more nuanced and powerful then most of us realize. Nick Morgan, the author of Power Cues: The Subtle Science of Leading Groups, Persuading Others, and Maximizing Your Personal Impact, described a case study in which a female executive in the healthcare sector completely changed the way others perceived her by simply tweaking her posture. First, she curbed her habit of tilting her head when listening to her peers and superiors, as this signaled a sense of submission, which inhibited her authority. In addition, her petite figure meant that her gestures were similarly small and demure. By enlarging her gestures, she communicated a more bold and assertive leadership style.
  • Our facial expressions are notoriously hard to control as they tend to be largely instinctive, driven by our underlying emotions. As a leader it is important to be aware of how we look when we interact and how that impacts our communication. For example, I once learned through feedback that I tend to frown when I listen, which some mis-interpreted as disapproval. Yikes!
  • Time & pacingare two other aspects of nonverbal communication that are very powerful. How much time we spend on a topic or message and the speed of our speech communicates volumes. It can suggest how important or unimportant we deem an issue or message, or how comfortable we are to discuss it.
  • Eye contactis a component few people use to its fullest. Have some fun with it. Gently hold an opponent’s gaze when advocating your point of view. Connect with each meeting participant through eye contact. Sometimes those split seconds of connection are all it takes to get others truly engaged.

III. It’s a two-way street

“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place” – George Bernard Shaw

This beautiful quote points out one of the pitfalls many leaders fall into: they fail to check that their message was actually received and understood as intended by their audience. There are a couple of common reasons.

Firstly, to effectively influence an audience, whether it is an individual or a group, one needs to understand their current perspective on the topic or issue. However, too often leaders try and influence people without first taking the time to truly understand their audience’s starting point of view. As a result, the leaders message may be received but not be understood or resonate.

Secondly, words don’t carry real influence until they connect to meaningful, relevant concepts in the audience’s experience. For example, your leadership objective may be to deliver shareholder value, but that means nothing to your team. However, their potential performance bonus does.

Lastly, remember that communication does not happen instantly. Most people need time to digest, interpret, and re-confirm their understanding. For example, presenting or discussing something new at one all-staff meeting doesn’t mean it’s been communicated. That first step needs to be followed by a methodical series of steps that allow people to give feedback, ask questions, and receive clarification. Effective communication takes time.

IV. No communication is communication

“Not responding is a response – we are equally responsible for what we don’t do” – Jonathan Safran Foer

Just as delaying to make a decision is itself a decision, so is not responding to someone who expects to be communicated with.

Many leaders struggle to manage their emails, often choosing to not respond to all but the most urgent ones. Unfortunately, in doing so they actually communicate to the senders of the unanswered emails that they do not care about their messages – i.e. not answering conveys disrespect.

And this may be hurting their leadership effectiveness more than they think because study upon study has proven that when it comes to garnering commitment and engagement from employees, there’s one thing that leaders most need to demonstrate before anything else counts: Basic respect.

V. Choose and use your channels carefully

“Email is familiar. It’s comfortable. It’s easy to use. But it might just be the biggest killer of time and productivity in the office today” – Ryan Holmes, CEO of HootSuite

As the number of lean communications options such as email and text have increased, leaders have jumped on them to try and get more done, faster. The sad truth is that most of these channels are actually not “communication channels” but “information channels”. Communication builds relationships, but information sharing does not. Be mindful of how you use these channels. Your efficiency may be working against you rather than for you, as you may be sharing more but communicating less.

In summary

When it comes to leadership EVERYTHING communicates.

Read moreThe Success Quality All Great Leaders Share