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  • Di Miller and Alan Sieler

What is the Language of Effective Leadership?

by Di Miller and Alan Sieler

Conversations, language and leadership

There are many approaches to leadership development available today. An ontological approach to leadership and management works with the ‘elusive obvious’,* which is the essence of what every leader and manager has to do that is right in front of our ears and eyes but little appreciated.

Leaders can only get their jobs done through others. They rely on the expertise and cooperation of others to adequately perform the multitude of tasks and complete projects in a timely manner. Coordination between many specialised and diverse roles through the guidance and direction of leaders is indispensable for the effective functioning of any team, business unit and organisation.

What is the essence of how leaders provide guidance, direction and coordination in order to get their jobs done through others? Through human interaction in the form of conversations and relationships. This is the means by which all organisational work is done and therefore is a fundamental business process.

The ‘elusive obvious’ of leadership development, business improvement and cultural change is the quality and effectiveness of the conversations and relationships of leaders and managers.

One essential ingredient of conversations - whether they occur face-to-face or via phone, email or videoconference - is the use of language. Language can be seen as the fundamental technology of humankind, as the essential means by which things get done and the future is created.

Language has power, the essence of which is the power to bring about reality. As languaging beings, humans have an in-built linguistic toolkit that they use all the time. There are six tools in this kit and the power of each tool is that it has its own unique way of generating reality. Language is at the heart of leadership and, to use a double negative, leaders cannot not use the linguistic toolkit. However, if they do not know they have this toolkit then how can they know how well they are using it?

One the distinguishing features of an ontological approach to individual and organisational change is the application of the linguistic toolkit to facilitate the development higher quality conversations and relationships. Higher quality inter-personal communication is at the heart of leadership development, improved business outcomes, personal wellbeing and better workplace morale.

Researching language and effective leadership In her research on language as part of participating in the Graduate Diploma of Ontological Coaching, Di Miller has recorded some fascinating observations of the contrasting effects of the different use of the linguistic toolkit for effective leadership. Here is Di’s report, with each linguistic tool indicated in red.

It was interesting to observe the difference in language used by two managers within my workplace and the different moods and levels of productivity that existed in their teams.

1. Ineffective leadership

Firstly, I observed a manager where the ineffective use of language appeared to not be very helpful to building a supportive, productive, happy team. These are some of the examples of language that I observed.

Vague ineffective request of the team “Everything is a mess, just a mess, a mess, a mess. Somebody has to do something about it.” She was wanting assistance without specifically asking for it.

Assessments (judgements) being treated Assertions (facts): “I shouldn’t have to do this”. “It’s their job, they should know.” “Why should I care, no one else cares”. “What would they know, they’re just useless.” “Yes, we decided on that, but that was just stupid really.” “I told him to do that, but as usual he didn’t do it”.

There was little evidence of the use of offers of support to the team or between team members. In my assessment, the team weren’t working very closely together on their projects, and there appeared to be a pattern of duplication of work. The team also has a higher than normal unscheduled absence level (statistics show this) and overall, they just generally didn’t seem very happy people (general observation). The area also has difficulty in attracting people to join their team (evidenced through recruitment outcomes).

2. Effective leadership

Secondly, I observed a manager who I assessed as being very skilful in the use of language to get the job done and to build positive relationships within the team.

Declarations: She appeared to be aware of her authority and delivered declarations to her team on how things will be, and where possible gave background information on why things may be happening that way (the possible assessments made by people in authority that resulted in the declaration). I also noticed that where she could, she got the team to provide information (in the form of assertions and assessments) that may lead to declarations made by senior managers.

I also observed this manager using respectful behaviours and language to empower her team leaders with the authority they had in their role. In my assessment, her team leaders displayed a sense of confidence, and appeared to take the appropriate initiative to get things done (and overall they seemed to be quite happy).

Assessments and Assertions: She made clear distinctions in her language between what was factual (an organisational agreement of what was) and what was her opinion, prefacing her opinions with words such as, “As I see it...”, “In my opinion...” and “My thinking on this is....”

Requests: I observed her making requests of others (up the line, and down the line) by including all the elements of an effective request. She was very good and ensuring she had reliable promises and there didn’t seem to be any room for people to provide vague responses in the form of slippery promises. She would follow up on commitments and have accountability discussions when needed.

I noticed that she also seemed to pay particular attention to the emotion/mood of conversations she was part of. She had a “lightness” about her approach, but her staff seemed to know what was fun, and what needed to be taken seriously. Although I observed her acting on things very quickly (meeting promises/deadlines) she would also leave some things to the next day if the mood didn’t seem right (e.g. unpopular negative organisational announcements being made).

Offers/Promises: She never seemed too busy to offer helpful information to her team, and would continually encourage staff to offer support to others if they had the capacity. It also seemed a natural way of her being to offer praise to those who did good work. In my opinion, she was also always naturally selective of her language in making comments that could potentially erode trust others had in her, or impact on how she presented herself to others. Another thing I noticed was, she seemed to have genuine interest for the concerns of others, and to me this seemed to come through in how she used language: “You seem a bit uncomfortable with this, what’s on your mind”; “I know you take your kids to school in the mornings before work, is that meeting time okay by you?”; “This may be something new for you, let’s get together and talk about it a bit before you get started”. I also noticed that she didn’t appear to get into stories, and when others did, she would respectfully bring the topic back to points in focus.

In my assessment, this team was working quite well together, were delivering some quality programs, and the people seemed quite happy. And the manager didn’t work ridiculously long hours. I learnt a lot by observing this manager. She made it all look easy. It was a good example of how the use of language is so important to being an effective manager.

Following Di’s report here are some questions you may want to reflect on and act on about the use of language in your workplace and in your family life. How could you and others:

  • make constructive use of facts and opinions and not state opinions as if they are facts?

  • make clear unambiguous requests when seeking support?

  • ensure that responses to your requests are definite promises/commitments (agreements)?

  • constructively use your authority to make declarations about future circumstances you want to be occurring?

  • be alert to the needs and concerns of others and make genuine offers to provide support?

Learn more about Newfield Institute’s innovative approach to leadership development, business improvement and cultural change, or contact Alan Sieler on +61 3 9878 5501.

* Expression taken from the title of the book The Elusive Obvious by Moshe Feldenkrais.

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