Let’s start from the basics: Leaders need followers. Leadership is one of those qualities that only exist through an external recognition.
You can be a great cook even if nobody ever tasted your perfect beef Wellington, or an excellent guitarist even if no living soul ever had the privilege of listening to your cover of the Bohemian Rhapsody solo.
But when it comes to put into practice leadership skills, the only way is to interact with other people and make them observe and judge our attitude and skills in this field. A Leader must communicate; to talk with the others and to let his words drive his followers towards a common direction.
But now we have to move a step forward: In a complex, hyperconnected world, communicating is not enough. A Leader can’t just spread his vision to his followers with impersonal, unidirectional broadcast messages.
If he wants to generate a lasting and positive change, he’d need to involve people in a more democratic, empathetic and engaging form of human interaction: face-to-face conversations.
Conversational Leadership is not an option
It is not only a matter of self-improving in communication skills, managing an effective conversation is something that every Leader should be able to do. His organization asks him to it. His team asks him to do it (explicitly, if he’s lucky; between the lines, in most cases).
He needs to do it in order to be recognized by his community. Because leadership is not a medal that someone can pin on his own chest.
And most of all, leadership is not effective if it doesn’t spread a positive energy, capable of generating new Leaders in turn.
Here we understand why Conversational Leadership is not an option. A true Leader has to use the transformative power of face-to-face conversations in his everyday work to build connections, influence, encourage people and learn from them.
The aim of a person using a Conversational Leadership approach is not to establish himself as the top of a hierarchical pyramid, but to involve the whole group in a self-sustaining empowering process.
According to educator Carolyn Baldwin, “Conversational Leadership is a core process to cultivate the collective intelligence needed to create business and social value”. As a core process, Conversational Leadership is the center of an empowerment strategy.
Let’s take a more detailed look at the directions they can take to generate such an innovative effect.
Conversational Leadership is a core process to cultivate the collective intelligence needed to create business and social value.
The areas of conversational empowerment
As with other Authentic Leadership models, Conversational Leadership revolves around self-awareness, transparency, ethics, and a balanced relationship.
With that as a basis, the conversations proposed by the Leader can involve the following areas of empowerment:
These are the crucial areas where a conversation can really make the difference, as they reflect the needs we all expect to be fulfilled by our Leader. If we ask an employee to complete the following sentence with one word: “I would really like my boss to be more…”, you can be certain he will answer with a word related to one of these areas.
Imagine the four areas of empowerment as the compass rose on a map: every conversation can move towards one of these areas, depending on the leadership style, the counterpart’s needs and the goal of the conversation.
Let’s take a look at them one by one.
- We need to be inspiring to be motivated thus encouraging collaboration to achieve better results. The power of an inspiring conversation is very easy to understand if we think about great revolutionary minds who shared their visions with such high effectiveness that people perceived the visions as their own (just think about a man who once said “I have a dream…”).
Leading an inspiring conversation requires the bravery to risk failure by contaminating the counterpart with our innovative vision and the level of credibility that allows us not to fail in the process.
- Being supportive means being able to help people find their own way to build a path to empowerment.
A supportive attitude is typical of the coaching leadership style: according to Goleman, this style focuses on developing people for the future by joining the development of individual goals with the long-term goals of an organization’s success.
- Complementary to the support component, the lead component allows for full empowerment when we’re able to give our counterpart clear direction while conveying that we expect full compliance from him.
Managing a leadership conversation involving this component requires that the Leader appear clear and intellectually honest to be effective in the eyes of the counterpart. Why would someone comply with the directives if they’re confused and if they don’t trust the person who gave them?
- The discovery component makes the stimulating and democratic potential of Conversational Leadership very clear. We grow and improve through confrontation with different ideas.
There’s a treasure inside the experiences we never made and the points of view we never considered before.
A good Leader is well aware of this, which is why he listens to people and he constantly learns from them.
Types of conversations
Each of the four empowering areas implies different possible types of leadership conversations.
A leadership conversation belonging to the Inspire quadrant should be aimed at generating a mesmerizing sense of improvement, always with regard to the company’s unique context and culture. It could revolve, for example, around building trust among the team or motivating people and making them willing to aim for continuous improvement.
A Supportive Leader attempts to reduce employee stress and frustration in the workplace. Therefore, the typical conversations in the Support area could be around easing change, helping to solve conflicts or nudging towards better choices.
This can imply being able to remove those obstacles that prevent people from successfully doing their job, or even building and maintaining good relationships with peers and employees.
The Discover area boils down to creating a deeper understanding of the unique needs of self and others. It may involve conversations about onboarding a new colleague, exploring new possible strategic approaches with the counterpart or aligning someone with the corporate values and behavioral model.
The Lead area is involved when it comes to managing negotiations or delegating a task, for instance. To fulfill the objective in the first case, the Conversational Leader has to fairly represent his own interest(s) and manage the objections of the counterpart.
In the latter case, the objective is achieved by assigning a task with clear directions and providing all information needed to move ahead.
Teams need Conversational Leaders
At this point, it may appear even clearer why Conversational Leadership is not an option. Imagine a team whose Leader is not able to have a crucial face-to-face conversation with each of their members concerning these areas of improvement.
An inspiring conversation can foster the motivation of the collaborators, sharpen their sense of purpose and boost great results and team spirit. If the Leader is underperforming in this area, the team will always remain just a bunch of individuals without a common vision about the objective, the values and the sense of their work.
At the same time, let’s imagine the consequences of a Leader unable to support collaborators to ease their daily work and to generate a better workplace. A non-supportive Leader doesn’t make those crucial conversations that help in discovering the reciprocal self, highlighting needs and clarifying contexts, to make better decisions.
When underperforming in the Lead area, the team complains of a lack of conversations conveying the right message to drive them. And simply, things don’t happen.
There are several reasons to explain such power of conversations. Advanced research is increasing proving neuroscience to be the root.
According to William R. Reddy, there is a deep and inextricable link between the emotional process and the cognitive process. Concept learning takes place automatically when the subject associates an emotion.
A state of profound empathy with the counterpart, therefore, acts as a powerful accelerator of the message, since cognitive learning is accompanied by a deeper level, namely emotional learning. Emotions act at the neuronal level and facilitate the processes of knowledge, but there are two other clear pieces of evidence brought forth by neuroscience.
The first is that repetition stimulates the automation of emotional learning. Furthermore, emotions can also be easily induced.
In front of the image of a happy person, subjects are more likely to claim to be happy.
That’s why Conversational Leadership is the best way to generate positive energy and boost employees’ sense of purpose. The empowering energy of the Leader is empathically transferred to his counterpart; and the more the conversation is recurrent, the more its positive effect will last over time and will stimulate the intellectual and emotional activity of the team.
Making the whole team succeed
It’s clear that Leaders need to understand their organization. And this can’t be done if they don’t talk to the people on their team, build connections and share a purpose with them. Conversational Leadership is the most efficient way to pursue these objectives, as it places the Leader at the center of a successful and scalable system.
A performing Conversational Leader encourages and eases the individual improvement of all the people with whom he interacts; and the value of the personal development is priceless for an organization, as self-empowered and motivated people are an example for the others, their positive mindset is shared between the whole group and it becomes a model that is eventually followed by the rest of the team.
The Conversational Leader is the trigger of a chain reaction: he does the first step when he leads, inspires, discovers or supports the others, but the effects of his actions don’t stop with the conversation. The counterpart who’s involved in an effective leadership conversation learns from it, he endorses the transmitted values and he propagates them among the rest of the team.
A long-term impact
Psychologist Richard Boyatzis once conducted an experiment during a study on the impact of the emotional situations generated by significant Leaders on the people who worked with them. These people were asked to identify the key moment when they have felt an “interpersonal synchronicity” with their Leader.
The experiment demonstrated that recalling these moments of full emotional resonance with leaders activated neural circuits in their brains.
In order to unleash all their potential, people do need Leaders able to create intense interpersonal communication. The effects of an empowering leadership conversation are durable, and they are remembered as life-changing key moments, and their mere memory produces mental energy.
And by the way, all of those people who felt such intensive interpersonal synchronicity with their own Leader eventually became executives.
A system of empowerment
The bad news? All of that is not easy, and it cannot be improvised.
Managing a conversation able to engage and motivate others is hard and it requires a high level of confidence. This is why this kind of conversations are perceived as “Critical”: if we do not practice enough to gain real confidence, they are out of our comfort zone, thus requiring much more effort to perform.
We may know what our objective is, but once we start talking with our counterpart, we feel uncomfortable, our phrases are not clear, the arguments slip our mind and the effectiveness of a conversation that was supposed to be crucial increases dramatically until it becomes useful or even damaging.
The good news? There is a clear pattern to follow to turn this kind of conversations from critical into empowering.
And of course, practice is the key. The more we train, the more our confidence arises.
You can be absolutely sure that Conversational Leadership can’t be episodic; it has to be seeded and constantly nurtured within the whole organization. It has to become viral and grow following an abundance approach.
When everyone is able and confident having these conversations, a leadership mindset will become an intrinsic quality of your team, leading to a long-term improvement of creative thinking, openness and innovation.
Well, this was just an initial overview of a huge and amazing subject. Following is a basic bibliography and a list of articles for further details.
Would you like to know how to get practice and improve in Conversational Leadership?
Don’t hesitate to take some time to read this article (“How to Support the People Development Programs with Artificial Intelligence”) or to book a 1-hour discovery call here. We would be pleased to get in touch with you and continue this conversation.
Let’s change the world together, one conversation at a time!
1. Avolio, B.J. and Gardner, W. L. (2005). Authentic Leadership Development: Getting to the Root of Positive Forms of Leadership. In The Leadership Quarterly, 16, pp. 315-338.
2. Gehrke, B. and Claes, M. (2013). Global Leadership Practices. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
3. Boyatzis, M. (2012). Neuroscience and the Link Between Inspirational Leadership and Resonant Relationships. Retrieved from here
4. Gurteen, D. Conversational Leadership. Retrieved from here
5. Hurley, T. and Brown, J. (2009). Conversational Leadership: Thinking Together for a Change. Retrieved from here
6. Goleman, D. (1995). Emotional Intelligence. New York: Bantam Book.
7. Groysberg, B. and Slind, M. (2012). Leadership is a Conversation. Retrieved from here
8. Patterson, K. and Grenny, J. (2011). Crucial Conversations Tools for Talking When Stakes are High. New York: McGraw-Hill Education.
9. Reddy, W. M. (2001). The Navigation of Feeling: A Framework for the History of Emotions. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
10. Scarcity or Abundance in Leadership? (2018). Thrive Global. Retrieved from here