The Language of Leadership


Word cloud about leadershipOne evening several years ago I found myself sitting across a home office desk from Tess, a Taiwanese-born manager for a mid-size company in the merchandising and display industry. Tess had hired me to coach r on developing her leadership skills, in particular her oral and written communication skills. As we exchanged small talk before the start of our session, I thought to myself that this was a woman with real potential. She was bright, confident and self-aware, with an engaging personality and a knack for quickly boiling down complex matters to their essentials. She had just been promoted to run one of her company’s larger departments, but she was worried her limited writing skills might keep her from receiving future promotions. I told her I thought I could help, and for several weeks we’d been editing and rewriting e-mails, job descriptions, and management reports she had written with the goal of making her writing clearer and more compelling.

This particular evening we were discussing a description she had written of the way work flows through her department. I highlighted one short sentence she had written because I wanted to explain why good writers avoid the passive voice whenever possible. I rewrote her sentence and asked about her reaction to the two different versions.

“The P.O. is sent from sales to purchasing.”

“Sales sends the P.O. to purchasing.”

“The first one’s confusing,” she answered. “It feels soft. I feel like it’s not completely clear what’s going on.”

I pressed for more. “What specifically do you find confusing about the first version?” I asked.

“I don’t know who’s doing what” she responded after some thought. “There’s a subject in the first version, but the subject isn’t doing anything. The second version has more impact. It’s more direct.”

I told her that that’s exactly why good writers prefer active to passive voice. She nodded, put her pencil down, and looked across her desk at me.

“When I was growing up in Taiwan, my father insisted that all of us — my two brothers, my sister and I — always take responsibility for whatever we did, no matter how badly things turned out. I think that’s what bothers me about the first version of this sentence. No one’s responsible for anything – much like when politicians tell us that ‘mistakes were made’ without telling us who made them.”

I saw an opportunity to open this discussion up a bit, so Tess and I spent the rest of the session talking about personal accountability. We discussed how much individual managers can or should be held responsible for the success of their companies. We debated whether those who accept responsibility for their actions progress more quickly in their careers than those who avoid it.
Finally, we talked about how individuals feel when they see their managers taking the heat for things gone wrong – how such courage builds trust between team members and their leader, strengthens team members’ commitment to their own work, and even enriches personal relationships. In the end we agreed that personal accountability, especially when demonstrated by those in charge, can be a powerful motivator for individuals as well as entire organizations.

How leaders communicate with others – whether through their writing or in conversation – reveals much about how they think about themselves, those with whom they work, and the values they believe should guide the way people behave in their organizations. Language is the organizational currency of leadership, and effective leaders are acutely aware of the impact their communication has on the people they lead.

As an executive coach, I’ve learned several important lessons about how effective leaders, through the language they use and the way they use it, inspire and motivate others to do their best work. One thing I’ve learned is that, as Kim Krisco points out in his valuable book Leadership and the Art of Conversation, effective leaders spend more time talking about the present and the future than the past. Many of us prefer talking about the past because it’s over and done with. Talking about what’s already happened helps us feel more secure, because what’s already happened can’t surprise us. The future, on the other hand, is always a risky proposition. It’s perilously uncertain and rife with the potential for nasty, unexpected developments we often can’t control.

A leader’s responsibility is to guide us to some new place, to dislocate us – sometimes abruptly – from our comfortable though often dysfunctional present to some future state that offers better prospects for growth. Aware of this responsibility, effective leaders become skilled at redirecting dead-end conversations about what didn’t work in the past to conversations about what might work in the future, away from theorizing about what went wrong and why toward more actionable discussion about what might be accomplished and how. A leader’s obsession with rehashing past failures can literally immobilize an organization. In his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell cautioned that “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.” Obsessively harping on past mistakes contributes to an organizational culture of despair and inertia that lacks the resilience to adapt quickly to new competitive realities or shifting market demands.

One challenge every leader faces is to find his or her own voice, a voice that conveys with sincerity, confidence, and enthusiasm the essence of the future they envision for their organizations. Another client, an executive running the food and beverage division of a major hospitality company, asked me one day to look over a speech he had written for an upcoming department meeting. The speech was well written but dealt almost entirely with certain service delivery failures his department had experienced over the past several years. I wondered aloud whether his team members might become more energized by his challenge to change the way they work if, in addition to recalling past failures, he also offered them a compelling vision of an exciting path forward. He agreed and rewrote his speech to include a detailed scenario of how a customer might experience his department’s operation a year down the road were his team to implement the changes he was proposing. His speech was well received, and a few weeks later he mentioned to me that he was surprised at how enthusiastically his people had responded to his suggestions for change.

A compelling vision of the future can motivate people, but only to the extent that they believe they have a real chance to help make it happen. Another lesson I’ve learned about how effective leaders use language is that they master the art of dialogue, the kind of communication that taps deeply into and activates the innate creativity and intelligence of those with whom they work.

Increasingly, organizations succeed to the extent that they leverage the collective knowledge and creativity of all their employees into products and services their customers will want to buy. Thinking and acting must be integrated at all levels, across all disciplines, throughout the entire organization.

If we’re honest with ourselves, we’ll admit that much of the effort we put into talking with others is devoted to persuading them that our view of the world is preferable to theirs. Almost unconsciously, we try to persuade people we talk with to see things the way we do. (If you doubt this, notice how we habitually pepper our conversation with pleas for validation such as “Don’t you think?”, “Right?”, or “Am I wrong about this?”)

A more productive approach to conversation is one in which we offer up our point of view as an hypothesis to be tested rather than as a truth to be confirmed. Such dialogue requires candor, intellectual honesty, and above all the courage to surrender our monopoly on understanding how things are. Conversation can become truly creative and can generate new insight only when we realize that always having the right answer is not a requirement for effective leadership, and that asking the right question can be just as important – perhaps even more important – than coming up with the right answer. As Ronald Heifetz writes in the final sentence of his influential book Leadership without Easy Answers, “one may lead perhaps with no more than a question in hand.”

Finally, as I work with clients I’m continually reminded that effective leaders never lose sight of the fact that to perform beyond expectations, individuals must be fully engaged—with their hearts as well as their heads—with the work they do. We often forget this critical fact amidst the frenzy of our day-to-day routines, especially as we come to rely increasingly on electronic media and other forms of technology to communicate with our colleagues. E-mail, instant messaging, and the many collaboration software platforms that have surfaced in recent years have greatly increased the ease and frequency with which we can communicate with one another. Certain messages, however, are still best delivered in person, face to face, with a minimum of mediating technology.

I once worked with a division president of a Fortune 500 technology company who was committed to providing periodic performance and strategy updates to his employees. He was well-intentioned, but he always used PowerPoint to present this information to his division at large, all-employee meetings, with multiple charts and bullet points shoe-horned onto each slide. When presenting his updates he read through his slides quickly, with an air of self-confidence that he apparently believed conveyed his optimism about the company’s future to his audience.

Many employees who attended his updates, however, confided that they had trouble connecting personally with him because of what they perceived as his lack of empathy for their own anxieties about the company’s future. As we were discussing the group’s reluctance to engage in Q & A following his quarterly updates, I asked him whether he could think of any way to encourage more dialogue about the company’s direction. He responded that after presenting his update to the division employees en masse, he could schedule a series of informal brown-bag lunches with groups of ten or fifteen employees as a follow up to the larger meeting. Such a setting, he pointed out, would allow him to speak more from the heart about the company’s goals and, more importantly, to hear his colleagues’ fears and concerns first hand and address them directly. Unfortunately, he never acted on this idea, probably because of his busy schedule. To this day I believe that he lost a valuable opportunity to foster the kind of emotional commitment that inspires individuals to perform at levels even they themselves did not believe possible.

Writing and speaking dynamically, with an active, focused energy that models personal accountability; redirecting conversations away from past failures toward future possibilities; and engaging in collaborative dialogue that seeks to increase knowledge and uncover new insight are not the only qualifications required for effective leadership. But if one prerequisite for leading  successfully is the trust created between those who aspire to lead and those who volunteer to follow, communicating in a way that builds such trust and inspires confidence in a collective future is a valuable skill leaders neglect at their peril.

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