Platform skills communication training is largely constructed from anecdotal evidence, and some basic nods to corporate etiquette. It is surprisingly helpful when teaching those who have few or no communication skills. Advanced leadership communication skills require a far more reaching understanding of linguistics and cognitive science.
Aristotle’s rhetoric was the gold standard until about one hundred and fifty years ago for public speakers. Many of his thoughts still echo in modern rhetorical studies. Modern versions of rhetoric have updated his thesis and improved upon it. However, rhetoric alone often feels like memorizing the properties of all the periodic table elements without first studying the few fundamental particles that create all elements.
My study of neuroscience and linguistics reveals all communication employs three pervasive cognitive systems – factual, emotional, and symbolic. Facts never speak for themselves. Strictly emotional decision-making is a similar myth. And the power of metaphor and story are under-estimated at your peril.
Going beyond platform skills requires as much work as learning and applying other advanced knowledge domains such as strategy, economics, quality, or big data analytics. Yet far more time is given to these arenas than communication. Like any endeavor, advanced development requires advanced techniques and a devotion to learning that goes beyond the basics. You don’t become an Olympic weight-lifter by only practicing push-ups.
Among his insights is the following from his book Excellence, “Exploration of the full range of our own potentialities is not something that we can safely leave to the chances of life. It is something to be pursued avidly to the end of our days.”
Many leaders I have worked have avid interests. I’ve know men and women who pursue sports or athletics passionately, practice a variety of forms of meditation or contemplation, actively engage in social causes, or extend themselves in some artistic way. I have caused many of them to wrinkle a brow and think about their honest answer to this question.
“Do you pursue your own growth as a leader as avidly as you do your other interests?”
Some of them say they do, some reflect and wonder if their leadership is perhaps enhanced by their well roundedness, and others remark that leadership growth happens when you are active in the world whether you think about it or not. While I appreciate their perspectives, any one of them seems to fall short of Gardner’s thoughts concerning not leaving growth up to the chances or circumstances of life.
I have pondered his advice for years and in my own research and contemplation have some suggestions for how any leader can improve their own growth. I will say up front that the following ideas may sound familiar, so I encourage you to reread them. They may also sound easy, but I assure you they are not.
1. Get involved in some things. Many believe that experience teaches and I agree, but only if you are willing to learn. Make deliberate choices about your activities and use them as a powerful source of learning about your own leadership. And while you are at it – vary your choices. It’s just like any kind of athletic training. The wider the variety of exercises the better the overall tone of your mind and body.
2. Self-reflection must become a habit. You can’t save up all the experiences in your life for a short duration review on your vacation or at a leadership retreat. Periodic self-assessment enhances the learning loop and while deep insights may or may not increase in frequency, they will occur closer to the time of the experience, which means you will get to leverage them sooner. I have had a conversation with more than one leader who has remarked that they wished they’d thought about certain experiences sooner because of the perspective they provided.
3. Make friends with the truth. Whether you are engaging in deep self-reflection as a matter of habit or due to some timely feedback, make truth a trusted advisor and look at yourself honestly. This is never really easy to do and at times confusing as to whether we are getting to the truth or engaging in one of a variety of self-delusions. However persistence in using the truth to help you increase your ability will yield value over time.
4. Make friends. Growth has two great voices – monologue and dialogue. Self-reflection is great, but having others involved in your develop is great as well. One of the mainstays of psychology is that development of nearly all human endeavors is a sociological process. Get others involved in your personal development.