Communication Style of Leaders

Gerry Sandusky and John Harbaugh on a field

Not long ago I happened to be talking with Baltimore Ravens head coach John Harbaugh when former St. Louis Rams and Philadelphia Eagles coach Dick Vermeil came over to say hello to Harbaugh. Both coaches have won a Super Bowl and both have similar approaches to leadership. Some might even call it “old school.” I put that in quotes because I think the phrase “old school” gets misunderstood more often than not. If something is old, it’s been around for awhile and if it still works then it must have merit. Perhaps “foundational” is a better word to use.

I’ve asked both men about their views on leadership at different times and got very similar answers. They both believe leaders aren’t the ones with the most followers. Rather, true leaders are the ones who create the most leaders. Harbaugh puts it this way. “When things get challenging and difficult leaders are the ones who step forward. Followers step back. You don’t want a lot of followers around when times get tough.”

Both men also believe fair and consistent competition is the key to improving people.

In watching both coaches over the past couple of decades I have noticed another similarity that they share with other foundational style leaders: their communication style. If you have to reduce that style to a single word, I would choose this one: consistency.

Leadership communication isn’t merely a string of motivational quotes and speeches. It’s doing the little things, consistently, every day. And above all else, it’s modeling your message. Look at the photo. Harbaugh is in his fifties. Vermeil is in his late seventies. Both men are fit. They’re prompt. They’re respectful. They’re driven, and they’re constantly finding ways to improve. And they get that message across—and have for years—before they ever get around to saying a word.

Perhaps the ultimate litmus test of leadership communication is how many words it doesn’t take to be effective.

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