Father William Byron, S.J.

As we happily bid goodbye to a command-and-control, top-down way of doing things in many organizations, including in some instances church organizations, we have to come up with a culture of communication to make sure things work well in the future.

It is not enough for the person at the top to say, “We’re not top-down anymore; from now on, I’m a servant leader. I occupy the center of the circle, not the top of a hill. There’s been a shift here from me to we. We’re decentralized.”

That alone won’t do it. The top person and all unit leaders have to be in touch with those they presumably lead. They have to be seen and heard. Leaders have to communicate. But how?

Notepads with a heading such as “Avoid Verbal Orders: Get It Down in Writing” have been a familiar part of office furniture for ages. In this new age of social media, the “getting it down in writing” cannot bypass the print-on-paper route.

The emerging leadership class is made up of men and women who are not noted for their communication skills. Attention must be paid to putting words on paper at a time when the paperless office is proposed as an ideal and the 140-character tweet is for many a preferred mode of communication.

The “chairman’s letter” to all support staff; the academic “dean’s letter” to all faculty; the “Letter to Our Shareholders”; the “Letter to Our Customers” at any time, and the “Open Letter to All Concerned” in moments of crisis — all are words-on-paper ways of exercising leadership. So is advertising copy that is neither hyperbolic nor coercive, just informative.

The more decentralized we become, the more important effective communication is to the achievement of our goals. Words — within and outside the organization — are the stuff of communication. Leaders have to speak and write them in order to lead.

I once knew a CEO who reserved to himself the final interview of candidates for high-level positions in his organization. At the end of the interview, he would thank the candidate for making himself or herself available and ask that person, before leaving, to write a summary of the main points discussed and agreed upon during the interview.

The exercise was to be done on the spot (typewriter, yellow pad, computer or whatever was needed was there at hand, although there was no dictionary or editorial help); the result was left with the receptionist before departure.

The written product went immediately to the CEO, who looked it over and, if it was not a crisp and clear specimen of good writing, tossed it in the wastebasket along with the promotion prospects of the poor communicator.

We’re going to be seeing more of this as organizations continue to decentralize and the critical importance of connecting with words, with inside and outside constituencies, becomes even more obvious.

And to repeat a point I made at the beginning — this is happening not just in secular organizations. It is happening in church organizations as well and it is a welcome development.


Jesuit Father Byron is professor of business and society at St. Joseph’s University, Philadelphia. Email: wbyron@sju.edu.