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The heart of leadership

The most important skill of a leader is too often overlooked, according to Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove. The best leaders, they have ...

By Des Dearlove and Stuart Crainer 01 September 2008

The most important skill of a leader is too often overlooked, according to Stuart Crainer and Des Dearlove. The best leaders, they have found, practise the eight key disciplines for communicating clearly.
TheheartofleadershipWhat do corporate leaders actually do all day? Ask them and they will talk about strategies, visions and missions. They will tell you about their endless travelling and their equally endless meetings, their packed diaries, how they haven’t seen their children for days.

Press a little harder, and you will likely encounter a strained silence as they contemplate what they really do. The heart of leadership is not the esoteric world of strategizing. It is something more mundane, and, as a result, is largely ignored by educators, commentators and, indeed, leaders. What leaders really do is communicate. Whether sending an email from a BlackBerry, giving a presentation to the board or expectant analysts, scribbling a thank you note to a high achiever or handling an annual appraisal, a leader is always communicating.

But even though they spend most of their time communicating with people inside and outside the organization, leaders are rarely trained in the nuances of communication. Just look at the content of an average MBA programme, and you will see the usual heavyweight suspects: economics, strategy, marketing, accounting and so on. Communication is the invisible elephant in the MBA classroom. In fact, an MBA graduate working in the corporate world will tell you that strategy is the easy bit; execution is the real challenge. What she’ll rarely add is that communication lies at the heart of executing anything, anywhere.

Take Kevin Kelly, CEO of the global search firm Heidrick & Struggles. Kelly is typical of the restlessly peripatetic, smart, modern CEO. Working on a book with Kelly, we asked him for access to a day in his executive diary. “The reality is that every time I am on the move, I make a call. Every time I have a break, I call someone,” he admits. “I go through a mental list of people I haven’t spoken to for a while or someone I’ve worked with who has some news to share.” His day features a stream of calls, one-on-ones, and group meetings with people inside and outside the organization. In short, his typical workday consists of communicating.

We also asked Alastair Trivett what his day is like. Trivett, Global Managing Director of UK-based BSI Product Services, which tests safety standards for everything from condoms to windshields, explains that a typical day includes at least one meeting with customers: “Sometimes I sit and talk to the customer; other times I present the business and what we can do,” he says. Trivett also interviews people for important jobs and walks around the company’s laboratories and offices. “At the beginning, I think people were surprised to see me, but not now,” he explains. “They quite like it. They talk to me. If you talk to people and show them that you are interested in what they do, then they’ll respond to you. When I walk around the labs, it is genuinely interesting.” And finally, there are the endless meetings. “I have all my meetings scheduled at the beginning of the year. I pick the meetings I need to go to at group level and put them into my diary. I feed them down to my staff; so, come January 1, everybody knows where they should be. Otherwise, I would get up in the morning and think, ‘Well, what will I do today?’ You can easily get lost in a business like this. You’ve got to keep focused and get things done.”

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