How do strong leaders use language to their advantage? Knowing the three different types of language is a good start.
Language is the most powerful tool to effectively mobilise others – the ultimate purpose of leadership. Through language we can inform, influence, persuade, coerce, deceive, negotiate, manipulate, gossip, hurt, or comfort others.. Yet, for many people, language remains elusive.
Essentially, there are three types of language that are designed to achieve different outcomes:
- language of action
- language of possibility
As the term indicates, this language describes something that has happened or is happening. Stories fall into this category by definition as they describe something that’s happened. Stories can inspire, move and motivate others, but they don’t generate action in themselves.
Descriptive language can be either objective or subjective. Objective language includes unbiased statements that can be verified by other parties as facts shared and agreed upon by most people. For example, “our company employs 500 people”.
Subjective language includes interpretations, opinions, assessments or judgements, and complaints. These are not necessarily shared by others, and when treated as truths can be problematic. Subjective language has very little power to move others to action and is largely overused. How often do you express opinions, make assessments or judgements?
Language of action
Say you ask someone seated next to you at a meeting to pass you the jug of water on the table. Most likely, an action will take place and you will be able to have a drink. You have made a ‘request’. Here’s another example. Offer a $50 note to someone: “Would you like this?” The note will vanish from your hand. You have made an offer.
Orders or commands also generate action. They are used within hierarchical relationships by someone with authority and power to instruct, direct or mandate a subordinate to take specific action(s). For example, “Email me the report now”. Promises are commitments to future action that create expectations in others. The members of high-performing teams and organisations consistently fulfil their promises to each other. When you keep your promises, you become a person of your word. Doing so consistently builds trust, and a reputation of being credible and reliable. Leaders coordinate effective action by making requests, offers, commands and promises – the language of action (also called ‘performatives’).
Language of possibility
This is the true language of leadership. It’s future-based and creates what’s possible. Possibilities provide hope and inspiration by anticipating and creating new opportunities (eg. goals, desires or dreams). Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” and Winston Churchill’s “We shall never surrender” speeches are good examples. They both painted a reality that shaped a future of freedom. Through the language of possibility, leaders ‘implant’ a new future in their followers’ minds. As history tells us, the rest takes care of itself.
Declarations are extremely powerful. They create a new reality in front of us. Some can be good news, such as “You’re hired”. Others like “You’re fired”, are less so.
Taking a stand
“Taking a stand” means publicly declaring a choice to make something happen by behaving according to your principles and values. This evokes a desire to achieve a certain ideal, as Churchill, King and other great leaders did. A good stand needs to be personalised, based on something you know well, care about deeply, and is for the common good. It will then resonate with the people you lead.
Sebastian Salicru is a leadership development expert and author.