ICMI is part of the Informa Tech Division of Informa PLC

This site is operated by a business or businesses owned by Informa PLC and all copyright resides with them. Informa PLC's registered office is 5 Howick Place, London SW1P 1WG. Registered in England and Wales. Number 8860726.


What Hip-Hop Taught Me About Leadership Communication

Spotlight on Leadership: Join your peers at ICMI Contact Center Connections from October 28-30 in Chicago. Take a deep dive into case studies and expert guidance for elevating your leadership

Communication is one of the foundational pieces that shapes the culture of a team, for better or worse. And good intentions aren’t good enough if you want a healthy culture built on the foundation of effective communication. You must learn to anticipate and manage perceptions, and craft your messages carefully with this in mind. This is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned as a leader.

This didn’t always come easily to me. Early in my career, my Emotional Intelligence (EQ) was underdeveloped. I struggled with self-awareness, self-regulation, and empathy, which caused others to have negative perceptions about me, and prevented my success. I often felt like a car stuck in the mud. My wheels would spin, but I wasn’t going anywhere, not making any progress. I couldn’t understand why!

Emotional Intelligence

During this time I was lucky to work with a caring leader who had a candid conversation with me. She explained the reputation I was developing and helped me see that I needed to change my approach to communicating with co-workers. After receiving this valuable feedback, I became hyper aware of what I was saying and how I was saying it. I learned over time that managing my emotions was one of the keys to successfully managing how I communicated. Receiving this feedback was a pivotal moment in my career that led me to become the leader I am today. It was very humbling and difficult to hear at the time, but I am forever grateful to have received this gift!

Unexpected Inspiration

Recently I was starting to feel a bit stuck in the mud again. I realized I had been slipping back into some bad communication habits. I was surprised when a hip-hop song by Brother Ali helped me to refocus and remember the importance of self-regulation when interacting with others.

In the song “Pray for Me” Brother Ali talks about the struggles of starting a new school as a child with albinism. The other children made fun of him and gave him cruel nicknames. At one point in the song, he explains how his mother tried to help with the situation by dying his hair blonde. She hoped that he could blend in to avoid the bullying and name calling. It seemed like she was trying to help with a difficult situation, but the message it sent to him may have been different than she intended. In one verse talking about his mother, Brother Ali says this:

Lot of money spent just to get me presentable

Message that it sent, the real you ain't acceptable

He goes on to say:  

And so eventually I began to see that

What grows out of me is my dirty little secret

As a parent, I can imagine how difficult it was for his mother to see him hurting. I can envision her trying to find a way to ease that pain and difficulty. As I listened to his words, I could also understand how it made him feel. Even though his mother was trying to protect him, the message she was sending was that he needed to hide his true self. It’s funny that I can listen to a song like this and connect it back to leadership. But as I listened to this song it reminded me of the lessons I had learned years earlier. The importance of EQ and communication can’t be overstated. Brother Ali helped to bring this back into focus for me.

Improving Your Leadership Communication

Are you feeling stuck in the mud? You may need to do a quick self-check on aspects of your EQ and communication. Author Daniel Goleman thinks of EQ in terms of competencies that can be grouped into four areas of personal ability:

  • Self-awareness
  • Self-management
  • Empathy and social awareness
  • Relationship management

You can read more about how to self-check on these areas here. When I look at each of these areas I can draw from the lessons I’ve learned and the mistakes I've made.

1.    Self-awareness

To change behaviors, we have to be aware of the emotions causing them. One of the first steps for me was identifying the feelings I had that were causing me to communicate ineffectively. It took a bit of time, focus, and feedback from others to do this. If I received feedback or self-identified that I had said something brash, I would spend a few minutes reflecting on my emotional state at the time. I started to realize that there was a certain way I felt right before I let myself slip. If I could be more aware of this feeling in the moment, it would put me in a position to prevent the harmful communication.

If this is an area that needs your attention, you probably need honest feedback from someone you trust. This can be as simple as a quick instant message or post-meeting hallway conversation, but it requires you to be an active and willing participant to receive the constructive feedback.

2.    Self-management

While self-awareness is about recognizing your emotions, self-management is about controlling them. When I was in distress, I became very short, sharp and judgmental. It’s interesting to see the communication style a person defaults to when under pressure. While I tended to take control and talk more than I listened, other reactions could include shutting down or becoming overly accommodating. Someone else may get on a soapbox until their opinion and sense of “what’s right” is validated. The next time you are stressed out, pay close attention to the style you default to and work to control the impulses when you’re in the moment.

3.    Empathy and social awareness

These competencies are focused on relationships, recognizing the feelings of others and caring about them. I struggled to feel and display empathy towards others and didn’t necessarily value this trait in others. It’s difficult for me to pinpoint how and when I made a shift in this competency, but I do recall something straightforward one of my colleagues said, and it has stuck with me. They simply pointed out that “relationships matter." Success requires relationships. Relationships need trust. Trust requires you to truly care about others and act with their feelings in mind. The power of trust between two people is amazing. I’m nothing without the people around me, and this is one of the most important lessons I could ever teach.

4.    Relationship Management

What does relationship management entail? Caring about others enough to spend your time developing them and building them up.  Speaking and acting in a way that will inspire others and influence the way they think and behave. Leading by example and helping others develop relationships. While empathy and social awareness require you to care about others, relationship management requires you to understand the actions that will nurture and cultivate the individual relationships and team dynamics. These efforts require you to look at both systemic influences and barriers, as well as unique personalities and feelings.

I never thought I would write an article that was inspired by a rapper from Minnesota, but I’m so glad I did! This unlikely inspiration has taken me on a personal journey that has allowed me to reflect on where I’ve been, where I am, and who I want to be. I hope you’ve enjoyed going on this journey with me. Tell me what you think in the comments.