Principles of Communication-Based Leadership

Communication-Based Leadership was born of desperation in the field of U.S. military public affairs during the early years of the post-9/11 era. I was a young captain at the time teaching future Public Affairs Officers at the Defense Information School, and communication technology was evolving more rapidly than we could adapt. It was fast, it was everywhere, it was mobile — and I was preparing young officers to deploy to some of the most challenging environments experienced in our lifetimes.

I started by culling through a wide range of U.S. military directives, orders, policies, and doctrine, the latter being recently updated yet already outdated documents upon which all public affairs training and operations were based.

Through that process I identified nine characteristics of public affairs that were either explicitly spelled out, or consistently implicit throughout military reference materials. I defined those terms, taught them, and then, when I left the schoolhouse to begin leading public affairs teams directly, I gave them to my lieutenants with the following guidance: “Use these in the field. Test them. Bring back what you learn and share it. I don’t care if you bring it all back as a bag of broken Tinker Toys, just make it better!”

Young (at the time) Marines including Phil Klay, Rich Ulsh, and Dorian Gardner — each far brighter than I could ever hope to be — did not disappoint. They tested the model. Broke the model. Made the model better. I refined and applied it further throughout the second half of my Marine Corps career and over the course of my masters and doctoral study in organization and management with a specialization in leadership.

Today, having hung up my uniform for the final time, a personal and professional goal of mine is to develop Communication-Based Leadership into a valid, reliable theory leaders of any organization can use to lead their teams to success.

Four core principles emerged through experience and research, and our team here at North of Center now puts them to work helping leaders of all kinds — whether aspiring or experienced — become the kinds of leaders they would want to follow.

Principle #1: It is impossible to lead without communicating.

Everything we do communicates something to somebody somewhere. This time-proven axiom applies to leaders today as we navigate our way through an environment characterized by the speed, ubiquity, and mobility of communication technology — and in which change is the status quo.

If it is impossible to lead without communicating, then leaders need to weave deliberate communication into everything we do. Or, more simply put, if we can’t not do it, then we may as well do it on purpose.

Principle #2: A leader’s communication capacity is finite.

While the Internet and social media platforms have rapidly expanded our capability to communicate to and at people at the speed of Send, our ability to communicate with people is still finite — and the richest communication remains that which occurs face-to-face and one-to-one.

To achieve enduring success, leaders must not only communicate deliberately, we must allocate our finite capacity to get the most out of it — as well as the combined communication capacity of our entire team.

Principle #3: Leadership is about relationships.
George MacGregor Burns, leadership scholar and father of transforming leadership said, “We must see power — and leadership — as not things but as relationships.” That, “…the most powerful influences consist of deeply human relationships in which two or more persons engage with one another.”

In addition to being deliberate in our communication and allocating our capacity, to achieve the greatest results, leaders must select the right communication methods to strengthen our most important relationships through the richest possible exchange of ideas and information.

Principle #4: Enduring leadership success requires trust.

As a young lieutenant, I told every one of my Marines, “If we can’t trust each other, we are worthless to each other.” Little did I know I’d find years later the assertion I’d stumbled upon by reflex is thoroughly supported by leadership scholar-practitioners ranging from Richard K. Greenleaf to James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner to Stephen R. Covey and Simon Sinek.

To earn trust, leaders must be credible, and to be credible we must ensure our words and deeds are consistent and aligned.
To learn more about the principles of Communication-Based Leadership and how they can be applied to help you succeed as a leader, follow us here on Medium or at Hard NoCs — or give us a call! We’ll be happy to talk you through it.

Author Cliff W. Gilmore, PhD, is CEO of North of Center, LLC, a coaching and consulting practice that helps people become the kind of leaders they’d want to follow. He is a retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel with more than 20 years experience leading teams and advising senior leaders from battlefields to boardrooms.