GAMA International Article

Leaders Keep the Conversation Going
by Ginger Cockerham

 · Reproduced with permission from GAMA International Journal, May-June 2001 pp. 16-17

Leadership is about keeping the conversation going. If you don’t think so, listen to a company where the conversation has stopped. Rumors, assumptions and misinformation abound without effective leaders keeping everyone in the know. Leaders use words that can be heard on the deepest level by the people they lead. They use these words to affect change, inspire, motivate, paint a picture, enhance understanding and most of all, to transmit a vision. A leader’s mission is to keep the conversation going and everyone in the organization in the loop. Max Depree said, “Leadership is more tribal than scientific, more a weaving of relationships, than amassing information.”

Leaders can learn to encourage conversation with these four tools:

  • Story-telling
  • Listening “for” instead of just listening “to” people
  • Understanding and “getting” who people really are
  • Delivering strong messages

Story Telling

Story telling is one of the most effective ways to foster relationships in an organization. One of my favorite stories is one that Jack Welch, CEO of GE, tells about a young manager leading his first project. As a result of the young man’s bad decisions, the company lost $5 million. He went to Jack Welch to apologize and resign. In-stead of accepting his resignation, Welch told the embarrassed young manager that the company could not afford for him to resign because GE had just invested $5 million in his education!

This is a powerful story that can be used to change the way people operate in a company. This story says several things: that people can make a mistake here and still be valuable to the company; that experiments don’t always work; and that people are more important than projects. Whatever the interpretation, messages like these free up creativity and encourage experimentation and discovery. It is the reason that Jack Welch is one of the most highly regarded CEOs in corporate America.

Listening “for” Instead of Listening “to” People

A leader who is a master communicator learns to listen “for” specific things rather than passively listening “to” a person. Listening “for” involves not only hearing what is said, but also listening for what is not being said, listening for what is missing, listening for the truth. This allows a leader to inquire with insightful questions and elicit honest and informative responses.

Bill Gates invites thinkers whom he admires to meet with him regularly for a conversation in which they speak and he listens. For him, it is an exercise in listening “for” what is possible. If information is power, listening “for” is one of the most powerful communication skills leaders can develop.

The ultimate benefit from listening “for” is to understand the people around us and really hear what they are saying. When someone is understood and appreciated, really “gotten,” then they can take the next step in developing as a person and as a team member. A consistent lament in relationships is that the person feels misunderstood.

“Getting” the People You Lead

“Getting” the people you lead is the ultimate connecting tool because it shows that a leader cares enough to know who a person is and the value she brings to the organization. A leader who creates an environment of understanding and approval creates a workplace where true magic can occur. Charles Schwab said, “I have yet to find the man who did not do better work and put forth greater effort under a spirit of approval than under the spirit of criticism.”


Messaging is the communication skill of being memorable. Leaders have a lot of wisdom and truth about how to win in life that they want to communicate. A message is a statement of truth from the speaker that can motivate and encourage people to achieve the extraordinary. If you doubt the power of a message, just think about John F. Kennedy’s message, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” It is a message that powerfully impacted the way Americans thought about their country, and it inspired historic change from the Peace Corps to astronauts walking on the moon.

A message is what leaders use to communicate their point of view on life. Oprah Winfrey is one of the most respected and listened-to women in the world. Five days a week, she sends out inspiring messages about the power people have to change their lives, how they can learn to be authentic and how important it is to remember our spirit. She uses her daily television talk show for the specific purpose of delivering compelling messages.

In Summary

Leaders model and expand their vision for companies by embracing the idea that their highest calling is to keep the conversation going. Leaders know that people are more important than projects. Leaders realize that they can develop and inspire the people around them by listening for wisdom and insight in everyday conversations, by giving context to what is happening with meaningful stories and by speaking powerful messages, that can effect change and inspire action. Conversations are the barometers of a passionate and healthy company. A wise leader knows there is nothing less satisfying than an opportunity missed from a conversation that did not happen.

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