By Herman van Niekerk
In his book Business @ the Speed of Thought , Bill Gates wrote that "information is the digital nervous system of an organization" (Gates, 1999). Expanding on this concept, it can be argued that communication – the exchange of information or news – is the life-giving oxygen of a vibrant organization. Without it, an organization will begin to die. Thus, the ability to communicate is arguably the most important characteristic of an effective leader. Yukl (2013) also emphasizes this point and agrees that leaders should have effective communication skills and optimism, ambition, and integrity.
The ability to communicate effectively is also the glue that coheres the Scholar-Practitioner-Leader (SPL) approach. Kouzes and Posner (2007) argue that effective leaders possess the skill to communicate in a clear and concise manner that inspires people to act on a common goal. Robinson (2001) states that “Leadership is exercised when ideas expressed in talk or action are recognized by others as capable of progressing tasks or problems which are important to them” (p.93). Without communication, including leadership communication, there will be no action. Thus, taking action(s) is what defines one’s practice in becoming an effective leader.
The link between communication skills and practice is an integral part of being an SPL. Mayfield and Mayfield (2017) concluded that “regardless of perspective or culture, most scholars agree that leadership creates and manages meaning” (p. 4). Additionally, perceptions of the leader are crucial in building relationships with stakeholders and as chief communicator (Kitchen & Laurence, 2003; Ulmer, Seeger, & Sellnow, 2007). Leadership communication can therefore impact an organization in various ways. From building a reputation (e.g. Bill Gates and Microsoft), to destroying it (e.g. Enron and Arthur Andersen), a leader's reputation is likely to have a major influence on determining an organization’s reputation.
From a scholarly perspective, leaders and practitioners must understand the ontological perspectives of both leadership and communication. Leadership has a long and rich history and is being studied from various perspectives and different frameworks. In a post-modern world, the meaning of leadership is changing. The SPL model represents an emerging approach adding new dimensions to leadership development and studies.
Scholar-Practitioner-Leaders need to appreciate the theory of communication and, as practitioners, must master its application. Communication theory can be studied from different ontological perspectives such as realist, nominalist, or social constructionist perspectives. From an ontological perspective, the SPL framework is shaped by a social constructionist view, an approach that attempts to bridge objective and subjective reality and a view that reality is what participants create together. Leadership communication is mostly informed by a discursive leadership style which is, at its core, also social constructionist.
Communication can be used in different ways including conversations, discussions, dialogue, debate, and deliberation. Each of these constructs has a different purpose and outcome; it is important to realize this to be an effective SPL communicator. Organizational conversations about challenging and complex issues often lapse into a debate and “such exchanges do not activate the human capacity for intelligence” (Isaacs, 1993, p.25). On the other hand, dialogue is a much better medium to promote deeper inquiry. Dialogue is a discipline of “collective thinking and inquiry, a process for transforming the quality of conversation and, in particular, the thinking that lies beneath it” (Isaacs, 1993, p.25). Vogt, Brown and Isaacs (2003) elaborate on this point and powerfully argue that questions open the door to dialogue and discovery and “can lead to movement and action on key issues by generating creative insights” (p.1).
The role and impact of questions in organizational learning have been extensively researched by leading experts such as Marquardt (2005), Nadler and Chandon (2004), and Leeds (2000). Despite the attention paid to the power of questions in creating avenues to effective dialogue, most leaders assume that they have to provide answers, not ask questions. Marquardt (2005) experienced that “most leaders are unaware of the amazing power of questions and how they can generate short-term results and long-term learning and success” (p.11).
Communication, and a clear understanding of its different constructs, must be a key focus for Scholar-Practitioner-Leaders. As scholars, we need to understand the theoretical foundations of communications, as practitioners we need to develop the skills and apply the techniques, and as leaders, we need to ensure that our collective discussions lead to action. Fairhurst (2008) states that “Wherever there is an opportunity for power and influence—in new or traditional organizational forms, with individuals or groups, or with formal or emergent leaders—attributions of leadership are not just possible but likely” (p.518). Similarly, I am of the opinion that the SPL model adopted by the School of Advance Studies opens up many new possibilities for research about leadership. This includes the shifting of the leader/follower power balance brought about by social media, the role of communicative action in leadership practice, and the relevance of the SPL model itself in comparison with other leadership frameworks. We at the School, especially those of us within the University of Phoenix Research Centers, are looking forward to collaborating with you on this exciting journey of learning and discovery.
Fairhurst, G. T. (2008). Discursive leadership: A communication alternative to leadership psychology. Management Communication Quarterly, 21(4), pp.510-521.
Gates, W. H. (1999). Business @ the speed of thought: Succeeding in the digital economy. Warner Books. New York, NY.
Isaacs, W.N. (1993). Taking flight: Dialogue, collective thinking, and organizational learning. Organizational Dynamics, 22(2), pp. 24-39.
Kitchen, P., & Laurence, A. (2003). Corporate reputation: An eight-country analysis. Corporate Reputation Review, 6(2), 103-117.
Kouzes, J. M., & Posner, B. Z. (2007). The leadership challenge. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Leeds, D. (2000). The 7 powers of questions: Secrets to successful communication in life and work. Berkley Publishing, New York, NY.
Marquardt, M. (2005). Leading with questions. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.
Mayfield J. & Mayfield, M. (2017). Leadership communication reflecting, engaging and innovating. International Journal of Business Communication, 54(1), pp. 3-11
Nadler, G. & Chandon, W. J. (2005). Smart questions: Learn to ask the right questions for powerful results. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco, CA.
Robinson, V. M. J. (2001). Embedding leadership in task performance. In K. Wong & C. W. Evers (Eds.), Leadership for quality schooling (pp. 90-102). London: Routledge/Falmer.
Ulmer, R., Seeger, M., & Sellnow, T. (2007). Post-crisis communication and renewal: Expanding the parameters of post-crisis discourse. Public Relations Review, 33(2), 130-134.
Vogt, E.E., Brown, J. & Isaacs, D. (2003). The art of powerful questions: catalyzing insight, innovation and action. Whole System Associates. Mill Valley, CA.
Yukl, G. (2013). Leadership in organizations (8th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Herman van Niekerk
Dr. Van Niekerk is an Associate Dean of Doctoral Programs with the University of Phoenix College of Doctoral Studies Business Programs. He is a writer, conference speaker and expert on leadership studies.