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Leadership Thought #227 – Connecting With Your Audience Is Not Optional

October 10, 2011

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Connecting with your audience is a leadership imperative.

In my experience, the best leaders grow to become comfortable in multiple and diverse work and social settings.  They can adjust their style to meet the needs of their audience or conform to the group dynamics.  They understand that a leader without a receptive audience is handcuffed in his/her ability to turn a vision into reality.  People tend to connect with others to whom they feel they can relate.  All conversations are a search for some level of common ground.  The quicker you get there the sooner you can focus on the purpose of the discussion.

Flexibility in communication style requires strong powers of listening and observation.  You don’t just walk into a room and expect other people to adjust to suit you. If you are in the senior position of authority (or perceived power) people may feign an attempt to understand you but, you are creating distance, not a connection.  No one likes to feel “less than” or inferior to another person.  All individuals crave some level of personal acknowledgment and recognition.  Due to our basic human nature, we shut down or only half listen to messages we either don’t understand or dislike the way in which they are being communicated.

We regularly see examples of leaders who on paper have extensive skills and capabilities but fail to rally others to a shared vision.  Throughout the history of our country, there have many talented people who aspired to the presidency but fell short to other seemingly less capable candidates because they couldn’t relate to the common man or woman.   A policy wonk speech won’t work in a cornfield in Iowa or an assembly line in Detroit whether the content is sound or not.  Sadly, being right is often less important than being liked.  Voters will forgive all sorts of human failings if they believe you can empathize with them and respect their perspective.  They will often shroud these feelings under the veil of what they refer to as common sense.  Whether or not this is an accurate depiction of the facts is less relevant than how they “feel” about the issue.  How else can you explain certain candidates still being in the race?

Leaders must genuinely like and be interested in other people.   They prioritize connecting with their team, colleagues, and clients.  How they are perceived does matter to them.  If you have strong people skills this is helpful, but don’t ever take this for granted or get lazy about reading your audience and the social or professional situations.  If your people skills are lacking, then you have no choice but to work on this if you are going to be effective in the long term.  Dale Carnegie’s books are still a good place to start learning the basics of communication and relationship-building skills.   If you can afford it, you can certainly hire a #2 who balances out your interpersonal shortcomings, however, this doesn’t abdicate full responsibility for communicating effectively with your employees, clients, vendors, or other stakeholders.

All my years of coaching and consulting others have led me to a basic conclusion.  There are people who want to lead and will do the work necessary to get better at their leadership skills even when it doesn’t come naturally.   Then there are those leaders who think that having a clever idea, taking the necessary risks to make it happen, and giving others employment or product/service opportunities should be sufficient to win their loyalty and consent.  Life is much harder for the latter group.