Leadership Language_3x5 Leadership

If I were to define my “leadership philosophy,” or maybe the top three ways I prefer to lead, I’d articulate it as: leading with love; generating high engagement across the team; and creating clarity for everyone on who we are, what we do, and why we do it. It’s easy to see how important effective communication and use of clear language are when trying to live out that philosophy each day.

Moreover, a mentor of mine taught me years ago: “use precise words precisely.”

While my amateur writing my not live up to those standards, I’m sure all can see that the bottom line is: our language is a critical component to our effectiveness as leaders and developers of other leaders. Even the details of how we structure a question, statement, or word choice can have meaningful impacts. This is why I am very excited about checking out L. David Marquet’s (author of Turn the Ship Around!) newly released book, Leadership Is Language: The Hidden Power of What You Say and What You Don’t.

In trying to be more deliberate about my leader language and communication, I’ve learned three important aspects of what we say and how we say it: use of inclusive pronouns, tying it all back to our values, and creating opportunity with our words. Ultimately, I’m exploring how I can use and structure words to better connect the team with one another and with me.

Using Inclusive Pronouns

When I say that I choose to lead with love, I mean that I aim to show every person on my team that I love them and am proud of them – no matter what and all of the time. This includes following performance failures or having to hold them accountable for not meeting standards. As an Army officer, this particularly applies during Article 15 hearings or event-driven counseling events.

One simple way I demonstrate this is through the pronouns I use during critical events. When I am recognizing or celebrating others for high performance, achievements, or their example, I use personal pronouns like “you,” “they,” or “them.” I want to ensure that I make the moment special and focused on them.

However, during more sensitive moments of failure or accountability, as mentioned above, I use the pronouns of “us,” “our,” or “we.” Why? Well, this does a few things in my mind:

  • It shows the other person or people that they are still valued team members and that I’m not abandoning them.
  • It demonstrates that I take ownership of this situation with them; they have a partner in the fight to recover from this.
  • A way to help reinforce that this failure or issue does not define them.

So, when using inclusive pronouns of us, our, or we when holding our people accountable, it can look our sound like:

  • “So, what were we thinking when we (decision made or action taken)?”
  • When issuing consequences at an event like an Army UCMJ Article 15 non-judicial punishment hearing: “So, following our decision to (issue at hand), this is what we are going to do: we will (insert punishments served).”
  • Even when making minor corrections like on another Soldier’s uniform, you can word it as, “let’s look at our (uniform infraction); can we fix that real quick?”

Bringing It All Back to Our Values

Organizational values are important because they clarify who we are and what we do no matter what. These are the ideas that should guide our team’s and personal thinking and behavior at all times. Unfortunately, our values tend to become this list of novel words that end up as an ignored decoration on a wall in our workspace.

Leaders must link our values to everything we do; a necessary first step to do that is integrating them into our daily language. If our values are the ideas that define us and our behavior, we need to ensure we routinely think and talk about them more often. Some ways that leaders can better integrate our organizational values into our language include:

  • When formally recognizing or celebrating peoples’ performance, tie their behavior or impact back to one of our values in your remarks.
  • When holding others accountable or making corrections, articulate their (our?) behavior as a failure to live up to one of our shared values.
  • Explain your decisions as a leader and how our values influenced them.
  • Use our specific values in your evaluations and feedback to others. Using that precise language keeps our values relevant with our people through important systems like assessments.

Creating Opportunity with Our Words

Merely how we structure our sentences can have a huge impact on our people. Deliberately structured questions and statements can create important and impactful moments for others. I think it is important for leaders to use their communication and specific language to create opportunities for their people – opportunities to share more, provide perspective and feedback, and to contribute more. This improves the diversity of perspective and thought, the buy-in from others (remember, people will buy-in more if they are given the chance to weigh-in), and ownership and collaboration across the team.

Here are some examples of how we can reshape sentences and even turn statements into questions to create and improve opportunities for others to contribute (again, notice the pronouns):

  • Ask “have we thought about ___?” instead of telling others to do x, y, and z tasks.
  • Ask “what do you think?” instead of saying “here’s how I see it.”
  • Instead of issuing guidance to execute tasks in a particular way, ask “how can I help?” or “what do you need from me?”
  • A recent example I heard about can help our understanding as well: I heard that a hospital was ranked #2 of all the hospitals in the region across a number performance metrics, which was great! First, the leader did not celebrate that achievement with their people, which I see as an issue; but that is for a different article. In response, that leader stated, “you all have two weeks to get to #1.” Upon hearing that story, I immediately thought to how that guidance could have been better offered to create more opportunity for those on the team. Instead, I thought of what would happen if s/he asked “what will it take for us to get to #1?” (after celebrating the current achievement, of course). I think we can see the difference in potential for opportunity across the team. And again, pay attention to the difference in pronouns in this case.

Finally, one of the best ways is to simply show appreciation more. Even when giving guidance, tasks, or orders, we can still say things like “thank you” and “I appreciate it” afterword without any qualifiers.  Never underestimate the power of appreciation. I challenge you to try ending every interaction with your people with some form of a gratitude or appreciation statement.

You can also read more about the impact of targeted questions here and here.

What We Can Start Doing Now

So, I think there are a few things we can do now to start improving our leadership language so we improve team member inclusion, values-driven behavior, and opportunities for those on our team:

  • Practice! Just like any habit change, it takes time and considerable deliberate practice. But we need to actually start that deliberate practice.
  • Engage in focused preparation for key interactions with our people. Before meetings or other important events, prepare your thoughts and comments to apply inclusive pronouns, values, and targeted questions.
  • Purposefully reflect on your language after interactions with others. Critique your words, assess how many questions you asked versus statements you made and why you did, and ask “why did I say that this particular way?”. Consider using a peer coach to help you gain self-awareness in your language and how it needs to improve.
  • Try to ask twice as many questions as statements you make in any conversation with others. This can be a way to get others talking and contributing more rather than just us dominating conversation with guidance, advice, or personal perspective.
  • Commit to reading and learning more about leadership language. As mentioned at the beginning of this article, I’m excited to start reading L. David Marquet’s new book, Leadership Is Language. You can check out his Coaching for Leaders podcast episode about this as well.

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