Russell Heath

Leadership Coach

Leadership as a Conversation | Russell Heath

Russell Heath

CEO & Founder of: Russell Heath Coaching


Leadership as a Conversation

What do leaders do?

They inspire, they get people into action, they make things happen. They do more, of course: they make the decisions, anticipate and manage change, create culture, mentor those that they lead, build and align teams—and the list goes on.

How do they do every one of these things?

By talking. Conversation is the essential leadership tool. Nothing can happen without a conversation.

These are some of the conversations that a leader must be good at:

  • Visioning—where is it we need to go?
  • Accountability—are people performing?
  • Relationships—every organization is a network of relationships.
  • Alignment—is each team member on the same page
  • Values—how we must live them
  • Execution—getting people into action
  • Acknowledgment—recognizing the accomplishments of others.

Leaders who have not mastered conversing are not likely to be masterful at making things happen. Mastering conversations must be at the top of any aspiring leader’s task list.

Conversations we need to unlearn

You might ask—we’ve been conversing since we were toddlers, we have decades of practice, what do we need to learn?

As it turns out, plenty.

Here are three ways that we have learned to converse ineffectively:

  • We converse from the point of view that external circumstances are responsible for how we feel. A common example is “You irritate me.” This is not true—no one other than yourself has control over your feelings. Blaming others for something that is your responsibility has several negative consequences. It sets up a culture of victimhood—others are responsible for how I feel, it’s dominating—it implies that others must act the way you want them to act to please you, and you don’t grow or develop the capacity to manage your feelings.
  • We converse from a background of blame or guilt—either our own or someone else. “Why did you do it that way?”, “It’s your fault”, or “You made a mistake”, for example, assigns blame or guilt. Conversations framed this way put people on the defensive, divide people (me v. you), and breed resentment, hurt, and anger—none of which empower an organization.
  • We converse to avoid causing or feeling uncomfortable feelings such as rejection, shame, hurt, and fear. If we say “Great job” when we think it was a poor job, we’re avoiding having to deal with the other person’s hurt feelings, the feelings that might come from a conflict, or the concern that the other person won’t like us. Avoiding uncomfortable feelings results in a culture that doesn’t have difficult but necessary conversations, has difficulty holding people accountable, and encourages inauthenticity.

Courage, an Aside

There are conversational techniques that can counter all the concerns noted above. However, if you look closely, you will see that effective communication requires courage. Courage to accept responsibility, courage to feel uncomfortable, courage to risk being wrong, and courage to listen to points of view different than your own.

 Powerful communication requires that leaders are themselves powerful. It is not enough to simply learn the techniques of communicationz leaders must also bring courage and other virtues, such as authenticity, generosity, and compassion to their conversations. However, for the moment, let’s look just at the techniques.

Communicating Powerfully

Assuming courage, let’s take a quick look at more effective ways to communicate using the examples above.  

Taking responsibility

“You irritate me.” Instead of blaming—take responsibility for your feelings and then let the other person know what’s going on for you in the situation. “When  you do x, I feel y.” Better yet, you could also take responsibility for the meaning you are giving the other person’s words. “When you do x, I make it mean y, and that makes me feel z.” The lesson here is that our feelings are caused—not by the event, but the meaning that we give the event. The “meaning” we assign an event is totally in our control. Change the meaning and our feelings change.

For example, a friend and I were in a restaurant where, a few tables away, a man was talking loudly and, by my assessment, condescendingly to his dinner companion. I took him to be an inconsiderate blowhard and became irritated. My friend, however, was so moved she burst into tears. As she saw it, he was honoring his hard-of-hearing mother suffering from Alzheimer’s.

Different meanings different feelings. Powerful leaders take responsibility for the meanings they give to events—and the feelings that result from those meanings.

Exorcising Blame and Fault-finding

“It’s your fault.” Blame uses fear as a goad to better performance. Fear squashes creativity and initiative as people become more concerned about staying safe than excelling.

Mistakes and failures, however, must be acknowledged and tended to. The key is to do it in a way that encourages employees to learn, grow, and remain committed to the organizational mission. Instead of blaming, become relentlessly factual:

  1. This is the result we wanted,
  2. This is the result we got,
  3. What is the source of this breakdown?
  4. What do we need to do to recover from the breakdown?
  5. What do we need to do differently in the future to get the desired result?

Being Straight

“Great job.” When we’re not straight with people—when we say something different than what we’re thinking—we risk becoming resentful, upset, or angry. Since leaders shape an organization’s culture, this lack of honesty will seep into the culture, leading to a less productive environment.   

Generally, we are not straight in order to avoid uncomfortable feelings. Being straight with someone who has made a mistake risks a conflict, hurting their feelings, or exposing yourself. Here is an example of how to have a conversation that, if mismanaged, could degenerate into a nasty confrontation. (This is a modified conversation from Fierce Conversations by Susan Scott.)

1.Opening statement (60 seconds max)

a)Name the issue

b)Give example

c)Tell how you are interpreting the situation and your feelings

d)What is at stake?

e)Identify your contribution to the problem

f)Commit to resolving the issue

2. Partner’s Understanding (most of the conversation happens here)

a)Invite the other to respond

3. Resolution

a)Where are we; what have we learned; anything left to say; how best to move forward?

b)Agree on next steps

c)Determine how to hold each other accountable

Steps 1e and 2a are critical. As the leader, you are responsible, in part, for every issue that arises (1e)—even if it was hiring the wrong person. Acknowledging your responsibility creates an atmosphere that allows the other person to be more vulnerable and forthcoming. It signals that the conversation isn’t about finding fault but about solving the problem.

Turning the conversation over to the other person (2a) gives all parties equal air time and acknowledges that there may be different ways of viewing the issue.


We have looked at a few ways that leaders can communicate more effectively. We have not touched the conversations leaders can use to inspire their teams and build a supportive culture, nor those that lift a nation—think of Churchill, Kennedy, or King. But they are all part of a masterful leader’s repertoire.

About Russell Heath:

Russell Heath came to leadership coaching after many years leading environmental organizations, mission-driven coalitions, and political campaigns in Alaska. In those efforts, it became clear to him that the essential element in the success or failure of any campaign or project was the quality of its leadership—and that leadership was more a function of character and being than it was of skills and techniques.

In service to his own leadership, he moved to New York City and entered a rigorous leadership coaching program. Transformed by that experience, he decided to become a coach himself. He is a graduate of Accomplishment Coaching, one of the nation’s premier coaching schools, and has been coaching professionally since 2012. He coaches leaders in both for-profit corporations and non-profit organizations and high-performing professionals committed to making things happen in the world, their organizations, or their lives. He also works with entrepreneurs who are committed to building their businesses.

In addition to his non-profit work, his professional background includes many years as an IT project manager and systems analyst and as an environmental and political activist. He has written two novels, lived in Italy and Australia, and traveled twice around the world—overland and alone by sail. Current projects include building a boat to row around Newfoundland and writing a book of his circumnavigation.

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