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A leader’s awareness

Mark Cook is the program coordinator for the Institute for Global Engagement, a partnership between Denison Forum and Dallas Baptist University. He is currently a Ph.D. candidate at Dallas Baptist University, and completed his Masters of Divinity at Beeson Divinity School and Truett Seminary. His ministry background is college ministry, and he has served both on a church staff as well as within campus ministries.

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Presidential contender Donald Trump, speaks to the media after arriving by helicopter during the 1st first day of the Women's British Open golf championship on the Turnberry golf course in Turnberry, Scotland, July 30, 2015 (Credit: AP Photo/Scott Heppell)

Breakdowns in communication seem to be dominating the headlines. Whether it is Donald Trump’s combative verbal altercations with journalists and other politicians, or Hillary Clinton’s private email server, issues related to communication reveal how important this basic component of daily life is on a national and international level. Even more recently, the two Texas high school football players who violently tackled an official over the weekend are now claiming that they were baited into the action by a racial slur from the official.

It can seem overwhelming to try to address such a large issue when it comes to leadership, and more often than not leadership advice related to communication stays vague. Well-meaning platitudes get tossed about, but the unresolved issue still lies beneath the surface. We would do well to look at leadership communication in a more specific context if we want to glean wisdom on how we can grow as leaders.

One of the central issues of our times related to communication is the proliferation of texting and other short-form mediums of communication. Just this week the Wall Street Journal included an article entitled “How Texting Can Help Families Talk“, where Sue Shellenbarger argues for parents to employ texting to improve family communication dynamics. An August study by Pew Research found that “88% of teens text their friends at least occasionally, and fully 55% do so daily.” The study also found that half of all teens surveyed would say texting is their first choice for communicating with their closest friend. Texting is not only a normal part of everyday life, but it is the go-to form of communication for this rising generation.

One of the great problems of texting as a form of communication, though, is the confusion that it creates with both the sender and receiver. In terms of conveying simple information, it is excellent, but at conveying more nuanced messages, it falls short. Texting thrives because of its immediacy, but complicates things because of its ambiguity. We have all sat there staring at a message on our phones, wondering how we should respond. We also run into problems in terms of immediacy. Should I be expected to text right back? When do I know when the “conversation” is over?

But I don’t want to merely suggest that texting is an imperfect medium of communication. I want, rather, to point to one of its more subtle effects on leaders’ overall communication: how it erodes a leader’s awareness.

Our digital, short-form mediums of communication work to gradually anesthetize us to both who we are communicating with and what is happening around us. On an interpersonal level, the modern penchant for short-form communication can provide an easy copout for leaders who don’t want to go to the trouble of actually listening to their employees. They can offer the illusion of interaction by swiftly responding to email, but any leader worth their salt will tell you that long-term leadership is built on healthy, sustained relationships. These relationships take time, attention, and lots of listening.

Heather Fedesco from Purdue University, in the May issue of the International Journal of Listening, describes the kind of active listening that effective communicators engage in as including verbal backchannels (“uh huh, “hmmm”), as well as nodding, smiling, adjusting one’s posture, asking questions, and making eye contact. These nonverbal forms of communication are critical for the other person to feel like they are truly being listened to.

Jesus is the best model for how we can increase our leadership awareness in communicating. In John 10, he describes himself as the good shepherd. “The sheep hear his voice, and he calls his own sheep by name and leads them out.” (John 10:3) This metaphor implies intimacy, trust, and deep knowledge of the leader with the followers.

How aware are you of what’s going on around you? What about the people in your life? Texting, email and other short-form communication mediums can make it easy to go into autopilot as a leader, but true servant leadership pushes past the visceral to get to know both people and contexts in a deeper fashion. There is tremendous nuance and richness in interpersonal, one-on-one communication. Christian leadership begins with a leader’s personal relationship with Christ, and extends in a ripple-like manner to all those around. It is the most basic relationship in all of life, yet it is the first to suffer when we seek shortcuts instead of true engagement.