The language of leaders — why words are the foundation of the road to success

The language of industrial revolution

The first industrial revolution was a period of drastic technological and economic changes. It was then that the first steam, weaving and metallurgical machines appeared. This, in turn, gave rise to large-scale factory production.

The effects of the events of the 18th century, however, did not only affect technological progress. They involved considerable social changes. One could see the widening  differences in the wealth of  the various classes. The bourgeoisie and the proletariat appeared. Hierarchical structures began to form in the workplaces.

The word hierarchy comes from the Greek word hierarchēs —  a holy ruler. Very telling, isn’t it?

Along with social changes, the language also changed. And the language of the industrial revolution had some very distinctive features. It had to promote productivity and conformism. It had to be adapted to management, orders, maintaining a good image of the leader and his infallibility.

Interestingly, if we think about it, we will see that even today leaders use the same language. Despite entering the 4th industrial revolution, our language is just beginning to keep up with changes in the organizations. We still give orders instead of asking for opinions. We ask closed questions instead of collecting information. We divide workers into decision makers and contractors, rather than liquefying that line.

We are also still stuck in the way of thinking that makes us obey the clock. It is often so that once the leader has made a decision, there is no time to think again. After all, in the factory, every moment that nothing is produced is a wasted  moment.

In the book „Leadership is Language” David Marquet, instead of the standard „Obey the clock” approach, proposes a new one : „Control the clock”. It means  constant transitions between reflection and realization modes. By controlling the clock, we can slow down at any time and question  decisions that have already been made.

In a standard company, it is difficult to implement, because time is rarely our friend. In the world after the industrial revolution, time is money. This does not mean, however, that implementation of such a system is impossible. It is worth starting minor changes , for example, from the language we use. After all, it reflects our habits and ways of working.

Time is money

In1980, cognitive linguist George Lakoff published  „Metaphors in our life”. He discovered in it the presence of metaphors in everyday language, which apparently seems to have few of them. A hidden presence and at the same time obvious upon closer examination.

One of the first examples given by Lakoff is the metaphor of arguing as a war. When we argue , we use formulations drawn straight from the battlefield: A claim is defensible, a weak point in an argument can be  attacked, and some argumentation strategies allow you to beat someone.

I am quoting this example because it shows well how imbued we have become with the certain type of thinking. It is hard for us to consider a different way of talking. And yet, if we imagine a culture in which disputes are not understood in terms of war, where there are no winners or losers, then the argument could very well be based on the dance  metaphor.

The participants of the dispute would then be the performers, and the goal would be harmonious, aesthetic performance that is aimed at the finale. In such a culture, the vocabulary related to dispute would be imbued with metaphors related to dance. But we probably wouldn’t even call it a dispute.

It is similar with other spheres. The term „obey the clock” will also find its place here. After all … Time is money. Literally. After all, someone can take our time. Certain solutions can save us time, we can invest time in something or find out that we have lost it for something. In this way the language forces us to manage time like a transaction. No wonder — transactions in the company must be profitable.

So we can move on to hierarchy metaphors. Here the terms are more obvious. Be above someone. Be higher than someone. To be under someone’s authority. George Lakoff links the existence of this metaphor  to our understanding of power. The size of the person usually affects victory in a fight, with the winner being on the top. The problem is that we do not want our relations in the company to be  associated with struggle, victory or loss.

Interestingly, we also associate , for example, virtues with the metaphor of the top and bottom. Someone may have lofty principles or high expectations. You can also be tricky or stoop to some act. Hence the approach to associating the supervisor with one type of trait, and the subcontractors with another.

If language is a tool of a good leader, then he must pay special attention to it. It is difficult to get rid of the hierarchy,  the transnationality of time or the warlike argumentation, if the language itself is against us. This does not mean, however, that we are not able to do anything. The very knowledge of the strength and background of the words we speak, allow us to better manage them. The right choice of words at the right moment can work miracles.

Why is language a tool of a leader?

Painters have a brush, sculptors have a chisel, surgeons have a scalpel, and leaders have language.

For leaders language is a tool for making decisions, resolving conflicts, putting project into practice, measuring results and sharing ideas. Sometimes , however, it is also the foundation of a structure that is doomed to failure. The structure that is reflected precisely in the language used between colleagues.

On April 20, 2010, at around 10:00 PM, an explosion occurred in the Gulf of Mexico. The DeepWater Horizon drilling rig burst into flames. The fire lasted two days, after that the platform, full of oil sank into the bay. 4.9 million barrels of oil got into the water. It was the biggest environmental disaster in US history.

A disaster that could have been avoided.

It was enough to push a button when the gauges showed that the pressure inside the oil tanks was starting to get dangerously high.

So why then no employee did it for 9 minutes ?

Because they were waiting for an order from their supervisor.

It seems absurd, but it was so. Employees were so afraid of making a mistake that they preferred to risk the platform exploding and their lives rather than press a button without an order.

An authoritarian structure within a company is a recipe for a disaster. Language is an underlining and a  reflection of the divisions occurring in it. It allows you to outline space, possibilities and boundaries. If the boundaries of the employees are reduced at the expense of  the leader, it will  at best affect their well-being, efficiency and commitment. At worst… it will lead to a disaster.

Good leaders therefore reject strict distinction between decision makers and subcontractors and allow all members of the workforce to participate in a decision-making process. Research shows that this approach not only increases employee motivation, but also allows for the diversification of found solutions. Additionally, it protects them against burnout.

So how to make language our strength?

Effective leaders use language that encourages participation, sharing ideas and doubts. It is simple and easy to understand. Additionally, it emphasizes the partnership with the interlocutor. It shows that success depends not only on the leader’s decision, but on the entire team. To do this, he uses phrases containing the pronouns „we”, or „us” in relations to all co-workers, not only to people with similarly high position.

Additionally, good leaders can encourage their team to discuss. They won’t say that some ideas won’t work or are unacceptable. Rather, they will ask what can be done about the problem and withdraw, supporting the team from behind the scene from time to time.

Using open language is very helpful. Instead of asking „are you sure of it”, a good leader would rather  ask „how sure are you?”. The question formulated in this way allows to expand the topic and cannot be closed with yes/ no answers.

One of the most important  things is to be  authentic and have faith in your words. If you don’t believe what you’re saying, your co-workers will sense it. However, consider which form of communication of the important message  would be most appropriate. Not always the most effusive way will be the right one for a particular group.

Employees also appreciate questions about their well-being and emotions. Instead of asking  „Are you ok?” refer to what you already know about them. If they went somewhere at the weekend, it is worth asking if they had fun or what places they had visited. Create a space for them to show themselves in  a different context than the working one.

It is also important do diversify the spoken messages. Use descriptions, smuggle stories in and use examples when introducing new ideas. Share your current plans and explain why these and not other decisions were made. Additionally, if possible, try to give the employees the opportunity to stop and look at the project from the beginning. Such a pause gives a psychological comfort and allows you to avoid wandering into questionable projects, even if they are already at an advanced stage. The clock should help in the organization, not dictate its rules of work.

Also, don’t be afraid to ask if your reasoning is wrong. Ask „What did I miss?” instead of asking  “Is everything clear?”. Employees will appreciate that you are open to criticism and will not be afraid to reveal their true thoughts.

If you want to be a good leader , you need to remember about the power of the language, but also about its limitations. Express yourself with it, but also adapt the message to your audience. Create wide mental spaces and support your employees. Remember about them also when they are away from work, and they will certainly be willing and committed to work with you.

We believe in the power of good communication within the company. If you find the topic interesting and you would like to improve internal communication in your organization, we encourage you to learn more about our mobile communication application.

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