The Language of a Leader

| | General Leadership
The Language of a Leader

Have you ever been in a conversation where people are speaking your language, but you still have no idea what they are talking about?

I can remember being invited to an informal gathering with a group of people who had similar professional interests and commitments to me. The good news is that they did. However, it didn’t take long before it began to be clear I was an outsider.

They used terms and made references that came from a body of work they were steeped in and a number of shared experiences. While they were warm and welcoming, the words and phrases they referenced were like trying to read a secret shorthand I could not understand.

Despite my attempts to engage, I realized I was not part of this tribe. So I sat back and listened, observed and enjoyed the beautiful setting. When I left, I knew I would not be back either by my own choice or theirs.

A few years later I met the man who is now my husband. When he felt he knew me well enough he said to me one day: “Do you realize sometimes you don’t speak English?” Of course I was taken aback! And then I remembered my experience and realized I had fallen into the same trap that made me once feel like an outsider.

I promptly asked for his help and he eagerly accepted to become my “language coach.” For the next year he helped me take the jargon, at least a lot of it, out of my everyday conversation.

It was hard work. And it was worth it. I wondered how many people I inadvertently made feel excluded or just plain thought I said odd things (or was odd!).

The bottom line…

If you want to connect with someone, you need to speak their language.

As simple as that sounds, it can be hard to be mindful enough to do, especially for leaders. When you engage deeply in conversations where new concepts and terms are brought to life they become a meaningful addition to your language arsenal. Yet you need to remember that when you speak to others they aren’t there yet.

Recently I observed a conversation among a group of employees in which they were having a good laugh about a new term that had been introduced in their organization. To the leaders in this organization, this word represented a significant and important change in how they were working together. They expected the organization to rally around this new way of working.

Yet ironically, these team members were actually using this word to connect with each other in jest, because it was a symbol of how they felt disconnected from their leaders. An unintended US vs. THEM had been born.

[Tweet “The language you use as a #leader matters more than you may realize.”]

If you want to be heard and understood, the language you speak must match what the listeners can hear.

The good news is when a word or idea doesn’t yet translate, it is an opportunity to start a conversation to increase your connection and ensure those you lead feel included.

And if someone who leads you throws language around that makes you feel excluded, you can speak up and be a leader in that moment by simply asking: what does that mean?


Image credit: RyanMcGuire


Enter A Comment

www.5858   |   16 June 2015   |   Reply


Anthony Saffer   |   14 August 2015   |   Reply


My comments must sound pandering, but wow. Thanks for taking the puzzle pieces and constructing a finished picture.

Taking the “customer’s” perspective is how I solve problems. Who is your “customer?” Everyone. Not simply an end consumer. But a party who potentially wants to invest their time, money or resources in:

A Business. An Individual. An Employer. An Employee. A Strategic Partner. A Supplier. A Competitor. An Investor. A Friend. And many more…

As you so aptly put it above, “If you want to be heard and understood, the language you speak must match what the listeners can hear.”

We are what we read. And that begins with what we write. If the message isn’t constructed with our “customer” in mind, there is no point telling the story.

Perhaps you’ll get value from a technique I use with my consulting clients.
1. Pick any industry (marketing, technology, professional services, etc.) and go to their (or competitors) websites.
2. Take a screen dump of the landing pages, and substitute any jargon or industry specific language with the Latin translation of the word.
3. Present it back to your client and ask them to read the message.

Because this is what the customer sees (and understands). From their perspective.

And that’s the only one that matters.

Thank you again for the insights.


Anthony Saffer