You Can’t Lead if You Can’t Communicate. Why Leaders Ought to Write.
Mark Twain’s quote, “I didn’t have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead,” is a message that regularly emerges in my mind. Whether it’s writing for work, writing for 3x5, or talking about writing with others, I’m reminded of his message. And the first lesson I pull from it is that writing is hard.
Despite that reality, writing, and really communicating at large, is an essential leadership skill. When it comes to communication and leadership, I believe there is one simple principle we must understand: You can’t lead if you can’t communicate.
Through our words as leaders, we inform, argue, inspire, and influence. And we do it up, down, across, and even beyond the boundaries of the organization.
How we communicate – how we craft our messages, structure our ideas, and deliver them – matters. Compelling others to action, cultivating commitment, and enabling decisions are significant efforts which involve many factors and require a lot of inputs. Leaders’ communication is one of those critical factors and inputs. We (leaders) enable through our words more often than we think. Technology and social norms may change, but the need for artful, well-crafted, and compelling communication remains.
As with any kind of technical skill development, writing requires deliberate practice and time. Structuring a message to make sense to others, laying out a clear and compelling argument to inspire action, or delivering guidance that creates clarity and efficiency is hard. So, we need to practice. Which means we need to simply start. And iterate. And get feedback.
A personal writing habit is one way to practice and improve our communication skills. Such efforts do not require a grand plan or platform, any sort of basic entry skill, or even intentions to do anything with what we produce. From these efforts, coupled with time and iteration, we can emerge with both improved communication skills and clarified reflection for our continued development.
When I started 3x5 over six years ago, without even understanding what I was doing or why I was doing it, I was actually initiating what I now call a developmentally reflective writing habit. As an engineer by trade, I felt like I didn’t have any place or qualifications to become a “writer.” Today, when I look back at some of my original content, I cringe. It’s not hard to read it and think, “yeah, this is not very good.” But through deeper reflection, that difference shows the growth that has occurred over these last six years. Through practice. Through a dedicated habit. Through putting my thoughts and myself out there for feedback. And after six years of practice, I finally find myself being selected for roles or tasks in my work because of my writing skills. As a result, I’m hopefully not only a more intentional leader, but a better communicator too.
So, to encourage others toward a developmental writing habit, I want to share four important benefits I’ve gained through it, as well as a few ideas to get you started.
The Benefits of a Developmental Writing Habit
It doesn’t matter what kind of writing you do, what you write about, or what you intend to do with what you create, I think the simple habit of personal writing offers four critical benefits for leaders and our communication skills.
One, the act of pausing and dedicating time to write takes us out of execution mode and into thinking and reflecting mode. Execution (doing) and thinking/reflecting live on the far ends of a spectrum from one another. On the doing side, we are buried in the regular grind of work execution. It’s emails, meetings, decisions, and creating products or managing projects. It’s leading people, employing systems, and maintaining a routine. It’s making things happen and getting results every day. But in doing, we do not find, let alone create, time or space to think, to reflect, or to grow. In execution, we can go days, weeks, or months without lifting our head up to ask, what am I learning here? What is important? What can or should be improved?
And so, leaders need to create that time and space to think. One great way is to dedicate time, maybe every week or so, to pause and write. Write your ideas, the lessons you are learning from your experiences, how you feel, and what matters most through the busyness of work. Benefit #1 of writing is that it creates the time and space to move us from execution into learning and growth.
The second benefit is that writing becomes my way to capture and record ideas. Every experience, book, podcast, mentorship conversation, and bit of feedback is an opportunity to learn and to grow. These new data points may even combine with other ideas that initially seem unconnected. But through some time and space to reflect on them, writing can be the means to capture those ideas and keep them for some future implementation. For me, if I don’t write ideas down, they are easily lost, even mere moments later. This is also the underlying theme of the name, 3x5 Leadership. Every moment is an opportunity to learn. Even a simple 3x5 card can be a powerful tool to capture thoughts and reflection to turn them into insights, actions, and so much more.
Benefit three is that writing helps me to clarify, develop, and complete my ideas. 3x5 Leadership aims to champion intentional leaders who create significant impacts and to grow more of them every day. But even beyond the brand, 3x5 Leadership is simply a reflective tool for me. Through my learning habits and experiences, I gather new ideas. The act of developing these ideas out into an article helps me to clarify what the idea or lesson is, build it out into actionable lessons worth sharing, and complete it so that it makes sense to someone else. This act, while hopefully making other leaders more intentional of course, starts with improving my own learning as a leader. Writing helps me to make sense of my ideas. Through writing, I too become a more intentional leader and better communicator.
Finally, the fourth benefit is accountability as a leader. By capturing our ideas on paper or in a Word document, we formalize the lesson in some way. And that formalization compels us toward increased alignment to that desired, often lofty improved behavior. If you choose to publicly share your reflections like I do here, that adds even more to the sense of accountability, working hard every day to strive to live out what I preach. And yet, every day I remain ready for a mentor, colleague, junior leader, or friend to approach me and say, “Josh, I don’t know if you’re living out what you wrote about right now.” Accountability doesn’t equal perfection, but it does increase my desire and level of attention to being an intentional, authentic leader in how I speak, act, and interact with others.
Writing gives us time and space to think and to reflect. It helps us capture our ideas and ultimately clarify, expand them, and develop them into actionable lessons. It also serves as a source of accountability. And with practice and iteration through this writing habit, we can grow as a leader with clarified reflections and improved communication skills.
Getting Started with a Writing Habit
Now what? Well, how we write and communicate is a unique art. We all have our own style and approach. Our authentic voice will be developed through practice. So, here are a few concluding recommendations on how we can start practicing a writing habit to improve our communication skills and our growth as leaders.
- Find a place to write. A place means time and space. Determine what conditions you should create to make time and space to stop, reflect, and write. Is it a dedicated time and day each week? Is it a certain place that you escape to? For me, it either occurs early in the morning before everyone else wakes up or on an evening after the kids go to bed. I need a quiet, isolated place (I can’t do coffee shops or public spaces). And I need a table with chair (not a couch) with paper/pen next to me and easy instrumental music. Find what works for you.
- Find a writing process. We will have our different approaches to developing our ideas out. Some may work best with a stream-of-consciousness approach, just writing as the words come. Others, like me, might need a more methodical approach. I start with pen and paper to build a mind map. This mapping helps me to clarify the point I’m looking to make, why it matters, and what to do about it. From a messy map on paper, I’m then able to structure my thoughts onto Word document. Through a little trial/error and practice, you can determine your preferred approach to crafting your message.
- Use a structure. How do you look to frame your message or idea? How are you going to structure and organize it? I recommend using some form of standard structure to build your ideas. I use a framework that asks three questions: What? So what? Now what? Through these buckets of ideas, I’m able to clarify the point I’m making and craft my thesis or argument. I’m also able to present the “why” of this point – why it matters. And finally, “now what” helps me move from abstract ideas to actionable takeaways (like this portion of the article now). You can explore more about the what – so what – now what framework in our first podcast episode. You can also explore prompted writing, where you answer a set of questions. There are a multitude of options that you can pursue and there is no right approach. Just think through what might be most appropriate for you to focus on in your current season of life, work, and growth. You can answer questions about what you are proud of, grateful for, and wish you could do over this week. Or you can write out your top emotions from the day or week in a more “on my mind” approach. Or it can be clarifying big ideas that are bouncing around in your head. There is lots of space for creativity.
- Have a plan. We don’t write to publish. We don’t write for recognition or leverage. We write to grow as communicators and leaders. But it is worth determining what you want to do with your writing. Do you want to share it? Pursue that then! Putting yourself out there can be scary, but it amplifies the developmental benefit of your writing and adds to our growing body of knowledge. If it helps just one other person, it is worth it. We don’t have to publish our writings for them to be worth the effort, but we do need to ensure we have a plan to keep our recorded lessons relevant and not simply lost in notebooks, Word documents, or index cards. How do you keep ideas alive and relevant, not ignored on bookshelves or in storage boxes?
We can’t lead if we can’t communicate. Effective, well-crafted, compelling messages are hard to create, and they require practice. A writing habit not only helps leaders become better communicators, but it also helps us become more intentional leaders. And it might have a significant impact on others as well.
Can you start by identifying a place to write this week? Even just a small window of time.
With paper in front of you, what feels natural to begin capturing an idea? Explore it. Try it out.
And what is important right now that is worth writing? Something on your mind – a feeling, an idea, or an experience that should be explored more? Pursue it.