For the past 18 months I've had the pleasure of leading a global study of communication leadership that included 28 international researchers and was sponsored by The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations, Heyman Associates and IBM. Nearly, 4,500 public relations leaders and professionals in 23 countries participated in a survey that examined key issues in the field, how leaders manage them and what should be done to improve the development of leaders for a complex and uncertain future.

Results of the ground-breaking global study were unveiled in November at a Leadership Summit in Chicago. A number of Page members were involved in that event, including Jon Iwata, who opened the session; Roger Bolton, Frank Ovaitt, Gary Sheffer and Professor Kathy Fitzpatrick, who participated in a panel discussion; and Rob Flaherty, who brilliantly summarized the half-day event. Full information about the Summit and global study are available on the Plank Center website (Global Study & Leader Summit).

The comprehensive study provides rich food for thought for communication leaders as we move into a challenging future. Here are just three headlines to ponder: 

The digital revolution is global.

This isn't news, but it's the first global confirmation. Nearly two-thirds of participants rated 4 of 10 issues as most important in transforming the field, all linked to the digital revolution: managing the speed and flow of information (23.0%), the role of social media (15.3%), improving measurement (12.2%) and dealing with fast-moving crises (11.9%). This finding supports Page research on the corporate communication model, which suggests that leaders must reshape their role to become more astute decision makers about what's important in the vast information flow, and then translate that into meaningful action. 

Soft skills are the Holy Grail of the future.

The research underscored the crucial need for soft skills in future leaders—better listening skills, greater cultural awareness, higher emotional intelligence and improved change and conflict management skills. All countries rated change or conflict management skills the highest of 12 approaches to improving future leaders. These skills seem vital to successful implementation of the corporate communication model. 

Transformation of the profession goes beyond the digital.

It enfolds a set of deep changes, including gender, generational and cultural effects and variations. For example, women and men see the journey to leadership, and future development needs, in significantly different ways. Culturally, professionals were most positive about the future of the profession in the growing markets of Brazil, Russia, India and China. The top issues in those countries are different, too—finding top talent and improving measurement.

Also, some striking gaps were revealed between older professionals and young practitioners. The latter rated social responsibility, measurement, professional image and transparency issues much higher than older professionals. They also took a dimmer view of current leadership, often rating their senior communication leader's performance lower than they rated the CEO's understanding of the role of communication.

Panelists provided diverse insights about the study's implications but agreed on two things. First, the Plank Center, Page Society and other associations could benefit by working together to better understand and advance leadership in our field, which often seems taken for granted. Second, we need more research about leadership.

That's where you come in. We're now gathering ideas for the next phase of research, so I hope you will provide me with your ideas and suggestions via this blog or through email. What one question about leadership or leaders in corporate communication, for example, would you most like answered through research? Or, what leadership topic has most value for you and your team or organization? Thanks for your insights and help.

Bruce K. Berger, Ph.D.
University of Alabama