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What Is Your Leadership Language?



Welcome to my monthly leadership blog. Regular subscribers know that I consider anyone who has followers to be a leader. Leaders, therefore, can also be defined as influencers. But no matter how many people you positively influence as a leader, some don't want your leadership. Some listen and take advice only because of positions within a formal hierarchy. Therefore, a significant paradox for leaders is the requirement to lead those who want your leadership while also leading those who may not be so inclined. Managing this paradox is the challenge I want to explore in this blog.


One of the ways to handle this challenge is to manage your leadership language. Leadership language will determine the effectiveness of your influence on others regardless of position. What is this concept? Leadership language is both a principal strategy and a system. A principal strategy because it is a primary method of communication used in a structured way. Language is delivered by speech, writing, sound, or gesture. At the same time, it is a system because groups or communities use it as the preferred method of communication. As leaders, how is your language aligned as both a principal strategy and a system?


You may be familiar with the saying "mean what you say, and say what you mean." This phrase encourages us to be honest concerning our statements. However, how often might this be a challenge? Honesty may appear to be easy, but no matter how honest you are, someone might misconstrue your statements to be unclear and …hint, dishonest. Intentional language as a principal strategy is essential because the consistency of what you say is constantly being evaluated.


What is your history concerning past communications? When you have made a correction or changed directions in your past, did you own and acknowledge it publicly? When you make statements or voice policies, do you intend to adhere to what you are communicating, or is it lip service for the benefit of others? Your answers to these questions may give you an initial assessment of your leadership language. Leadership language as a principal strategy can be closely related to your brand. What are you all about, and what do you stand for or adhere to?

Consider how many consumers make decisions based on the history of a brand. Our miscues or failures can taint a life of good intentions. As leaders, we must understand that people hear what we say, but they also watch how we live privately and publicly.

Honesty may appear to be easy, but no matter how honest you are, someone might misconstrue your statements to be unclear and …hint, dishonest.

Recently, I had a distant cousin pass away. I remember that he always welcomed me with open arms and treated me like he had been waiting for my visit whenever I showed up. So to hear others share about how he loved their family was consistent with how I experienced him whenever we met. As a leader, would others say that about your interactions? Are your words consistent when dealing with transactional friends, peers, subordinates, family, etc.? Or is your language dependent on the circles you run within? I am not writing to pass judgment. I am just making the point that others often notice what you don't intend for them to see. That is why as a leader, it is always important to "say what you mean, and mean what you say."


Secondly, let's explore language as a system. How consistent is your language with your organization's or team's vision, mission, or goal statement? As a leader, I suspect that you have spent significant time developing your governance, but that governance is more than documents that adorn the walls of your offices or website. That governance establishes a system of operation. When your language does not support or can not be supported by your existing governance, it creates organizational dysfunction. That dysfunction is almost always immediately noticed by those who do not want you to lead them anyway. They probably never paid attention to the mission, vision, or goal statements until what you said caused or implied some confusion. Now, they are ready to politely and publicly highlight how inconsistent you are as a leader. And, they are prepared to do it with all the nobility they can muster. So, leaders, how consistent is your language as a system?


Recently, I discussed powerful tag lines. At one time, a US national hotel chain's motto was "we will leave the light on for you." Imagine that during a cost-saving discussion at a local property, a leader decided it would be better to put their always-on light on a motion detector to be more energy-efficient. Therefore, it would only shine when someone comes nearby. While the tag line is still valid, it is only accurate if someone gets close enough to activate the light. Is this consistent with the motto? Yes, but with conditions. I am sure you can develop other examples that might also be applicable, but this an example of a local property leader's management decision (energy efficiency and cost savings) that might cause conflict or confusion with the corporate language system(lights are always on). When viewed in isolation, it is easy to see how this unintentional impact could result. Leaders, that is why operating or making decisions in isolation can create unintended consequences. So I ask again, as a leader, how is your language system? To fairly assess that question, look back at poor communication you have caused or been impacted by in the past? Where was the breakdown? Was it at the principal strategy or system level?


So how do you know when your leadership language is not clear, causing concern or confusion? As a leadership coach, I will not give you a blanket answer. Instead, I will ask you to consider your environment and develop an appropriate answer given your paradigm. I will also ask you to consider the perspectives around you. People around you the most might be able to pinpoint specific responses to that question if they feel safe. You might imagine that the more organizational weight you have, the harder it is to get an unbiased answer. So you may need to have those around you get the answers for you. External feedback can always be beneficial when assessing our leadership language.

Say what you mean, and mean what you say.

I want to share a personal story about leadership language. For the sake of anonymity, I will not share names or locations. When this incident happened, I directly led a team of four and indirectly led three others on an out-of-town assignment. The three non-direct reports were dotted lined to me simply because I was the most senior representative from the company for which we worked at the time. A heavy storm was causing airport closures all around the mid-Atlantic region of the US, and a major holiday was upcoming. The weather forecast was such that if we didn't make our way home soon, we could be stuck where we were for days. So I decided to close up shop and allow the teams to return home ahead of the storm. Now we all were trying to book planes, trains, or automobiles—anything to get us home ahead of the storm and before the holiday. Given the weather reports and warnings, it was suggested we travel south by car to try to find an airport that might be open. While that reflected the wisdom of many, it was not the choice I was making. I shared with all that I planned to head north, and asked them to consolidate rental cars, travel in groups, and determine their best route home. Every one of my direct reports wanted to go with me. Only two of the other three wanted to follow me. So I exchanged my car for a van at the regional airport and off we went. As we traveled north towards a larger airport, the local radio station (yes, this was before satellite radio and phones with the internet in hand) reminded all travelers to call and check flight statuses before going to the airport. When we did, our flight status indicated delayed. When we had called 3 hours before, I reminded the team that we were told to expect it to be canceled and not delayed.

Leadership language is both a principal strategy and a system.

After turning in the rental car, we immediately proceeded to the ticket counter to find other flights, only to be told there were no other flights that day, and we were given the option to take a voucher and stay at a local hotel or wait to see if things cleared. Once again, I told them I was waiting for the weather to clear and go to the gate. But I reminded them to make their own decisions. They all followed me. Upon arriving at the gate, we notice an attendant. The attendant announced that there was a break in the weather, and they would be boarding shortly. Eventually, we got home - many hours later than planned, but home nonetheless. Our teammate that wanted to go it alone was stuck and had to find a hotel because when he arrived at the southern airport, the storm now had caused his flight options to be canceled. He made it home three days later. I asked a direct report why they decided to follow me. Their response went something like this, we knew you valued getting home, and you valued us. So, we followed you. Concerning this blog, I would like to infer that my leadership language was clear. How is your leadership language? Now go forth and #LEADPerpetually.

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