The Language of Leadership in the 21st Century.

I’ve always loved language.  Admittedly, my facility in it is sadly limited to English, a few French words and phrases, body language (on a good day) and oh yes, a little pig Latin. But, what I love about language is its power to shape ideas, create images, evoke emotion and give birth to new habits and traditions.

In organizations, language also has the power to determine what matters.  For instance, the language of the 20th Century stressed, among other things, the importance of control, competition, individual targets, winning, losing and results. And while many of these words allude to activities that continue to be important, there is other language creeping into the 21st Century landscape that will affect our behaviour and change the way we go about things.

To some, this language is associated with the softer side of life.  In the past, It has often been derided and dismissed as being too ethereal or without merit in the workplace.  But, as this new century unfolds, language like this will re-shape what matters and reveal its harder edge as we put it into practice.

So, what specifically am I talking about?  Well, no doubt you will have heard and used the words. But because I often think it’s easy to use words without really understanding what they mean or how they might be used in any sort of practical way, I thought I’d have a go at bringing them into the light if only for the sake of provoking your own thoughts about their applicability in these highly challenging times.  Words, after all, have a way of being open to interpretation and I’m sure you will have yours.  But, for what it’s worth here are mine:

The first word is Empathy. To me, empathy in action looks like this.  You and I are sharing our viewpoints over a particular issue.  It is a difficult conversation.  What I’m hearing from you sounds foreign and unlikely and yet I want to make sense of what you are saying.  So I stop.  I let my ego and my belief that I am right go, and I step into your shoes.  I do that by asking questions and exploring the issue from your perspective.  I seek to see what you see.  In so doing I search for what you might be feeling and when I find it, I begin to understand what it’s like to be there.  In short, empathy is about understanding.   But just to be clear, it is not necessarily about agreeing.

Here are some other key words that come to mind:

Inclusion is about creating an environment where people feel they belong; are valued and respected.   Including people means asking their opinions frequently; trusting them to take the lead in situations where their strengths will better serve the purpose; acknowledging their contributions sincerely and often.

Self-awareness is about knowing our own strengths, weaknesses, behaviours and attitudes well enough to understand our impact on those around us and how effective, or perhaps ineffective, it is in certain situations.

Cultural awareness is about the values, beliefs and perceptions that are part of the organization and the people who work in it. Organizations with an enduring culture will be ones that align their activities and practices with their values and beliefs.  These values and beliefs are brought alive through action and thought; in their approach to the customer; in their hiring practices and in the kind of business they choose to conduct.

Diversity is about achieving a real appreciation for the heterogeneous nature of the world and it’s people.  To me, embracing diversity means appreciating, understanding, valuing and using our differences to enhance the work and create something greater than we might otherwise do by behaving divisively and out of ignorance or fear.

Openness is about being truthful and giving people the information and resources they need to do their jobs. It also reminds me of the critical need to be receptive to new ideas from a variety of sources and people. In the last century, information was often used as a power tool by a few against the many. Today, I think that power is at its most effective when it is collectively held and willingly shared.

Adaptability in this century will be key to not only successful organizations but ones that simply seek survival as well.  This is about learning to accept change as an every day occurrence as opposed to an event that must be planned and carefully managed.  It speaks to the necessity to be continually reading, questioning and challenging the current environment.  Today becomes yesterday in the blink of an eye.  I think that those who learn fast and change faster will do better in these times than those who don’t.

Collaboration speaks to the need to work together for a common purpose.  The 20th Century organization was rife with silos and walls that provoked, or perhaps encouraged, internal competition and rivalries.  Now it’s time to build bridges between people and lines of business; to eschew hoarding behaviour and learn to share ideas and resources for a purpose that will be of service to everyone involved

These are just eight words that I think, when put into action, will define leadership, and organizational life, in the years to come.  There are, of course, others.  But, my point is that the more we use this language, and seek to understand its meaning and application, the better equipped we will be to meet the challenges that this century presents.

What do you think?  What words come to mind for you when you think about leadership today? What do they mean to you?  How will they affect the way we work?



Filed under Building Relationships, Change Management, communication, organizational Development

14 responses to “The Language of Leadership in the 21st Century.

  1. Pingback: Tweets that mention The Language of Leadership in the 21st Century. « You’re Not the Boss of Me --

  2. Cherry Woodburn

    I, too, love language. Words can be fraught with meaning – and different meanings/interpretation – for people. Empathy at the workplace is one of those.
    Some people still see that as being too easy on people and that employees will take advantage of it.

    Thanks for a good article Gwyn. Cherry

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Yes, I know what you mean about words having different interpretations and to your point, the word*empathy* is constantly being maligned and also mistaken for *sympathy*, which of course is a different thing.
      When you say, some people see empathy as being too easy on people, I agree. I really do think that some believe it to be about sitting around getting “in touch with our feelings” and “crying in our beer”, the image of which frankly makes me giggle.
      So perhaps it’s a matter of using and demonstrating this language more often and more consistently if only to help people see its more constructive edges.
      Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Cherry. It has served to expand my own thinking and added value to the post. I really like it when that happens! 🙂

  3. Thank you for taking the time to share your love for language and how they impact the 21st Century Leader.

    We share your passion for both!

    Judy White, SPHR, GPHR, HCS
    The Infusin Group™

  4. Gwyn, great post. Thank you for sharing your wisdom.Where would we be if even a fraction of our leaders followed these tenets?

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Julie, that is a great question that conjures up some pretty nice pictures in my mind’s eye. If we can get the attention of that fraction of leaders then it would be a great start too. Perhaps its a matter of incorporating more of this leadership language into every day work life because I rather think that the things we talk about have a way of also becoming the things we do.
      Thank you for your kind comments, Julie. 🙂

  5. What a great post. From your writing to the actions of 21st century leaders. I love them all and I’m drawn to collaboration — what a profound practice to try and master.

    The only word I would add for the 21st century would be relevance.

    Thanks for your wisdom.

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Mike, Thanks for your kind words!
      Yes, relevance is an excellent word. When I think of that word, I think of it in terms of the need to constantly be calibrating our actions with the organizational purpose. In changing times it is easy to go off course if we are not vigilant.
      What do *you* think of when you think of that word?

  6. Terry Thomas

    Hi Gwyn,

    I enjoyed your post and consulted my dictionary to find words to add to the list, since you gave me that assignment! I wanted to find words that meant a give and take, compromise, however, I think you covered that area. So, I added curiosity and creativity. You said someone needs to be “continually reading, questioning, and challenging the current environment”. I thought how can you do that and also demonstrate openness, empathy, adaptability, and collaboration? I think a sense of curiosity and exploring possibilities, creativeness, will knock down old walls and build new bridges!

    • Gwyn Teatro

      Hi Terry,

      Yes, I agree. Creativity and curiosity are great words to include in our 21st Century leadership language. Both of these attributes lead to innovation and finding new pathways to success. And, I see the *process* of exploring innovative ideas is through those other things… like openness, empathy, adaptability and collaboration etc.
      Thank you, Terry, for your very thoughtful comment. I rather suspect that you use your own sense of curiosity very well indeed! 🙂

  7. Terry Thomas

    Hey Gwyn

    After I read your post about the language of leadership and made my comment, I read the previous post about jazz. Since those traits of creativity and curiosity were in the great analogy of jazz and leadership, I did not feel too original. Then I remembered your post about Julie Payette, and her comments about using humor and laughter, appropriately, and using a position of responsibility to pay back and to pay forward. I think the tone of your posts, and the bright eyed green frog, helped me open my eyes, too! Thanks!

    • Gwyn Teatro


      Thank you for your kind remarks and for reading so many of my posts.
      I love how you take what you read from various places and make connections between them that make sense to you. That, in itself, makes *you* both curious and creative 🙂

  8. Pingback: El lenguaje del liderazgo del futuro

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