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Why Writing is a Leadership Skill

By Roger HB Davies

Setting an example and the ability to coach others are two skill sets for a modern leader.

Job ads for positions in management almost always require “good communication skills.” Although what’s required out of “good communication” is rarely defined. It’s just a simple and given expectation.

In part, it implies the leader’s credo: “I can only lead if I write (and speak) well.”

This involves three distinct steps.

  1. Set an example. You’re the role model. Whenever you communicate, your team will absorb (sometimes subconsciously) how you communicate. Your team will appreciate clarity, brevity, and getting to the point. They will especially value clarity around any key messaging. They will also value the absence of obvious grammatical mistakes, although they may not notice.
  1. Learn to recognize good writing when you see it. This involves the ability to consciously look at a piece of writing and know why it’s clear, or not. This is a skill. If you don’t know what the problem is, then you can’t explain how to fix it.
  1. Coach your team effectively. If you’re reviewing a team member’s writing sample, focus not on editing it, but on returning it to your team member with constructive guidance that involves a three-part focus below.

Coach for Content. Recognize two types of review: content and communications. Content review means covering off all the facts. Is there anything missing? It is accurate? Is the right amount of information being provided, not too much, not too little, but just right?

Coach for Communications. This means adjusting the “content” (for the audience) so that it is clear and concise. In part, this means ensuring shorter sentences, as well as short but well-chosen words. Also, preferring active voice to passive. Some knowledge of how the language works makes life easier for all.

Coach to Win. Too many senior executives believe that editing a team member’s work is easier and quicker than explaining how to change it. For most, editing is not on an executive’s job description. Although leadership is on your job description. Leading (in part) means tactfully and knowledgeably explaining to a team member what’s wrong with the piece of writing, with clear messaging on what to do to fix it. So that your team does the fixing and you don’t. I.e., delegate—with guidance. This should build team confidence and drive the result you’re seeking.

Some of this guidance is simple.

  • Avoid long sentences and long words.
  • Reduce acronyms.
  • Can some of the information go into a table? (Especially useful if numbers are cited and compared.)
  • Are there sufficient headings in the writing to guide the reader, and (especially) the skim reader?
  • Are there clear benefits to the reader? Not only to persuade someone to read the writing (in the first place), but also to absorb the content and any reasoning put forward.

Such a writing checklist sets the example that can be followed with constructive writing/editing coaching, surely a foundational skill for today’s leaders.

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