CHAPTER 3: A LEADER IS A COMMUNICATOR

Years ago, I experienced the most challenging trial up to that point in my young role as leader of our growing church congregation. I approached my co-leaders, seeking clarification and affirmation of my performance as the preacher of the church. I was trying to find out if they still trust me. But somehow it didn’t come out that way. They thought I was charging them of seeking to unseat me as the leader of the church. Many tears were shed in its aftermath, which illustrates how miscommunication can ruin relationships and zap the leader’s strength. Similarly, it is incumbent for a leader to be able to transmit his logos with clarity to avoid misunderstanding.

 

Moreover, a lot of learning will come to naught if these are not passed on to the people who look to us for guidance. Many times the message of a leader is lost in translation. In not a few instances, the consequences of such miscommunication could be catastrophic. Take the case of the king of Syria and the king of Israel during the time of the prophet Elisha (see 2 Kings 5).  An officer in the Syrian army by the name of Naaman wanted to go to Israel to be healed of his leprosy because he learned that a prophet there could do it. To introduce the officer to the king of Israel, the king of Syria sent this letter, “When this letter reaches you, know that I have sent to you Naaman my servant, that you may cure him of his leprosy” (2 Kings 5:6). This letter brought panic to the palace in Jerusalem. As the “king of Israel read the letter, he tore his clothes and said, “Am I God, to kill and to make alive, that this man sends word to me to cure a man of his leprosy? Only consider, and see how he is seeking a quarrel with me.” (2 Kings 5:7). He thought that the king of Syria was using Naaman as a pretext for starting a war. Fortunately, Elisha was there to save the day, and he healed Naaman.

 

Effective communication is not an option for a leader. Al Mohler underlined this when he said, “To be human is to communicate, but to be a leader is to communicate constantly, skillfully, intentionally, and strategically”[1]. That is the only way to propagate the logos, by continually talking about it to our people.

 

A Leader Seeks To Be A Better Communicator

 

A person is usually not born with excellent communication skills. In a vast majority of cases, she has to develop such skills throughout her life. To that end, she will use all available means to hone her craft. She will read books on how to communicate effectively. She will practice incessantly, often by applying what she learns in a real-life situation. She will seek and accept feedback, even if it’s negative, from her colleagues.

 

A leader’s spouse is an invaluable ally in this regard. In my case, my wife Haydee is my in-house “critic” who has immensely helped improve the way I communicate. She never fails to point out annoying mannerisms when I am speaking (I must admit I resented this at first!). At times, she will call my attention to a misplaced necktie or anything in my appearance that could distract the listeners. Besides, in our church, we have a regular feedback mechanism so that all our preachers profit from the wisdom of the whole church. For example, one feedback a preacher got was that his messages ran in circles so that the point is buried in tons of verbiage. Sadly, that preacher did not listen, and he eventually left our church with his ministerial career very much in doubt.

 

A leader must seek to excel both in oral and written communication. Talking before a crowd of people is one of the most common phobias. When I first began teaching at the University of the Philippines at age 20, my hands were shaking because of tension. Even now, after more than 37 years of lecturing and preaching, my hands still get clammy just before I speak in public. However, I have also proven that with constant practice, we can overcome such fears and even excel in public speaking. Of course, I am not saying we can all be equally proficient in public speaking. God has given specific individuals a more exceptional ability to speak than others. I have seen people whose gift is not in teaching a reasonably large group. Part of humility is to accept our limitations.

 

Nevertheless, everyone can improve her speaking ability if she strives to do so. Maybe she will not be able to speak as well as some famous speaker, yet it will still be satisfying to be able to express oneself more clearly. One practical way to master public speaking is by joining groups such as Toastmasters Club.

 

It will be to her advantage if a leader can also communicate well in writing. For example, blogging is a meaningful way you can influence others. I have more than 250 sermons in SermonAudio.com and just a few blogs. However, I discovered that blogs are being read by many more people than those listening to sermons. The highest download for a single sermon is a little less than 300, but almost 6,000 people have read the top blog. Also, a leader can publish his works in pamphlets and books to further expand his reach.

 

In the office context, excellent writers are much desired, especially in the academic world where I work. As a scientist, most of my writings were highly technical, dealing with climate science and environmental conservation. But recently, I am learning to write more creatively for a wider audience. Since late 2018, my opinion articles have been published in a major daily, more or less every month. Just last week, an article on the water crisis was also published in an online news site. Quite surprisingly, I am enjoying the challenge of making scientific findings more accessible and exciting to the public. 

 

On spiritual matters, I have earlier written short books dealing with the Ten Commandments and environmental stewardship. I must confess that it is not easy to write. The end product may not be the best we imagined it to be. But one has to start somewhere. I am convinced that practice does not always make perfect, but at least it leads to improvement.   

 

Losing The Message: Common Errors

 

From more than three decades of interacting with leaders and listening to them, I have observed that there are common mistakes that diminish one’s ability to communicate effectively. The errors I will discuss below apply primarily to public speaking.

 

First is inadequate preparation. Speakers who are not prepared tend to meander, with no end in sight. The main point of the speech is hidden (if there is one), and the end is greeted with a sigh of relief. If you are invited to speak in any forum, always prepare. As one might expect, the amount of preparation will vary depending on the occasion and the length of the speech. When a Christian leader delivers a message from the Word of God, preparation is doubly essential. He must handle the Word with care befitting the words of the King of kings. Sadly, there are innumerable pastors whose Sunday sermons are ill-prepared. No wonder, preaching has been the subject of embarrassing ridicule in some quarters.

 

Second, lengthy introductions. I have lost count of the many times I have heard a speaker spent five minutes belaboring the opening lines of a fifteen-minute speech. Because of that, they rushed through the body and the most critical part of the address in the remaining time. Moreover, a prolonged introduction alerts the audience that the speaker is not prepared, and their minds begin to wander. So keep introductions short and to the point. I usually practice the introduction the most because it is so easy to stumble in the first few sentences when one is still uneasy and self-conscious. At the same time, pithy introductions help us keep our words focused and brief.

 

Third, not minding the time. Some people just can’t stop talking when in front of a microphone. They go beyond the capacity of the listeners to absorb their talk, whether in the church or secular forums. A fellow pastor once joked that when a friend pastor preaches, the congregation looks at the calendar, not at their watch! There are many reasons why a speaker can take liberty with time. Some people are just unaware of how time passes so quickly. Others have prepared well for their talk and are excited to share all their ideas. And then some just love to talk to a captive audience, usually about their exploits (politicians come to mind). When leaders abuse the time given to them, they typically fail to communicate their message. Studies have shown that people can only listen well up to a certain point, after which their minds begin to drift. Worse, speakers show disrespect to the audience when they keep on blabbering and thereby lose their credibility in the process. By keeping to the allotted time, the leader is conveying that he values the audience’s time. By exhibiting his respect to others, he gains their respect as well. The prince of preachers CH Spurgeon once said, “Brevity is a virtue within the reach of all of us; do not let us lose the opportunity of gaining the credit which it brings. If you ask me how you may shorten your sermons, I should say study them better.” [2]

 

Fourth, the lack of focus. I have heard several talks in which the speaker has no clear point. In such cases, many things are said, but the audience has no clear takeaway. If you are speaking in the office or the church, make sure you can summarize what you want to say in one sentence. The whole speech should support, clarify, and amplify the one thing you are trying to convey. The human mind can only absorb so much in one sitting. We typically overestimate the audience’s capacity to remember and our ability to hold an audience’s attention.

 

Recently,  my elementary school alma mater in San Pablo City invited me to speak at the graduation ceremony. It was April, the height of summer, and the ceremony started after lunch, the hottest part of the day. I immediately realized that under such conditions, even a half-hour message would try the patience of the audience. I decided to focus on the value of learning and peppered the speech with illustrations. Finally, I decided to keep it short, to the relief of the audience, I daresay.

 

A Leader Is A Listener

 

It may seem counterintuitive, but good communicators are even better listeners. The early church father, James said it well, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger” (James 1:19). I call this the speed limits of life. We have to slow down before we open our mouth and especially in getting angry. In contrast, we have to be fast in listening to others. Before we can communicate our message, we must first understand what people are thinking. Only when we appreciate where people are can we tailor our message in a way that they will comprehend it.

 

In reality, most leaders talk more and listen less. Then they are surprised that people do not pay attention to them. When we listen, we express to people that they are essential to us. Once they feel that we value them, then they will be more open to hearing what we have to say to them.

 

Early in my career as a pastor and university instructor, I too loved the sound of my voice. I wanted to hog the conversation whenever I was talking to people. One day, I was in the mountains with some colleagues to evaluate a government project. One of the members of the evaluation team was always pulling the conversation to what she wanted to talk about. It dawned on me that it was exactly how I was when I talk to others. Right there at that moment up in the mountain, I resolved to be a more patient listener. Over the years, I believe this has paid huge dividends as I can appreciate more what others are saying. As a bonus, I am learning a lot from the views and experiences of others.

 

A related matter is that leaders should think first before speaking. Realize that every word you speak affects the rest of the team. A careless word may cause discouragement or maybe grossly misinterpreted.

 

Discussion Guide

1. What are your strengths and weaknesses as a communicator? One way to know this is to ask your spouse or close friend to give you frank feedback on your communication skills.

2. Are you consistently improving your communication skills? Why or why not?

3. Are you a good listener, or do you dominate conversations with others?

 

Notes:

[1] Mohler, p91.

 

[2]CH Spurgeon, Lecture 9, Lecture to My Students, https://www.monergism.com/thethreshold/sdg/spurgeon/Lectures%20to%20My%20Students%20-%20C.%20H.%20Spurgeon.pdf  Accessed 4/12/20. 

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