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The language of leaders

​The language of leaders matters. Language is their toolbox.  As Lolly Daskal says, “painters have a brush, sculptors have a chisel, surgeons have a scalpel, and conductors have a baton—and leaders have language”. With language, leaders gather support, fight their battles, reveal their view of the world and describe their ideas of the future.  In politics the language of leaders can unite or divide people.  In business it can befriend or alienate customers. In community life it can foster collaboration or brood distrust.  

Election time, in a special way, compresses our awareness of what leaders say. Election time highlights the flashpoints in society.  It sets up the debate about the things that matter most.  It shows up the menu of ideologies that compete for public support. It is all done through language and carried by words – all not equally sensible – that promise, provoke, attack or defend. Speeches and tweets develop their own gravitational pull as politicians, economists, CEOs, analysts and journalists all get into the ring in a wordy, and often noisy, exchange from which we hope will emerge some idea of a common and hopeful future.

The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein helps us understand that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world.”  Words do not just describe a world that is, but have the capacity to create a world that is yet to be.  In this way the language of leaders negotiates the boundaries between the present and the future. Their words have the capacity to energise and inspire, to shift the expectations of what is possible and achievable, to create what does not exist as yet. Their words can also achieve the opposite and cause doubt, despair and destruction. The words of leaders may keep followers locked into the bunkers of the past or simply extend the present into an uninspired tomorrow or open a window on a future yet to be accomplished. 

If language is then such an important currency in leader-follower exchanges, it needs to be developed with care and used responsibly. It is a currency that appreciates in value when it inspires vision and creates the belief that a different world is indeed within reach.  “Be the change you wish to see in the world,” said Mahatma Gandhi.  “I have a dream,” proclaimed Martin Luther King Jr. on August 28, 1963. “Let freedom reign,” declared Nelson Mandela on 10 May 1994. “Yes we can” was the appeal of Barack Obama when he accepted victory on 4 November 2008. 

Those among us who are endowed with leadership responsibilities may not necessarily regard ourselves as being in the same league as such great names, but our words have influence in similar ways.  The language we use may build momentum towards higher ideals and build bridges towards collaborative achievements or it may repeat the past and endorse old divisions.  We certainly cannot afford the latter in the South Africa of today.  The opportunity to speak comes with great responsibility. As Jody Picoult reminds us, “Words are like eggs dropped from great heights; you can no more call them back than ignore the mess they leave when they fall”.

Since leadership is in such a large part exercised through language, the old woodwork rule applies:  measure twice, cut once.

Dr Arnold Smit is the Director of the Centre for Business and Society at USB-ED. His areas of expertise include Change Management, Leadership Development and Corporate Responsibility.

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