Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Language of Leadership

German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) once said "Language is the house of being."  And, although when a philosopher speaks one must be careful about implying the wrong meaning, in this case Heidegger has said a mouthful, particularly for those interested in leadership.

Noted philosopher, author, and mentor, Dr. Peter Koestenbaum, amplifies Heidegger's statement by suggesting that everything exists in language.  Without language there is nothing (Do You Have the Will to Lead, 2002, 18 minutes into the program material).  Therefore, the words that a leader chooses are fateful.  In Koestenbaum's view, a leader who wants to change the culture of an organization must start by changing the language.  (The Philosophic Consultant, 2003, P. 87-88)

Although this can be a monumental task, it can be done.  When Dee Hock, the person responsible for the creation of what we now know as the Visa Credit Card system, was trying to establish what he called "an equitable international credit system", conflict and confusion reigned supreme.  Representatives from countries that were traditional enemies were expected to work together.  Religious, cultural, and class differences were constantly boiling just below the surface.  Open and direct communication was not part of the international culture.

In his book Birth of the Chaordic Age, Hock notes "Rarely was a person referred to by name.  The language suggested object or thing, not person. " But, as the leader of the effort, Hock began to casually, "... and, without suggesting that anything was amiss," change this conversation by always responding with the person's name, and gently questioning the characterization.  As he changed the language related to personal relationships, the tenor of the language used by others changed.  The words that Hock used were fateful - he nudged the organization into a culture that recognized its members as people, not a race, class, or nationality.  (Birth of the Chaordic Age, Dee Hock, 1999, P. 234

The language we use exposes our customs, traditions, norms, espoused and hidden values,  rules of the game, skills, competencies, habits, and more.  To use the terms of Koestenbaum's Leadership Diamond, the language we use exposes our Vision, Ethics, Reality, Courage, Polarities (and how we mange them), and our desire to achieve Greatness.

One of the great challenges for a leader is to consciously choose the right words, to create what Dr. Koestenbaum calls "an envelope of language", to construct the House of Being that surrounds the successful organization.  Your challenge is to be purposeful in your choice of words, and the time to use them.  This requires deliberate thought, planning, tenacity, and dedication to the desired outcome.  

The goal is not to ignore the things that need to be addressed by simply using positive language.  Denying the reality of our current situation does not help or change the organization. 

The goal is to use opportunities to communicate, as Dee Hock did, address what needs to be changed, and to shift the course of the organization toward what we are trying to create as a result of our effort.


For more about language and its role in leadership see the earlier blog entry A Leader's Power.