Summary: The Language of Leadership By Joel Schwartzberg
Summary: The Language of Leadership By Joel Schwartzberg

Summary: The Language of Leadership By Joel Schwartzberg

The Dynamic Duo: Purpose and Power

Purpose is the compelling reason an idea has value and should be activated. It inspires a team because it gives them a meaningful cause to align with and a motivation to commit.

Purpose often manifests in language dealing with goals and strategy and is frequently referred to as the “why.” The following are three examples of purpose-driven statements:

  • “The data demonstrates that doubling down on our awareness campaign will enable us to beat last year’s revenue forecast.”
  • “Adopting this strategy will enable us to protect vulnerable children in ways we never have before.”
  • “This product will enable people to save thousands of dollars every year and live healthier lives.”

To be clear, power doesn’t mean displaying aggression or dominance—nor is it gender-specific. It merely means you stand behind what you assert. Leaders can communicate messages of kindness and empathy as powerfully as they convey messages of accountability and ambition.


Balancing Realism and Idealism

One of a leader’s most essential—and tricky—communication responsibilities is balancing realism and idealism. You want your language to be pragmatic but also visionary. You want to focus on today’s challenges as well as tomorrow’s hope.

Conveying realistic messages is crucial to developing trust. Conveying idealistic messages is crucial to creating inspiration. But the peril of overdoing idealism is that you might overpromise or seem tone-deaf to reality, and the peril of overdoing realism is that you may be limiting your projection of ambition and vision.

Here are examples of a realism/idealism transition:

  • “While we need to keep one eye on today’s challenges, the other should be squarely focused on our goals for the remainder of this year and beyond. That’s how we keep moving ahead and understanding where we need to be.”
  • “We will inevitably make mistakes and may not always meet our objectives, but taking risks and thinking big are critically important to our success, so I encourage you to aim high. Remember, every moment of failure is also a moment of learning.”


The Rule of Three

There’s something instantly engaging about communicating in patterns of three, commonly called the rule of three. This tactic is also called a tricolon, and my inner linguistic nerd urges me to stick to that.

Tricolons mirror the engaging rhythm of a song or poem, and many leaders have used them with resonating effect.

You saw one earlier in Justin Trudeau’s commencement address:

Because in our aspiration to relevance, in our love for our families, in our desire to contribute . . .

Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address alone contains two tricolons (one shy of a tricolon triple crown):

. . . We cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground.

. . . Government of the people, by the people, for the people.

You want CEOs? Here’s General Motors chairman and CEO Mary Barra, in 2017:

GM’s vision is a world with zero crashes, zero emissions, and zero congestion.

As you can sense in these examples, the rule of three isn’t just a flowery rhetorical device—it effectively draws people in.


The Language of Listening

Admired executives are typically strong listeners because they recognize that their teams want to both listen to and be heard by their leaders. But there’s a big difference between passively hearing your team and actively listening to them, and since communications is very often a two-way street, listening to your team is a crucial component of the language of leadership.

It’s not hard to find active listening tips on the Internet, but consider these recommendations most practical:

  • Always face speakers and maintain eye contact. In a virtual meeting, that means looking into the camera’s cold eye, not into a warm digital face.
  • Demonstrate you’re listening by nodding. Nodding is the most effective way to show support (even more so than smiling) because it says, “I’m buying what you’re selling.” Remember, a speaker’s goal is not to delight but to deliver.
  • Don’t use listening time as an opportunity to plan what you’re going to say next. Misunderstanding a question or request because you didn’t effectively listen to it can damage credibility and trust.
  • Avoid interrupting members of your team or finishing their sentences. That’s not a leadership prerogative, and it is universally rude. Sometimes we think we’re affirming someone else’s point by finishing their sentences for them, but even if that’s technically true, we’re still trampling on their perspective.
  • Reflect questions and concerns back to the speaker before offering your perspective or proposing a solution. For example, “I want to make sure I hear you correctly. You’re saying we have too many meetings, especially on Fridays. Is that correct?” Even before you address the concern, this powerful conveyance of acknowledgment elevates trust and demonstrates empathy.
  • Finally, keep an open mind and resist the urge to defend. Speaking and listening is a dialogue, not a debate, so focus on considering your team’s perspective, not making counterarguments.


Let Me Ask You a Question

In the dialogues between leaders and their teams, productive listening (and learning) can be boosted when a leader asks probing questions. The question represents a curiosity—as all well-intended questions do—but it’s also an opportunity for a leader to demonstrate admirable qualities including concern, awareness, and eagerness to learn.

Here are a variety of question types that serve the double purpose of gathering useful information from your team and reflecting your appreciation of their perspective. Notice how they are all open-ended questions. This is no coincidence—open-ended questions generate more valuable and actionable responses.

Strategic questions:

  • “What do you aim to achieve?”
  • “How can we apply that approach throughout the company?”

Recognition questions:

  • “Who helped you with this project?”
  • “How did you come up with the idea?”

Helpful questions:

  • “What can I do to help?”
  • “What do you need to take your project to the next level?”

Try to avoid asking questions in public that are challenging, are potentially shaming, or reveal pessimism. Because you’re their leader and not their colleague, your skepticism—and its impact—carries extra weight. Examples of potentially shaming questions:

  • “How much will this cost?”
  • “But what happens if . . .?”
  • “Why didn’t you consider . . .?”

If they’re vital concerns, you can always discuss them privately later.


Relaying Bad News

Sharing bad news with your team—like layoffs, department shutdowns, and terminations—is among the most difficult and stressful communications you can make. But the fundamental guidance for delivering unwelcome information is the same for leaders and their teams as it is for doctors and their patients: be honest, direct, and concise.

Here are some specific recommendations:

  • Avoid ambiguity as much as possible. Employees need and deserve facts from their leaders, not speculation. Ambiguity also projects indecision and breeds fear instead of understanding.
  • Be careful not to overpromise. Unfulfilled assurances and possibilities can ultimately injure your credibility.
  • Consider if you might be softening a message or making it more equivocal to make yourself—the communicator—feel more comfortable. Ask: Who is benefiting most from me softening a blow?
  • Use simple and natural language, not a script, to ensure you sound authentic and not like a press release. This is a critical time to be human.
  • Remind your team of available counseling and feedback opportunities and reinforce your constant commitment to honest communications and transparency. Sometimes no news is worse than bad news.


Honoring a Person

For a leader, honoring an individual involves more than simply ticking off a list of laudable accomplishments. It requires sharing the honoree’s legacy—the continuing impact of their contribution to the brand, the work, the workplace, the field, or the industry.

The following are other important actions and communications leaders should consider:

  • Curating the honoree’s accomplishments ahead of time and picking only the most relevant and specific achievements. You’re not there to tell the honoree’s life story, only to explain the impact of their contribution to the company or cause.
  • Calling out the honoree’s personal qualities or competencies that played a significant role in producing those outcomes.
  • Sharing personal stories or experiences you had with the person, even if minor. If you don’t have direct personal experience, share someone else’s experience as told to you.
  • Delivering your comments directly to the honoree using second-person language (“you”) versus third-person language (“he/she/they”).
  • Using concise notes in the form of prompts versus complete sentences. Brief notes will help sustain your authenticity and your eye contact.