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At the recent IABC Victoria Cocktail Gala, Squadron Leader Steve Baker got Wayne Aspland thinking about our role as communicators.



While speaking at last week's IABC Victoria Gala, Steve Baker, who leads the Royal Australian Air Force’s aerobatics team – the ‘Roulettes’, shared some fascinating views about leadership and communications.

One that particularly caught my attention was Steve’s distaste for the idea that ‘everyone’s a leader’. Steve's point was that, if everyone’s a leader, then no-one is. An organisation that’s full of leaders would be as paralysed as an organisation with none.

This got me thinking. Should communicators (like everyone else) aspire to be leaders, or should our sights be set somewhere else? Maybe we communicators would be better served by thinking of ourselves more as teachers than leaders.


Why teachers?

By definition, a teacher is a leader. But a teacher is also much more. As a teacher, you take responsibility for the knowledge of others. You absorb (and sometimes create) knowledge and you empower others by passing that knowledge onto them.

Your role (in the organisation) isn’t to bark orders and direct the troops. It’s to make sure those troops have the knowledge they need to bring the team’s vision (be it victory on the battlefield or victory on the balance sheet) to life.

And that is precisely the role communicators play.

Recently, I watched a TED speech by Boston Consulting Group’s Yves Morieux – the co-author of a new book (next on my reading list) called Six Simple Rules. Yves talks about the need to simplify and connect businesses (which is where the six rules come in). Along the way, he makes this important point:

“Now, in front of the new complexity of business, the only solution is not drawing boxes with reporting lines. It is basically the interplay. How the parts work together. The connections, the interactions, the synapses. It is not the skeleton of boxes, it is the nervous system of adaptiveness and intelligence. You know, you could call it cooperation, basically.”

Yves’ comment leads to an obvious question. Who is it that fuels ‘the connections, the interactions, the synapses’ in organisations today? 

It’s the communications team. Our job is to bring people together. We (to quote the university textbooks) span the boundaries of an organisation and use our skills to turn a group of disconnected silos into a united team with a single mission, strategy and vision.

And we achieve this by promoting shared understanding… by ensuring that everyone has a clear appreciation of the organisation and the role they play within it… no matter which silo they inhabit.

In other words, we do it by teaching.


How to be a teacher

We read a lot about the qualities of leaders, but what about the qualities of teachers? What is it that turns a communicator into a teacher? In short, this shift is driven by four desires.


The desire to learn

It’s ironic I know, but you can’t be a teacher without being a student. If you stop learning, your tenure as a teacher will be very short. You’ll quickly run out of things to teach.

This leads to a critical point about the teaching communicator. While not everyone can be a leader, anyone can be a teacher. The recent university graduate in their first communications role clearly has a lot to learn. But there is much they can teach as well. They are part of a generation that many of their older colleagues don’t understand. And they’ve just stepped out of uni, where they’ve learnt the very latest views and techniques.

So anyone can be a teacher. Conversely, a good teacher will learn from everyone around them, not just those above them.


The desire to create

Of course, a great teacher is more than just a messenger. As a communicator, you are in a privileged position because you’re one of the few people who is party to knowledge from right across the organisation. As a teaching communicator, you don’t just pass this knowledge on. You research, analyse and critique. In doing so, you create new knowledge. You make the organisation not only more united, but more insightful as well.


The desire to share

It goes without saying that you can’t teach without a desire to share. It also goes without saying that sharing is a quality all communicators already possess. You have an innate desire to share. That’s what made you a communicator in the first place.


The desire to ensure understanding

But the teaching communicator does more than share. They ensure understanding.

Recently, I’ve been marking the planning assignments of first year public relations students. When it came to the point of objective-setting, I started to notice that a lot of the students were setting objectives that began with the words “to inform…”

Now, that’s not surprising. I’ve read plenty of PR plans with the word ‘inform’ in them. I’ve probably written a few myself.

But something hit me this time around. To see the objective of communications as ‘informing’ is to reduce its value to almost zero.

You might set a communications objective to ‘inform’ all staff about a change in strategy. In response, you could send an email or newsletter to everyone in the organisation advising them of the change. This would achieve your objective, but it may well achieve nothing for the organisation.

To do that… to be a teacher… you have to take the next step. You have to make sure everyone understands and embraces the change and what it means for them. You have to teach the change. That’s a lot harder, but it’s what the organisation ultimately needs.


Less glamorous… more important

Leadership is a position that many people desire. Teaching is a responsibility that many organisations desperately need.

It might not seem as glamorous, but thinking of ourselves as teachers – teaching communicators – might just be far more empowering.