Leadership is not a conversation

Black civil rights leaders including (left to ...

Black civil rights leaders including (left to right) NAACP’s Roy Wilkins, CORE’s James Farmer, SCLC’s Dr. Martin Luther King and Urban League’s Whitney Young were welcomed to White House by President Johnson in 1966. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Despite the claims of Groysberg and Slind at Harvard Business Review, leadership is not a conversation because staff do not listen. The staff do not listen because what is being presented as a “conversation” or a “dialogue” is instead a monologue. On the surface, the idea that leadership is a conversation is interesting, logically seductive, and well intentioned.  The danger is that this can be misleading, misunderstood, and be potentially dangerous.  When I say dangerous, I mean that in some situations, there are no questions to ask or to answer because the commands need to be followed.  To put it bluntly, leadership in a war zone is not a debating club.

The article misses two fundamental points about communications and leadership.  First, good communications systems work because people listen and redistribute and respond to the ideas being presented.  To the extent that the officers can make sense of the plan, they can follow it and, most importantly, they can repeat it.  The less it makes sense or is understood, the less it is repeated or followed.  Instead, the middle managers, in particular, will try to make sense of it and translate it into what they need or simply ignore it.


Second, the article overlooks what leaders do and how they do it.  They may need conversations to work, but that does not mean that leadership is a conversation.  Instead, it is about extracting as much information as needed from the organisation to generate plans, respond to problems, and maintain the business.  At the same time, leaders need to organise internal communication systems to make sure critical (negative) information (the bad news) is communicate upwards.  Without such a system, the conversations will be like those with a tyrant, always telling them what they want to hear and not what they need to hear.


Leadership is about decisions and decisions are about an uncertain future.

Leaders have to decide. To decide they need information, analysis, and evidence for deciding between options or alternatives.  In many cases, they are deciding against potential outcomes and alternative futures for the organisation.  They have to make decisions based on past situation (path dependency) that weave together current projects, each going at different speeds and complexity, to achieve possible outcomes.  Leaders need to weave together opportunities, threats, and capabilities to move an organization forward.  They need information, drawn from various sources, to decide a course of action that will bring forth a new future state for the organization.  They are like a weaver or a midwife in developing and delivering these plans.


To improve their decisions, leaders need the critical information to help them see what is wrong.  They can see what is right about an organisation. If what is wrong is obvious, and then the priority is immediately past the point where conversation will serve a purpose.  One does not have a conversation when the boat is sinking.  What leaders often lack, for effective decision-making, is what Denis Tourish calls critical upwards communications.  In organisations, critical upwards communication is the “bad news” or the “negative” news about what is not working.  For example, widget X is not selling, or project Y is late, or performance target Z is not being met.  Due to human nature, bias, and the wish to be the bearer of “good news”, people avoid communicating critical information.  The staff will more often than not, privilege the good news over the bad.


For leaders to work, they need decisions to be operationalized.  What this means is that organisations need hierarchies.  Leadership is not a crowd sourced function.  If anything, a crowd is a leaderless, instinctual group, which will follow a sub-optimal decision process.  Leaders provide a decision hierarchy to allow good and bad or sub-optimal options to be ranked and chosen.  Even then, leadership is not simply decision making based on a criteria or a pre-set algorithm.  Instead, it is closer to the weaving. The solitary weaver, though, will not work because they have to work within the organisation.


Staff want leaders that are worth listening to

If a leader tries to hear bad news from a conversation, they will hear noise and not clear signals. Lyndon Johnson was quite effective at talking to junior officers in the United States government to verify information.  However, he was not having a conversation; he was verifying what was being said. The approach was effective for what he needed.  By contrast, conversations only work if someone says something that is worth hearing.  To have those conversations, you need openness and information sharing to be encouraged and rewarded.  Senior managers will have to trust their staff.  On the surface, this seems obvious and easy in theory, yet in practice, this proves extremely difficult.  As an aside, political organizations, such as the public sector trust is even more difficult to develop. In these organizations, senior managers are responding to the public and politicians.


To develop trust, the organizational culture needs to be changed and this is where leaders need to be saying things that will make the staff want to listen and respond. Too often, monologue is the operating mode rather than listening needed for a dialogue.  In this Greysberg and Slind’s other article on the interactive leadership is helpful.  The conversation within the organization needs to be changed.  However, this is not about leaders have “conversations” with the front-line staff or sitting down with them for lunch.  These are listening exercise for the most part.  The authority and responsibility status of each party creates a gap that makes it difficult to have a meaningful work conversation.  To put it differently, how many junior employees are going to tell the CEO what they think is wrong with the company, their service, or their product line?  Will they trust their own line manager even if they trust the CEO to have the conversation?


Leadership and the Involvement effect

If a leader gets involved in internal communication frameworks, it distorts the purpose. Like the Observer Effect, the involvement of a leader will influence the conversation. People will have conversations, pose ideas, and suggest things to gain favour, impress, and create influence instead of creating an open communication process.  All of these approaches will distort what needs to happen. What needs to happen is that the staff need to be able to share information, have the wider conversations so that the good news and the bad news can be draw out by the senior managers. For Yammer, or any other internal communication system, to succeed you need more than interactive leadership. All leaders are already interactive in their own way. Instead, you need the leaders and senior managers encourage and reward a culture of sharing information.


Do you have enough trust to have Yammer? Will conversations change that?

A system like Yammer requires a high level of organisational trust and staff that are willing to listen and share, without fear.  To test if you have a good internal communication system with the necessary trust, consider whether your organization is willing to Yammer. Their response will tell you what type of internal communications culture you have.  What you will find though is that in some organizations that information and knowledge are power to be hoarded.  These organizations will not have a culture that shares information.  “Why do you need to know that? What is it your business how my unit works?” In these situations, communication is simply on a need to know basis.  A conversation will be unlikely to change that culture.


Leaders may want to exclude rather than include others in their decisions.  They may believe that the fewer people who know, the more effective their decisions. In such a culture, power and status are reinforced and conversations will not challenge or change that culture. In these organizations, a hierarchy of information and communication are controlled to maintain status. A conversation will become window dressing to show that the leader and senior managers are “engaging” with staff.  As a result, they have sub-optimal decisions. The staff will not want to interact because they know that they are being told what has been decided and not being involved in the decision.  Instead, they are kept in their own ponds (their own department) and within those ponds, they communicate on their own lily pads. As a result, communication across the organization is informal, incomplete and more likely based on rumor and incomplete and inaccurate information.

Leaders may use conversations to achieve their ends. However, leadership is not a conversation. A conversation is an unguided exchange between equals.  Leaders, by their nature, are unequal within the organisation and they must not confuse their organizational or work persona with their private or informal persona.  Leaders who believe that conversations are a destination, or believe that they are leadership, will find they hear less of what they need to hear and more of what people think they want to hear.


About lawrence serewicz

An American living and working in the UK trying to understand the American idea and explain it to others. The views in this blog are my own for better or worse.
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12 Responses to Leadership is not a conversation

  1. A very well put together rebuttal that actually doesn’t rebut the HBR article. Leadership is a conversation simply because if it’s not, then it is dictatorship. Dictatorship works in a burning platform situation, where life and death decisions are made and is reinforced by the firing squad in a war or the end of the business. Most large businesses close ranks against dictatorial leaders, deform for a short period and then recommence along the old track when the immediate pressure is off. In these circumstances the long march approach is needed, persuasion, focus, leadership by example and patience are essential. In these circumstances, leadership is indeed a conversation, a guided conversation that shares the decision tree and options that have been discarded and wins hearts and minds.


    • I think you are correct in your response that a dictatorship would not have as many conversations. However, the issue is not about a dictatorship, which if anything is a perversion of the idea of the leader. The leader can have followers who are required to follow but he or she will have to persuade the others to follow. The leader succeeds, or fails, to large extent upon their ability to persuade. However, that persuasion is not simply, nor solely, nor mainly a conversation. Instead, leadership is about decisions. In many cases, they are a monologue because of the nature of what is to be done and why. Conversations, are a means to an end, they are not the end in themselves. Leadership is not an equal exchange, which is assumed in most conversations.
      Leadership by its nature is unequal; however, this inequality is not unjust. Would we really want the CEO to have a conversation with all his or her staff? It would be counter-productive because of the role of the CEO. At the same time, the CEO having a conversation with someone about the photocopier, simply to have a conversation, is, again, counter-productive. To be sure, there will be an emotional or socially important element to the conversation. We share our humanity when we engage in conversation; however, that conversation is not about leadership. The CEO, or the leader, could function quite well without that conversation. However, he or she cannot work without the critical information being shared to make decisions. They also need that information sharing for the organisation to function. However, the sharing within the organisation is not a conversation nor is it a function of the leader’s conversational skill. It is certainly not about the leader being engaged, or interactive. Instead, that system is about how they create sharing and openness within the system.
      What is confused in most of these discussions is the assumption that technology has somehow allowed the personal conversation to be extrapolated, to the wider organisation. Organisations do not have conversations. Instead, they have systems and procedures for sharing information and this is a codified within a culture. The culture of communication in an organisation is not a direct result, nor greatly influenced by, the conversational skills of the leaders. An interactive leader will, in many ways, stultify or limit that organisational process. He or she must be involved to make sure it works, but they are not required to be interactive or the central hub. The information sharing needed to work is not the same as a conversation because they serve two different purposes and have to different ends. To confuse the two is to confuse the informal with the formal. For a leader, that has dangerous consequences because their formal role requires a different approach than an informal role. If these are not sustained, the organisation can lose its focus and structure, which no conversation will be able to restore otherwise we would all follow the talk show hosts. 


  2. It depends on the style of leadership. It’s a myth that leadership is just about standing above the fray and making decisions for a group. Leadership can be empowering groups to make decisions. Gerald M. Weinberg defines “leadership” as follows:

    Leadership is the process of creating an environment in which people become empowered.

    In this model of leadership, conversations are a key part of leadership, although in many cases the leader plays a facilitative role in those conversations.


    • Thanks for the comment. Maybe Weinberg is wrong. Is leadership about empowering the group? How is that leading? What is empowerment but delegated authority and responsibility. As such it is from a person above and beyond the group. A hive mind is leaderless almost by definition. Also leadership is not a style or an approach. It is what it means. We have good or bad leaders based upon their goals and how well they achieve them. The nicest leaders who do not perform are removed no matter how nice the conversations or excellent the questions they asked.


      • rcauvin says:

        Empowerment is about much more than delegation.

        As Weinberg states in his definition of “leadership”, it’s about creating an empowering environment. A member of a group exhibits leadership by doing such things as providing information and tools, asking important questions, helping the group coalesce around a shared vision or goals, and inspiring other members of the group to contribute ideas.

        This organic model of leadership transcends the narrower notions of leadership emanating from authority or stemming from unilateral, heroic efforts.


      • Thank you for the response. We are moving away from the post to something else. You have cited Weinberg, who, it would appear, agrees that leadership is more than a conversation. Yet, what is described as creating an empowering environment seems, well, purposefully vague. What you have described seems to me, about a place to work. If these do not already exist, then you need more than leadership.

        There appears to be a weird notion, especially within MBA programmes and on the cutting edge of the social media as management thinking, that we are all leaders. Well, if we are all leaders, who are followers? Someone has to get the work done. Are we are leaders and followers? Soon, we get into a strange world like Alice in Wonderland. We hear statements like “hyperlinks subvert hierarchies” and we all nod sagely. It does not mean anything. It is nonsense.

        We lose sight of what an organisation is designed to do and how it is designed to work. We take these ideas, like we are all leaders, and we fail to understand what our role is in an organisation and why the organisational hierarchy or structure exists. Can you imagine if the assistant secretary of state started to conduct foreign policy as if they were the “leader”? Can you imagine GM being run effectively if all the VPs decided they were going to be the leader?

        Weinberg is talking nonsense that we all demonstrate leadership when we contribute to a team or a group. It renders the terms meaningless. Am I the “coffee leader” when I make coffee? This is organic, but I use that in a more direct sense of the word.

        As for an environment, we move to the idea of culture and how things are done. In that area, leaders have a direct role in shaping how things are done and how people behave in getting things done. However, that is not about empowering people or helping the group coalesce around an idea. The leader sets the goals. They explain what it means. They provide the resources and remove barriers. In doing this, they may ask questions they may have a “conversation” but the process is not a conversation. The process is not inspiring others to contribute. Instead, it is setting the standards, setting the expectations. However, most importantly, it is about listening, and being open to new ideas. The leader show others that they need to contribute their best. They are not being “inspired” to contribute. They will listen for the quiet voices that are saying “no” or “what if”. Good leaders tell you like it is and expect, demand, that others tell it like it is. Compare General Joseph Stillwell to any Fortune 500 CEO or any top fund manager. The difference is leadership.


  3. rcauvin says:

    @lawrence You are certainly entitled to whatever definition of leadership you choose.

    The bottom line, regardless of semantics, is that certain members of groups can have tremendous impact on defining the goals and achieving the outcomes without telling the group what they are or how to achieve them.

    For example, I’ve worked in organizations in which the most impactful persons didn’t tell people what to do or how to do it. Instead, they used methods I outlined earlier, such as attending to people’s needs, facilitating conversations, providing tools and resources, and asking questions. The decisions arose out of groups, but all members recognized how impactful these certain individuals were in creating the environment in which the group made quality decisions in an efficient manner. Making coffee was never the key enabler, but I suppose it could be in some cases 🙂

    Yes, there are times when more directive approaches (e.g. “telling people what to do”) is necessary, more effective, and even better received by the group. But not always. Your narrow definition shuts out all of the other methods that sometimes have a much higher impact on the organization and its success.


    • Thanks again for a robust response. However, we are moving away from the point concerning leadership as a conversation. We are now talking about whether team members can contribute to a team. Is this leadership? I do not think it is. Team members can contribute but that does not mean they are leading the team, or that they are team leaders. They may be doing their role well.

      The example you provided could be a waiter. The waiter as leader seems a strange guide to leadership. They attend to needs (they serve the food). They are impactful (your food is cold or raw or early or late). They use a variety of methods to do their work (tricks of the trade). They work within an environment that needs everyone to play their part (knowing the cook, the sommelier, and the maître d’, the sous chef, and the bus boy). Yet, they are not leaders. This confuses a role with an identity or a function. Leadership is an overused and inappropriate word for what most organisations need. Few organisations need leaders. Instead, they need effective executives to steal a phrase from Drucker.

      What I am describing is the way leaders, as leaders, work. They set a vision. They are not having a debate to make sure everyone feels empowered. They listen and, then, they decide. They have that responsibility. They are not there to give hugs, or to make sure everyone is having a nice day. Nor are they there to be “friends” with everyone. They are there to achieve results. They understand that they need a system that does not serve them personally because they need to weave the various parts of the organisation into a coherent structure to deliver results. To this end, one will find that their leadership creates the empowering environment not the other way around. They know what they need to succeed and make sure it happens within the organisation that supports them. They support effective executives within the organisation. They also set the culture so the pursuit of being effective does not become a perverse result such as Enron where the process becomes the goal.
      If you work in an organisation, you need leaders. People may work for themselves, and be their own leader, but as soon as they create an organisation, they need a way to decide. Ultimately, they need leaders to move the organisation forward. The leader may work in a way that is collaborative and or consensual, but it is not a conversation.


  4. rcauvin says:

    @Lawrence, I think you’ve set up some straw men here. I wrote;

    “The bottom line, regardless of semantics, is that certain members of groups can have tremendous impact on defining the goals and achieving the outcomes without telling the group what they are or how to achieve them.”

    In your reply, you wrote:

    “The example you provided could be a waiter. The waiter as leader seems a strange guide to leadership. They attend to needs (they serve the food). They are impactful (your food is cold or raw or early or late). They use a variety of methods to do their work (tricks of the trade). They work within an environment that needs everyone to play their part (knowing the cook, the sommelier, and the maître d’, the sous chef, and the bus boy). Yet, they are not leaders.”

    This response misses the mark for several reasons. The waiter does not attend to the needs of the group, but of the customer. The waiter’s role does not typically impact the definition of the group’s goals. Insofar as the waiter as an individual impacts the achievement of outcomes (diner satisfaction), it typically doesn’t arise from the group due to the waiter’s contribution to the group.

    So your example fails to satisfy the criteria I laid out, and therefore cannot serve as a legitimate counterexample.


  5. rcauvin says:

    An additional note, @Lawrence. What I’ve been describing is not just any sort of contribution. It’s the sort of contribution that:

    1. Affects the dynamics of the group (by creating an empowering environment for it).
    2. Results in the group more effectively achieving its goals.
    3. Has inordinately high impact.

    You wrote:

    “The leader may work in a way that is collaborative and or consensual, but it is not a conversation.”

    A leadership approach that has the effects I mentioned above could be conversational but can take other forms.

    I do agree with you that leadership is not one and the same as a conversation. But your original argument assumed an oversimplified, top-down form of leadership that fails to account for other approaches that can have as much impact on the group and its outcomes.


    • Roger thanks for the two comments. I will respond to them together.
      I am sure that someone on a team or in an organisation can have an impact. However, that does not make them a leader. Teams have roles and to equate specialism with leadership is dangerous. Someone may be a great accountant, but they are not going to be a leader just because they are great at accountancy.

      My use of the waiter analogy was to draw out the issue. In the restaurant, who is the leader? The waiter could be the leader. Organically anyone at the restaurant could be the leader. Is this a way to understand leadership? Do we have many leaders at the same time? Again, these questions emerge with the “organic” view of leadership. If I have someone on my team who makes everyone better, does that make them a leader? According to the organic theory, it would appear to be the case.
      In your second comment, you gave three criteria for a leader.
      You wrote: [the leader]
      1. Affects the dynamics of the group (by creating an empowering environment for it).
      2. Results in the group more effectively achieving its goals.
      3. Has inordinately high impact.”

      The first point is an assumption that creating an empowering environment is a sign of leadership. I still disagree.

      The criteria you provide could cover the copy repairperson. He or she may repair the copier, (empower everyone) make sure they can achieve their goals more effectively, and have an inordinately high impact; for time invested, they have transformed the organisation. In the end, the copy repairperson is not a leader. They may be in their own right, at the copy repair company, but they are not organically the leader.
      I agree that there are other styles of leadership. However, leadership is not a style. We can describe it differently, but the core elements remain. They have authority, beyond their position in the organisational structure, and they have responsibility, they have to make the decision. Most importantly, a leader works to bring together the disparate elements of an organisation, or their team, into something greater than before their involvement.


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