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The Difference Between Communications and Leadership

This week, I had the opportunity to join the ACE Fellows Program participants for their closing retreat. It was a delight to be with these rising higher education leaders at the tail end of a year of great professional and personal growth. It was also a great opportunity to share a message that I find myself repeating over and over and over again as I read about institutional leaders in situations that are or are about to become full-blown crises: Communication is not leadership.

Of course, communication is a vital tool for advancing leadership. Without it, leaders might as well be shouting into the wind—their vision for their organization will reach about as many people and about as clearly. But I often see leaders who, in a tough spot, avoid making hard decisions and charting a potentially unpopular or uncomfortable course forward. Instead, they believe that simply inundating their audiences with communications will do the trick. They push their teams to come up with a silver bullet—the email message or set of talking points that will get them out of tough conversations with their constituents without forcing them to come down on one side or another of a particular issue. Spoiler alert: If that email or those talking points exist, I haven’t found them yet.

Our marketing colleagues will rightly say that you can’t market a product that doesn’t exist, and I’ll add that you can’t communicate a leadership decision that hasn’t yet been made. Instead, I encouraged the Fellows to take a different approach in their current and future leadership positions—bring your communications colleagues in early. Use them, along with other colleagues and subject matter experts, as sounding boards to work through various options for addressing a problem or a crisis. And then take the time needed to make a decision, unpopular or controversial though it may be, so that when it comes time to communicate, you truly have something to say.