The Importance of the Language of Leadership

Article 29 May 2019

Why is the Language of Leadership significant?

Words matter, and clarifying words matters even more.

We often reach a moment in a workshop or team dialogue where someone asks: ‘How do you define management and leadership?’. It’s a highly debated subject matter and would take a PhD thesis to explore; indeed many have. Common responses include:

  • You manage a task; you lead the people
  • You manage a strategy; you lead a vision
  • They are two sides of the same coin
  • You manage internally and lead externally
  • It doesn’t matter, the question is whether you’re achieving targets
  • It’s semantics, they’re the same thing

Ludwig Wittgenstein, a philosopher, asserted language creates and shapes our reality. I believe this is true for us as individuals as well as whole teams and organisations; that words are part of our cultural habits and norms, and the shared meaning we create behind them is part of the engagement, connection, and alignment that can make teams and businesses fly. Or allow for confusion and crossed-wires to abound.

Does language matter only in leadership?

It’s not just the words of ‘management’ and ‘leadership’ that we could define. There are many other ideas, jargon, and lingo we use every day that we skip over, without pausing to check for understanding. How often today have you stopped to ask a colleague “What exactly do you mean by that?”, “Can you provide an example?”, “We seem to be aligned but I just want to check…”.

When it comes to the language of leadership I often ask clients to come up with a metaphor or image to describe what they mean. For example, do you think of your role:

  • As a sports coach, shouting tactics from the sidelines
  • A counsellor, listening deeply, understanding people and asking questions to help them think
  • The director of a movie, giving ‘notes’ and direction to everyone on set
  • The conductor of an orchestra, working in flow with artists to create something beautiful together

What I’m really asking is: How would you illustrate your leadership language?

Working with a metaphor illuminates deeper beliefs and worldviews that are hard to get at with words alone. Creating or choosing pictures, stories, or poems helps surface these long-held and unexplored assumptions. Art and creativity can be a path to expressing what we know or feel but cannot articulate.

Taking time to unpack your language generates a depth of meaning and connection with others. The picture in your mind, often unseen, unexplored, and hidden even to ourselves greatly impacts what you put your focus on, how you take up your role, how others experience you, and ultimately your impact as a leader.

So, what’s my own leadership language?

My own metaphor is taken from human biology, with the idea that we need to attend to the structural as well as muscular aspects of a living system (and many more of course!). The function of management is to attend to the bones and skeletal structure: deliverables, resources, tasks, quality. The function of leadership is attending to the muscles and ligaments that make people and organisations run; that brings those key features to life. It includes the climate of the organisation – the visceral feeling and mood-in-the-room, and how people work together in service of the task at hand. It includes the vision, clarity of purpose, sense of confidence, trust, and robustness of a team.

What’s your language of leadership, and what images or metaphors would you use to illustrate it? 

Olivia.jpeg Olivia Margo