Language in Leadership

language

By: Kheel Center
The power of the spoken word, of language, has long been known to have great influence to help create change for an intentional leader.

Does What We Say Really Matter?

Surely you’ve heard it said that a picture is worth a thousand words.  And that people care more about what you do than what you say.  And that your body language communicates way more than your words do.

What do these conventional sayings have in common?  Each, in its own way, seems to be saying that verbal communication – language – is not as important as other things, such as images, modeling, and posture.

Don’t get me wrong: graphics, behaviors, and how we hold ourselves are important, vitally important even!  But their importance in no way diminishes the value of actual spoken language.

What we say matters.  How often we say it matters.  The manner in which we say it matters.  The contexts in which it is shared matters.

Language can make a huge difference one way or the other for a leader.

And perhaps the most important kind of language that we have at our disposal is the analogy.

Leadership Language and Analogies

language

By: Peretz Partensky
The USS IKE Aircraft Carrier

An analogy is a language tool used in which the speaker compares one thing with another, usually for the purpose of clarification.

Here’s an example — Sometimes large institutions are compared with aircraft carriers.  The analogy usually is referring to the fact that it takes miles and miles for an aircraft carrier to turn, not to mention the fact that it takes the cooperation of lots and lots of people to execute the turn.

The implication is clear: when a speaker uses the aircraft carrier analogy he or she is communicating that the institution is slow and cumbersome.

There may be truth in this analogy for a given institution.  Maybe there’s a ton of red tape to wade through in order to get things done.  And perhaps it takes the shared vision and effort of several people and/or departments in order for real change to happen.  Great.

But what if the language we are using isn’t helping the situation.  What is actually being communicated by constantly referring to the institution as an aircraft carrier?  At best that change is slow and hard-fought; at worst that change is so difficult that it shouldn’t even be attempted.

And if an analogy like this is being used over and over and over again within an institution, it can begin to influence the entire culture of the institution.  Sticking with the aircraft carrier analogy — if it gets repeated a bunch, then a culture begins to be created in which real change is almost never attempted.

Time for a Change of Language

As leaders, no matter the size of our influence, it’s our responsibility to pay attention to the language being used, especially the language that we use ourselves.  So, if you find yourself in a situation in which a somewhat negative analogy is being used (such as the aircraft carrier analogy), start using a new analogy (like a sports team) or re-vision the old analogy (“you know, aircraft carriers do, in fact, turn!”).

One of the key traits of a leader is the ability to change institutional culture.  And perhaps the best tool to bring about change is language.

Negative language will promote decline, decay, and disillusionment (forgive the alliteration!).

On the other hand, positive language will help develop vitality, vigor, and verve (okay that one was on purpose!).

 

What do you think?  How powerful is language in creating institutional culture?  Let me know in the comments below!

  • Nick

    Maybe reframing the aircraft carrier analogy might be a step in the right direction. Something like this . . . just the presence alone of an aircraft carrier affects global politics because of its abilities. However, in order for an aircraft carrier to back up that presence with action (ie open up a can of whoopass), it has to turn into the wind to launch its attack aircraft.

    • http://jaymatthewbarnes.com/ J. Matthew Barnes

      Exactly! We can use language to focus on the wrong things! Big institutions use the aircraft carrier analogy to gripe and complain about the slowness of change…when they could be using the analogy to celebrate and envision the grand possibilities at hand!

  • Eric

    I read about a company that adjusted the language of its employees. Everyone was taught to say “we” instead of “they”. No more comments like “all they care about is money.” Everyone had to take ownership and be counted as part of the company, instead under or outside of it.

    I notice it at church. I hear people talk about what “they” are like, or when “they” hold services. I even hear it referring to our class. I think it would be helpful to mentally take ownership of the church you are in by referring to what “we” do or decide.

    And here’s another one: what “would” God want? That language implies that God cannot speak or be consulted, and so we have to conjecture about what he “would” think. More beneficial would be to ask, “what *does* God want?” That language is more likely to draw me into prayer, and to listen for an answer. To recap, don’t ask “what would Jesus do,” but instead ask “what does Jesus want me to do?”

    • http://jaymatthewbarnes.com/ J. Matthew Barnes

      Great words Eric. A lot of influence in leadership comes from the language we use and that we encourage others to use. Your examples highlight these axioms!

    • Laura Castle Napier

      “The power if life and death is in the tongue” as we speak, either positive or negative, our attitude and actions change. Speaking positively in a negative situation is not denying the truth of the situation but rather refusing to give in to it and let it have it’s way. Over the years I’ve watched this principle play out over and over. It’s powerful.

      • http://jaymatthewbarnes.com/ J. Matthew Barnes

        I heard a friend recently say that when she hears gossiping, she tries to think of positive things to say instead of joining in the gossip or sitting out the conversation altogether (which is what a lot of Jesus followers would do). She claims that it’s been effective thus far!

      • Eric

        I agree! “Or take ships as an example. Although they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are steered by a very small rudder wherever the pilot wants to go. Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts.” If our tongues have power to steer our bodies, let’s use that power for good!

        One way I find this plays out is that I am far more likely to follow through on something I want to do if I tell someone about it. Speaking it out loud makes a difference. (I suspect this principle applies to written communication, too.)