Looking at Communication Through a Leadership Lens

Hello, ESPers worldwide!

I have recently been looking at the world through a lens of leadership. As I view people communicating, I adapt the classic research question of “What is going on here?” (See the “thick description” of Geertz) into another question: What is it that is being created here? In other words, what is the vision of the future that is being created or achieved through the talk, etc. (e.g., semiotics)?

As a researcher of professional communication, I recognize that many different conceptualizations of leadership exist. For me personally, however, I like to view leadership as a communication process consisting of two parts: 1) communicating to create a vision and 2) communicating to achieve a vision. Leadership is considered by many to be an “influence relationship,” and in my personal conceptualization of leadership, leadership would involve influencing others through communication associated with the goals of part 1 and part 2.

Viewing leadership in this way also facilitates the teaching of those communication skills that would be used to create a shared vision and to motivate others to achieve a shared vision. I write the following about teaching leadership in the forthcoming KUIS Journal (2014):

Samuel Bacharach, the McKelvey-Grant Professor of Organizational Behavior at Cornell University, states the following about leadership development (2013, CornellCast):

What drives me is a simple belief….Leadership is something we can teach. The way I look at leadership, it’s leadership with a small ‘l’ – a series of micro skills that actually can be taught….In fact, throughout our society in every organization, everyone has to lead. In this day and age, everyone has to be a change agent. Everyone has to be pushing agenda. So in that sense, we can’t afford the luxury of leadership with a big ‘L.’

If leadership is conceived as an influence relationship (at any level), then certainly the skills and actions needed to influence others depend upon the situation.

For these reasons, I was very pleased to see the activity introduced in Alexandra Lowe’s recent TESOL Blog post on reading a person’s emotions by looking only at their eyes, and I wanted to try the activity with the students in my organizational leadership seminars at KUIS in Chiba, Japan. My purpose, however, was not to teach vocabulary, although the learning of vocabulary did certainly occur. I wanted my students to learn to “read” others because this would be an important communication skill for them in their roles as leaders. Understanding others would be important for the framing of communication.

I did this activity in two ways. The second way was a variation of the first and consisted of the following steps:

  1. As a class, we looked at the pair of eyes in a photo without the corresponding word choices. I asked the students to share their first impressions of the emotion the person was displaying. (It was surprising to me and to the students how often their individual responses differed not only from each other but also from the four answer choices given in the test.)
  2. We then looked at the word choices, and the students wrote down their answers. (We did not check if the answers were correct at this stage.)
  3. After that, we went through the entire test again, and the students voted on what they considered to be the correct answer. Then we clicked on that response.
  4. Finally, we took the test again. (In both classes, the results were significantly improved.)

In my next class, I am thinking of asking students how they would frame a specific message if they were talking to a person who was displaying the emotion in a specific photo.

For ESPers, I think that this activity could possibly be useful in conducting training for a foreign professional (or professionals) planning to present to or negotiate with counterparts in the United States. You might also want to take a look at an article by Fantini on language and intercultural communicative competence that was shared in an online discussion between the ESP and Intercultural Communication Interest Sections.

Check it all out!

All the best,


About Kevin Knight

Kevin Knight
Kevin Knight (PhD in Linguistics, MBA, MPIA) is an associate professor in the Department of International Communication (International Business Career major) and has also been working in the Career Education Center of Kanda University of International Studies in Chiba, Japan. In the TESOL ESP Interest Section (ESPIS), he has served as chair and English in occupational settings (EOS) representative, and he is currently the ESPIS community manager. He was also a member of the Governance Review Task Force (GRTF) appointed by the board of directors. In addition, he has been a TESOL blogger in the area of English for Specific Purposes (ESP). He has more than 30 years of professional experience working for private, public, and academic sector institutions including Sony and the Japan Patent Office. His doctoral research on leadership communication (i.e., discourse) as a basis for leadership development was under the supervision of Emeritus Professor Christopher Candlin and Dr. Alan Jones.
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One Response to Looking at Communication Through a Leadership Lens

  1. Alexandra Lowe Alexandra Lowe says:

    Kevin – Thanks for the shout out and for the fascinating way in which you have expanded the “reading emotions” activity described in my recent blog post. I look forward to giving your variation a try next semester. Alexandra

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