One of the oddities of the business world is that everybody seems agreed that communication skills are vital for effective leadership – even though they are rarely employed well enough. Indeed, so commonplace are the confused and confusing utterances of executives that they are the focus of much corporate mirth-making. For example, Dilbert, the subversive cartoon of office life, has mocked corporate mission statements, while for several years Financial Times columnist Lucy Kellaway has made annual awards for the worst examples of business-speak. However, far from forcing leaders to watch their words , these and other critiques only seem to encourage them to reach for new levels of verbosity.
Anybody looking for an explanation of how this can be in an age when just about every leader appears to have a media adviser will not really find it in Leading Through Language (Wiley), a book just published by Bart Egnal, president and chief executive of The Humphrey Group, the Canadian-based “leadership communication firm”. In his introduction to the book, Egnal writes that “jargon, buzzwords and corporate-speak usually exist because of a dearth of clear, powerful thinking”. That is true enough. But one suspects that Egnal is pulling his punches a bit. What a tendency to use jargon, buzzwords and corporate-speak also often means is that the speaker does not have a command of his or her subject. This is worrying enough. But there is another possible reason why leaders are using increasingly complex and confusing language: they are hoping that if they dress things up in clever-sounding concepts people will realize that they are grappling with really tough challenges and understand that they cannot come up with quick or straightforward answers. This would explain why they pepper speeches and emails with references to “bandwidth”, “paradigm shifts” and other terms borrowed from science and technology and create horrible verbs out of hyphenated nouns.
What the book is useful for, though, is – as the subtitle Choosing Words That Influence and Inspire suggests – showing how the current way of communicating is not good enough. It is no wonder that leaders resort to ever more convoluted language. They are not getting their message across – and nor will they until they adopt simpler, more direct and less ambiguous language. Indeed, Egnal’s mission is to show readers how they can define and communicate their ideas “using jargon-free language that will engage and motivate others”. And he makes clear the book is not just aimed at CEOs, but at “anyone in the workplace who has ideas they believe in and wants those ideas to inspire others”.
So, what is his prescription? Well, fittingly for those who put communication skills high on the list of prerequisites for effective leaders – and alarmingly when one considers how much poor communication there is around – he states that communication is central to being a leader. It is “the only way that leaders can and do inspire others to act”, he writes. With this in mind, leaders need to be conscious of the language they use every time they seek to communicate – whether it is a major speech, an internal email or a telephone call with an individual.
Interestingly, he does not put an absolute bar on jargon. He correctly points out that jargon is useful as a shorthand when everybody is in the same industry or group or well acquainted with the issues being discussed. It becomes a problem when it obscures and confuses. So knowing when to use it and when not to is a key part of the answer. But the central theme of the book is that good leaders adopt the “language of leadership”. Some might think this means using the words or approaches of well-known speakers – and there have been many examples of this going wrong – but Egnal stresses that being able to speak the language of leadership requires going through three steps.
First, the speaker must adopt the leader’s mindset. This involves thinking about their vision, defining their convictions and developing the courage to challenge others.
Second, they must script themselves as a leader. This means that – having decided what they are passionate about – they must organize their thinking and focus it around a clear message and a supporting structure.
Third, they must use the language of leadership. This requires them to articulate the script using language that demonstrates their leadership and inspires others to act upon it.
Egnal accepts that many readers will claim to do many of these things already. And if they are already managers or executives, he will be inclined to agree. Communicating in such ways has got them to where they are. But he insists that few are able to “consistently and repeatedly” communicate in a way that inspires action. “The most effective leaders understand that leadership communication is a skill you develop and one you apply with conscious intention. Doing so allows you to adapt to any audience while staying true to yourself,” he writes.
And – as part of his effort to teach leaders how to communicate better – he goes on to offer 11 principles or ways to us the language of leadership. The list begins with being visionary and focusing on the audience before moving on to avoiding jargon, being authentic, passionate, confident, positive, direct, concise and professional and concluding with using rhetoric to help bring ideas to life and make communications memorable.
How refreshing it would be if even a handful of leaders took note. Heaven knows the dead hand of carefully scripted, clichéd and jargon-laden communication has spread from business into such areas as sport (which increasingly seems like a branch of business) and even politics, where bland statements have replaced soaring speeches out of fear of offending crucial groups of voters. At the same time, though, we should beware of leaders who are just a little too good at communicating. In their recent book, Why Should Anyone Work Here? (discussed here), Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones commend a mission statement for being “mercifully clear” when so many were oblique. The problem, they point out, is it came from Enron. “Even clear and simple statements run a terrible risk of being inauthentic,” they write.
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This article was written by Roger Trapp from Forbes and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.