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The Language of Leadership: 5 Actions To Transform Performance

Our organizational world is constituted and shaped by language. It is also accessed and made available to us through language. Language acts as the lens through which we can see and understand the challenges presented, and subsequently make sense of and provide solutions for.

In 1973, Salvador Allende, Chile’s democratically elected president, died in a bloody coup. Fernando Flores, who was then the country’s minister of finance, was imprisoned and for three years was separated from his wife and five children. He emerged from jail with a new vision, and a new understanding to the fundamental connections between language and actions. As he says, “I never told a victim story about my imprisonment. Instead, I told a transformation story?about how prison changed my outlook, about how I saw that communication, truth and trust are at the heart of power.”

Flores also said “In language we build our own identities, our relationships with others, the countries that we live in, the companies we have and the values that we hold dear. With language we generate life. Without language we are mostly chimpanzees.”

Likewise Korzybski maintains our ability to solve complex problems and challenges is limited by our brain architecture and the structure of our languages. To illustrate this point, I have been observing Engineers build a multi-story building next door to my office. They have defined structural plans they reference and the building architecture is being constructed with precision, predictable results and timeframes.

In contrast leadership challenges dwell in language that provides many different meanings and interpretations and without the same level of predictability. So when we are presented with problems and challenges, mostly due to differences in perception and meaning, the break downs are difficult to identify and correct.

What’s needed is a more precise framework, a conversational domain that provides a context for leadership that brings forth greater effectiveness and higher levels of performance.

I believe language is the most powerful and underutilized resource leaders have available to them at their disposal. You can be articulate as a leader, but if people aren’t listening or don’t get you – you’re missing the boat and therefore are being ineffective.

Masterful leaders use language to prompt a shift in others to free them from their entrenched biases that act as constraints limiting the prevailing issue. What’s needed is to replace these constraints with new more powerful frames of reference. This can be done in language for example by reframing a problem to a new opportunity.

A new shift in mindset can then provide a new perspective, like a torch in the dark creating a space in which the world shows up differently. This can also be achieved by creating a new view of the future to provide a context that powerfully uses us (influences or shapes our states and actions) in the present and shapes new powerful solutions.

If language is so central to human life in all of its dimensions, then part of our attempt to create a new awareness of leadership must involve building linguistic awareness, facility and competence. We are in language all of the time like a fish is in water. The following is a framework to become more skillful at observing language originating from Fernando Flores.

Five Actions In Language:

REQUESTS: An action taken when you seek the help of another in satisfying an underlying concern that you have. For example, “Please Call our top 5 clients and set up a meeting for me.”

PROMISES: What you speak to indicate your commitment to fulfilling what someone else has requested. (“Sure, I’ll call our top 5 clients.”) It implies that you understand the request fully and that you are competent and sincere about fulfilling it.

DECLARATIONS: A statement in which someone with the authority to do so brings something into being that wasn’t there before. Declarations such as “We will put a man on the moon” or “we will develop a new product in 6 months’ time” have the power to shape our lives, followed by consistent actions.

ASSESSMENTS: A judgment that you make about the world in the interest of taking some action. For example, in the interest of achieving our budget, I might make the assessment, “In my view we are on target because most of the sales will come in at the last minute”. On the other hand, “In my view we will miss our target by 20% because we have just lost out top 2 customers” Assessments are seldom the truth.

ASSERTIONS: A statement you make for which you are willing to provide evidence. For example, if I say we have made a profit of x, I’m then able to show this to you in a financial report. We live by the social agreement that these accounting standards accurately reflect the financial status. In other words, a society builds certain ways of establishing and asserting common, often quantitative values. These assertions live for us as “facts”: They are either true or false.

In summary, breakdowns in language actions generally result in a breakdown of communication and ultimately organizational performance. They affect relationships, and cause unhappiness, disagreements, stress and lack of engagement, ultimately severely impacting organizational performance. The antidote is simple. Build integrity in language and maintain it as a lived organizational value. When hiring, look for character and integrity and lead by example by keeping your word and encourage others to do the same.

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