Communication Competence as a Key to Effective Leadership

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communication competence

“The art of communication is the language of leadership (Humes, 1991),” meaning competent communication is a precursor to effective leadership. Communication competence, or “the ability to communicate appropriately and successfully, regardless of the setting (Beebe, Beebe, & Ivy, 2019),” starts with leadership and is determined by three key criteria (Masterson, Watson, & Beebe, 1989):

1. The message should be understood.

The transfer of message meaning as intended is an incredibly complicated task. For example, when you read the word, “cat,” what comes to mind? Was it fluffy or short-haired? Was it black, orange or white? Big or small? You get the point – this phenomenon of interpretation happens every day, with every word, every time we communicate.

Message meaning may be delicate, but interpretation is a messy process influenced by our vast differences in culture, gender, religion, education and life experiences. Accordingly, the first step to being a competent communicator is understanding that the intent of your message is not always the interpretation of your message by the receiver. Being a competent communicator means using “other-oriented” communication to try and communicate with your recipient by considering their unique communication lens.

2. The message should have a purpose – and fulfill it.

We engage in communication with others for a specific purpose. Understanding the purpose of our communication helps set the stage for our communicative interactions. Some common reasons to communicate include: to inform, to persuade, to entertain, to solve problems, to make decisions, to build trust, to enhance intimacy, or to experience shared enjoyment.

For example, when you plan to lead a meeting, it’s important to ask yourself what you intend to accomplish. Are you there to inform your employees about the process of a new organizational change or to brainstorm the best approach to implementing an organizational change?  Success is measured based on whether or not you achieved your intended goal.  Understanding and defining your goal will help you better manage expectations about the outcome and plan for your interactions with others.

3. The message should be ethical.

Ethics are an incredibly important part of leadership. We don’t need to look too far back in history to identify ethical abuses in leadership. Being an ethical leader means, “being sensitive to others’ needs, giving people choices rather than forcing them to behave in a certain way, respecting others’ privacy, not intentionally decreasing others’ feelings of self-worth, and being honest in presenting information.” While it may be tempting (and easier) to use organizational power to get people to do what you want, real leadership is grounded in ethical communication.

It’s not uncommon we take communication for granted, because much like walking most of us have been doing it since before we can remember. It’s a fundamental aspect of being human. But competent communication is really the distinguishing factor in increasing relational and organizational success, and it takes practice and hard work to truly master.


Beebe, S. A., Beebe, S. J., & Ivy, D. K. (2019). Communication Principles for a Lifetime (7th Edition ed.). New York: Pearson.

Humes, J. C. (1991). The Sir Winston Method: The Five Secrets of Speaking the Language of Leadership. New York: William Morrow.

Masterson, J. T., Watson, N. H., & Beebe, S. A. (1989). Invitation to Effective Speech Communication. Allyn & Bacon, Incorporated.

Seleste Mills

About Seleste

Seleste joined the Hahn Public team in 2017 as the company’s marketing research manager. Seleste specializes in survey design and research methodology.

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