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?

Note: This post was originally published in October 2010

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1 Comment

Filed under Building Relationships, Change Management, communication, Leadership, Leadership Development, organizational Development, Organizational Effectiveness

One response to “The Language of Leadership in the 21st Century

  1. Pingback: How to Lead Effectively in an Unpredictable World | Martina McGowan

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