Column Entry, Communication Centered Leadership, by Chris Hamstra

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Column Title: Leadership Life Stories: Communicating and Leading through Your Story

Column Entry: “Communication Centered Leadership”

By Chris Hamstra, PhD, Davenport University

Description: There is a power when people come together to share stories. As people of faith, the practice and process of storytelling helps us understand ourselves, our communities, and our organizations. When combined with leadership, stories provide examples of how to serve authentically. This column brings people around the virtual campfire to explore the concept of leadership life stories and how to learn to engage people in the classroom and boardroom with wit and wisdom.

April 2024 | March 2024


I wonder what tools you used recently around your house or work?

Over the past few weeks, we completed some simple updates at home. For example, I took a door down and removed the hinges with a phillips head screw driver. In the storage room, the shelves needed to be moved and rebuilt. I used a hammer, nails, a tape measure and a handsaw. Being honest, there was some duct tape involved as well, because anything can be fixed with duct tape!

My point about the different tools used at home connects to a common theme I hear about communication and leadership. Often, leadership is the focus and communication is a set of tools used to be efficient. While understanding the tools of communication is a good starting point, leadership communication can also focus on the process. Around the virtual campfire today, I would like to consider a communication centered approach to leadership through leadership life stories.

Communication-Centered Leadership: A Brief History

The academic fields of leadership and communication developed in comparable strides since the beginning of time. Bass (1990) cites thinking about leadership from eastern cultures like Confucius in the sixth century B.C., while also noting a western influence from Cicero and Marcus Aurelius.[1] John Durham Peters (1999) traces an understanding of communication that stretches back to the Greek rhetoricians of Plato and Aristotle.[2] Big steps of development happened around the Industrial Revolution in the early 1900’s and during World War II in the 1940’s.

Interestingly few journeys seek to connect these two important fields. Tourish and Jackson (2008) comment that “Inter-disciplinary expeditions between leadership and communication have been chiefly notable for their rarity” (220).[3] Even agreeing where to start is a challenge. From leadership, Stogdill (1974) offers the oft cited statement that “There are almost as many different definitions of leadership as there are persons who have attempted to define the concept” (7).[4] From communication, I like how Peters (1999) suggests that “Communication…is a rich tangle of intellectual and cultural strands” (2). Attempts to examine communication and leadership together are filled with philosophical and practical challenges.

Communication Centered: Foundation

There are just a few scholars who write about communication and leadership. For this column, I’m going to focus on two. Fairhurst starts with communication in her book Discursive Leadership. Early on she identifies Discourse as a fundamental piece which means to me an interaction between people using words and talking through conversation. I connect her thoughts about the small ‘d’ of discourse to the tools that we practice in communication and the large ‘D’ of Discourse as the development of ideas over time through a process.[5] Johnson and Hackman (2013) also start with communication and focus on the symbolic nature of communication and how meaning is generated.[6] While I focus on these sources, I would appreciate hearing from you, who are some other authors bringing communication and leadership together?

Communication Centered: Leadership through Stories

I believe leadership life stories stems from this communication centered focus. When we engage the tools we get to know others and when we engage the process we begin to understand ourselves and others. Let me offer a story about how this developed for me while filling potholes on the roads in Colorado.

One of my Summer jobs was on a patch crew with the County Road Commission. Each day we loaded the truck with two to four tons of hot asphalt and filled the cracks and potholes that developed. Often I was partnered with Tom who had been doing the job over 20 years. The first day in the shop he looked me up and down, gave a dismissive wave and grunted, “Get in the truck.” The Summer was a laboratory on communication centered leadership. As we got to know each other, I heard stories about Tom growing up and dropping out of High School. He needed to work to help pay the family bills. He talked with pride about earning his GED so that he could get the job fixing the roads. He was one of the first to arrive each day. He explained his attention to detail and perfection in the repairs were for the safety of the drivers. He asked me to explain why I wanted to go to college and my dreams after graduation. Often, we shared these stories side-by-side, one shovel of asphalt at a time. Tom gave me a hat at the end of the Summer to remember our conversations. I still have that hat in the storage room.

My point with the story is that Tom became a leader through the stories we shared. I learned from his leadership style how to manage a project and get the work done with groups of people. Our shared experience was important for me moving forward. I learned a bit about who I am and how to interact with people of different backgrounds.

Action Steps

From the stories on the road, here are some practical steps as you engage people the classroom or boardroom in the next few weeks.

  1. Spend time with people. I typically get to the classroom early and listen as students arrive. This is important time because I can listen in to the stories being told. I hear about weekend adventures and from student-athletes who share about wins and losses.
  2. Listen well to what is said and what is not said. Just this past week, I heard a big football lineman share about developing a strong relationship with a few members on the team. After class we talked and he is anxious about Spring practice and the changes that may happen with his new support system.
  3. Be open to different perspectives. With Tom, there were several topics that we held opposite views. After hearing his stories and have a better understanding of where is was coming from. This process of back and forth helped me as well.

A communication centered perspective of leadership opens up opportunities for us to engage with others. As faith-filled communicators we should use the tools and engage the process to know others. I love the quote from Quentin Schultze in his book Communicating for Life (2000) that “when we communicate, we don’t just exchange messages: we leave ourselves temporarily in order to enter into someone else’s experiences” (p. 36).[7] Leadership life stories provide a place where communication starts the leadership process.



[1] (Bass 1990)

[2] (Peters 1999)

[3] (Tourish and Jackson 2008)

[4] (Stogdill 1974)

[5] (Fiarhurst 2007)

[6] (Johnson and Hackman 2018)

[7] (Schultze 2000)



Bass, Bernard M. 1990. Bass & Stogdill’s Handbook of Leadership: Theory, Research, & Managerial Applications. New York: The Free Press.

Fairhurst, Gail T. 2007. Discursive Leadership: In Conversation with Leadership Psychology. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications.

Johnson, Craig E., and Michael Z. Hackman. 2018. Leadership: A Communication Perspective. Long Grove: Waveland Press.

Peters, John Durham. 1999. Speaking Into the Air: A History of the Idea of Communication. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

Schultze, Quentin J. 2000. Communicating for Life: Christian Stewardship in Community and Media. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic.

Stogdill, Ralph M. 1974. Handbook of Leadership: A Survey of Theory and Practice. New York: The Free Press.

Tourish, Dennis, and Brad Jackson. 2008. “Communication and Leadership: An open invitation to engage.” Leadership 219-225.


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