May 28, 2022 8 min read

Effective Leadership as Effective Conversations

Effective Conversations are the building blocks of effective leadership.

It's a cliche to mention effective communication as critical to leadership effectiveness. But we usually don't have an actionable approach to getting better at communication.

Focusing on conversations as an essential building block of leadership and organizations is one way to get better at communication and effective leadership.


James Flaherty mentions conversational competence as “the competency that when mastered leaves us able to accomplish much more than ever before in a wide variety of circumstances”. [1]

One of those circumstances is leading and managing.

Leadership as conversations

Typically when we think of leadership, we think of charisma, strategy, strong oratory, strong cognitive skills, persuasion, vision, and a host of other things from modern culture including how Hollywood portrays leadership.

However, the reality is that on a day-to-day moment-to-moment basis, the one action that leaders do the most is conduct conversations, some effective and others not so much.

Whether it is strategy, planning or organizational change initiatives, if you look at the day to day, moment to moment being of leaders, what are they doing? What is the physical action that they are engaging in?

Leadership at its core, in a very simplified model, can be thought of as a series of interconnected conversations or “leadership as conversations”.  This could entail giving a presentation to the board on the organization’s future or having a one-on-one conversation with a direct report.

Talk is the technology of leadership.

– Jeanne Liedtka [2]
Watch any manager and one thing readily becomes apparent: the amount of time that is spent simply communicating—namely, collecting and disseminating information for its own sake, without necessarily processing it. …what you see is a lot of talking and listening, not doing.

The job of managing is significantly one of information processing, especially through a great deal of listening, seeing, and feeling, as well as a good deal of talking.

– Henry Mintzberg in Managing [3]

Lookup any job description for a managerial or executive role and you will see some version of “strong communication skills”  featured prominently . Clearly we recognize the importance of communication in leadership and managerial effectiveness.

And yet, do we really know what this entails? As an aspiring leader what can one do to get better in this domain? While everyone understands the importance of communication, we do not necessarily know how to go about building that competence.

Conversations underlie almost all leadership soft skills

The importance of soft skills to leadership effectiveness is a well-recognized and well-researched area.

Over the last decade we have seen a tremendous amount of literature citing the link between these soft skills and leadership effectiveness. These skills include interpersonal relationships, getting along with others, communication, taking initiative, and team- building (Hurrell, 2016).

– Rubens, Schoenfeld, Schaffer, Leah [4]

Soft skills range from emotional intelligence, empathy, building relationships and teams to making effective speeches and pitches to boards. They also happen to be an elusive skill set in modern organizations. Soft skills often end up being a vague term with very little in terms of actionable access.

Massaro, Bardy, and Garlatti (2016) recently reviewed the management literature for the notion of ‘soft skills’ and found over 140 papers on this subject. Soft skills have been described as the most sought after skill for workers in our new economy, and also one of the most difficult to obtain (Davidson, 2016).

– Rubens, Schoenfeld, Schaffer, Leah [4]

What underlies most of these skills is language and conversation. Language and conversations are the building blocks to several of these soft skills and they offer an actionable path to getting better at these elusive soft skills. Sometimes the very use of the term implies the lack of empirical evidence and an actionable way to improve upon it. But nothing could be farther from the truth.

Conversations as building blocks of organizations

From a linguistic point of view, organizations are a network of conversations and commitments and the primary role of a manager is to have effective conversations. The quality of the conversations determines the effectiveness of the manager. Whether that is a conversation with a direct report or interactions with a key stakeholder.

Organizations are linguistic structures built out of words and maintained by conversations. Even problems that aren’t strictly communicational can be explored in terms of things said and not said, questions asked and not asked, conversations never begun or left uncompleted, alternate explanations not discussed.

– Walter Truett Anderson in Reality isn’t what it used to be. [5]

A conversation can be thought as the smallest unit and building block of organizations. Everything that an organization achieves happens through conversations. It’s a message that needs to be delivered, an action that needs done, a discussion about a certain issue, and so on.

Dialogue is the basic unit of work in an organization. The quality of the dialogue determines how people gather and process information, how they make decisions, and how they feel about one another and about the outcome of these decisions. Dialogue can lead to new ideas and speed as a competitive advantage. It is the single-most important factor underlying the productivity and growth of the knowledge worker.

Ram Charan in Harvard Business Review [6]

Conversations are directly tied to your results

From a language perspective, the next action to move something forward is a conversation. Your progress is directly tied to the number and quality of conversations you are having in order to move that project, goal, or dream forward.

And not all types of conversations move a project forward. Only a certain type of conversation at a particular time in the project does.

Not knowing this can be a major handicap and blind-spot. If you are stuck on a certain project looking into the number and kinds of conversations you are having can hold some clues.  [7]

Of all the communication associated with change, the most powerful may be that which occurs at the level of everyday conversation because these interactions are the primary mechanism available to managers for effecting change .

– Jeffrey Ford & Laurie Ford [7]

The conversations you are not having are also an important feedback mechanism. Maybe you need to do more background research before making the request or you have some previous history with this particular stakeholder which is becoming a factor.

Either way, thinking about the next action in terms of the kind of conversation you need to have will gives new perspectives and possibilities for action.

Your conversations generate commitments and promises that lead to actions which in turn create your results. Thus, your conversations are directly tied to your results.

If you are not achieving the results you want, pay close attention to the conversations that you are having and even more importantly to the one you are not having.

Conversations as a framework for action

We tend to procrastinate on projects because we are not clear on what David Allen calls “next action” or “the next physical action you need to take”. [10] Very often in managerial life that “next physical action” is usually a conversation that needs to be had.

Having a typology and the resulting additional fidelity in the type of conversations to be had opens new possibilities for managerial action to move things forward and effect change and ensuing results. Effective conversations create an actionable access to more effective leadership and management.

Our culture places a huge emphasis on first impressions — the one impactful speech or the one memo that will change the world. There is a certain romanticism in and attraction towards such simplified takes.

However experience shows that one message on it own is often not the game changer.

It is the series of messages in different forms that over time makes the difference. More akin to waves shaping the shoreline rather than the occasional once in a lifetime tsunami.

It is the day-to-day mundane conversations that hold the opportunity for greatest impact.

Conversations and increasing complexity

As one goes up the organizational ladder, the complexity of the role increases exponentially and so does the level of skills required to conduct effective conversations.

The level of conversational skill required from an individual contributor is not the same as that required from a unit head who has to deal with multiple stakeholders and ambiguous circumstances coupled with serious consequences of wrong actions.

Additionally the human dimension becomes more important. And the primary means of communication in that domain is through conversations .

An organization is a community of discourse. Leadership is about shaping the nature of the discourse.

– Robert Kegan [8]

In any social system like leadership and organizations that involves sometimes irrational human beings, your effectiveness in that domain is directly tied to the effectiveness of your conversations.

However, this competence is assumed to a certain extent, partly because it is learned on the job as with everything else in managing. But if we are serious about getting better at the practice of managing, we need to have a strategy for getting good at this core skill. It's a framework that underlies many critical aspects of our work and organizations.

The effectiveness of a leader and manager is directly tied to the effectiveness of their conversations with their networks.

If conversations and communication are the building blocks and the medium of leadership it follows that adding more rigor to the “black-box” of communication or conversations will increase the effectiveness of your leadership.

Everyone does it

An insidious aspect of conversations is because everyone does it routinely, we assume we are good at it. This obviousness and ubiquity means it gets neglected.

At the same time, all of us have had experiences where we had a transformative conversational exchange with a peer, a leader or manager. What were the key elements of their communication that made such a difference?

What was it in the communication of the likes of Churchill, MLK, Reagan and JFK that made them such good communicators? While we do not need to become as good as Churchill, there are definitely major gains to be made by paying a little more attention to the basics.

Like fish in water

We are  completely enmeshed in the process of communication and in language just like fish in water.

There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys, how’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”

The point of the fish story is merely that the most obvious, important realities are often the ones that are the hardest to see and talk about. Stated as an English sentence, of course, this is just a banal platitude — but the fact is that, in the day-to-day trenches of adult existence, banal platitudes can have life-or-death importance.

– David Foster Wallace, This is Water [9]

Conversations are an example of such platitudes that everyone is aware of but doesn't pay much attention to. And what we do not recognize, verbalize, and become aware of, we cannot get better at.

As leaders, conversations are a missed opportunity and also a great avenue for improving leadership effectiveness. Given their pervasiveness and importance it is imperative for leaders to understand the underlying mechanics and nuances of this otherwise taken-for-granted domain.

While not easy, it is definitely simpler and more accessible than we think.


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Footnotes & References

  1. Coaching by James Flaherty.
  2. As quoted in Managing by Henry Mintzberg.
  3. Managing by  Henry Mintzberg.
  4. Self-Awareness and Leadership by Arthur Rubens, Gerald Schoenfeld, Bryan Schaffer, Joseph Leah.
  5. Reality isn’t What it Used to Be by Walter Truett Anderson.
  6. Conquering a Culture of Indecision by Ram Charan.
  7. Conversational Profiles A Tool for Altering the Conversational Patterns of Change Managersby Jeffrey Ford and Laurie Ford.
  8. Robert Kegan as cited in Conversational Capacity by Craig Weber.
  9. This is Water - David Foster Wallace speech at Kenyon College.
  10. Getting Things Done by David Allen.

Sheril Mathews
After a 20 year stint in various technical/management/leadership/ positions in the wilds of corporate America I started LS to help leaders & high performers level up their game.
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