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Language and Leadership

“Great leaders are almost always great simplifiers, who can cut through argument, debate and doubt, to offer a solution everybody can understand.” General Colin Powell

How do leaders communicate? More importantly, how do great leaders communicate well? And is a leader who cannot communicate a leader at all?

Heads of organisations, governments and movements are technically leaders. But unless they can inspire and direct their listeners through plain, moving language, they’re really only senior bureaucrats. And that is what this article is about.

Good language, whether spoken or written, is strong, clear and direct. Bad language is weak, vague, evasive and pretentious. The problem is that bad language prevails in most organisations, and people who wish to overcome it must work very hard to do so.

George Orwell’s brilliant 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language”, was unflinching in describing how most people throw language about in the vague hope of hitting some meaning. The most common technique, he says, “consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy.”

Easy, certainly – but at what cost to meaning and impact?

When leaders lead

Some exceptional leaders have transcended the problem of bad language. How have they done it?  Here’s the obligatory Churchill quote: “Broadly speaking, the short words are the best, and the old words best of all.”

This is the first challenge for a leader, especially in business: take your lead from those who have led and keep it simple. Keep it short. Think less of your own image and ego – as those who puff up their language in order to impress do – and more of your readers and listeners. What do you want them to think or do after they have read or heard your words?

One of Churchill’s most famous and moving speeches is so because it paints a clear picture in his audience’s minds. Imagine you had heard the speech to the House of Commons on 4 June 1940: “We shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end, we shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”

It follows Churchill’s, and all good writers’, precepts: the sentences are short, the words simple and the images concrete. Consider the words of another war leader, Colonel Tim Collins, in his celebrated eve-of-battle speech to his troops in Iraq in 2003. The first lines are famous: “We go to liberate, not to conquer. We will not fly our flags in their country. We are entering Iraq to free a people and the only flag which will be flown in that ancient land is their own. Show respect for them.”

However, just as plain language can inspire, it can also warn. “If you harm the regiment or its history by over-enthusiasm in killing or in cowardice,” Collins’ speech continues, “know it is your family who will suffer.”

I am not telling you that great leaders threaten their employees’ families. What I am saying is that they recognise that language can help or hinder understanding – and that to use it effectively requires a great deal of courage.

When “leaders” hide

Guess who wrote this? “We have robust networks of strategic assets that we own or have contractual access to, which give us greater flexibility and speed to reliably deliver widespread logistical solutions.” And this? “Wherever appropriate, the report indicates the source or nature of the information on which analysis has been based or conclusions have been reached. Where such references would be overly repetitive or might otherwise confuse the presentation, evidentiary references have been omitted.” Does either excerpt fill you with a deep sense of trust and confidence? I hope not.

The first was from Enron’s Annual Report of 2000; the second from BP’s Deepwater Horizon Accident Investigation Report, 2010. As Orwell said, “When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”

Yet either one could have come from almost any organisation in the English-speaking world. Why are so many people in the habit of writing as though they have something to hide, even if they don’t?

This type of language – weak, vague, evasive, pretentious, bad – so surrounds us that it infiltrates our ways of thinking and communicating. And when there is bad news to deliver – anything from a drop in profits to an industrial accident – people’s instinct is to waffle and dodge. The cuttlefish spurts its ink.

Choose to lead through language

It doesn’t have to be like this. One of the worst disasters in modern times resulted in the 9/11 Commission Report, a bipartisan investigation into the events leading up to and on 11 September 2001. Consider this excerpt:

“Since the plotters were flexible and resourceful, we cannot know whether any single step or series of steps would have defeated them. What we can say with confidence is that none of the measures adopted by the U. S. government from 1998 to 2001 disturbed or even delayed the progress of the al Qaeda plot. Across the government, there were failures of imagination, policy, capabilities, and management.”

When was the last time you heard a leader use such stark, unsparing language to tell the truth? It’s not comfortable – but it’s essential.

I realise I have used several military or war-time examples in this article. Although many businesses like to affect military terms (calling a meeting room a “war room”, for instance), most of them do not have to wage actual battles. However, we can all learn from people who do – and who haven’t the luxury of speaking in time-wasting riddles. One successful businessman who explains complex dealings in plain language is Warren Buffett – his letters to shareholders are models of simplicity and trustworthiness.

I’m not saying that it is easy to use language in a fresh, clear, compelling way, but Orwell’s six rules can help:

  • Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are
    used to seeing in print.
  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  • Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you
    can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  • Break any of these rules sooner than say anything barbarous.

Be a rebel. Be a leader.



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