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LEADERSHIP AS COMMUNICATION

Any Packers fans out there? Well, not only is legendary football coach Vince Lombardi known as one of the greatest coaches of all time, he had some pretty insightful perspectives on leadership, too. For Lombardi, “Leaders are not born; they’re made.” This short quote captures a lot, and is the foundation for a more sophisticated, yet often-overlooked, perspective on leadership, one that I will refer to as “leadership as communication.” But how exactly can leaders be made?

Let us first explore two tenets of leadership as communication. 

First, sensemaking. Leaders help followers make sense of events, from the mundane to the extraordinary. Research from a perspective known as Leader-Member Exchange (LMX) shows that the leader-member dyad is the most important source of information for employees to understand and make sense of their work lives. So, from a change of procedure on how to file work documents, to how to act during a crisis, the leader plays the central role in helping followers to make sense of events.

Second, meaning management. As an extension of the first tenet, leaders help followers assign meaning to things that happen on the job. Anything from new members joining the work team to an employee being moved into a different role. Why is this happening? How does it impact me? How are others impacted by the changes? These are all questions leaders help answer, and by doing so, they assist followers in assigning meaning to things.

So that is the what, and now for the how.

The key to sensemaking and meaning management — framing. Leaders select specific parts of an event and emphasize them to help followers understand what is going on, like plucking things out of a moving stream or cropping out certain features in a photo. And with that we have one specific way to frame, using metaphor. Metaphors can be simple, as in “Going through a merger is kind of like dating.” Or, they can be complex and drawn out, as when a leader explains how a person’s role will change during the merger by telling a story about how the employee fits in like characters in a play.

But the key to framing—make sure it fits with how employees process information. Some may prefer metaphor, others may want “just the facts.” For the latter, you can use the “three-part list” framing technique, as in “We are going through this merger because X, Y, Z.”

In the end, Vince Lombardi’s comments reveal that
leadership, when seen as communication, can be learned. You can be made into an effective leader by working on your communication. You can learn to help followers make sense of things. You can help them manage meaning. And it starts by learning how to frame.


Jeremy FykeJeremy Fyke, Ph.D., is an assistant professor in
communication studies and corporate communication in the Diederich College of Communication at Marquette University. He can be reached at jeremy.fyke@marquette.edu.

 

 

 

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