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This article appeared in AASA Magazine on March, 2022.

The organizational ecosystem relies on a common language between its members. Language is to leadership what a fuel pressure release wrench is to a mechanic. What! A fuel pressure release wrench? Why not romanticize leadership and bathe in its mystique? After all, it's an art, isn't it? A fuel pressure release wrench? Why not a sable hair brush to the landscape artist, or a mallet and chisel to the subtractive sculptor, or a zebrawood baton to the maestro? A fuel pressure release wrench. Really?

Well, leaders usually never start with a blank canvas, a block of stone, or an un-scored composition. It's usually a little messy. Leaders are more likely to be confronted with a high pressure system that is about to blow if it is not relieved. Leaders rely on angles and leverage, a metaphorical wrench, to release just enough pressure to keep everyone psychologically safe, a prerequisite for trust, the cornerstone of organizations that learn.

The organizational milieu is soulless without a lingua franca to bind its culture, which, arguably, is a language in itself. Leaders must appeal to their follower's hearts, in addition to their minds.

Being persuasive is not enough. Positional authority alone renders it unreliable. Conceptual semantics aside, the heart of communication is rooted deeply within the language of leadership and manifests in the actions stemming from an open mind, an open will, and an open heart.

When leaders ask open-ended questions, they are leading with an open mind. If this is the answer, then what is the question? Leaders are cognitive coaches. Thought partners. The language of discourse is strategically designed to promote inward sight (Read Dialogue. Then Discuss for more on this idea).

The open-minded leader asks the questions that lead to self-awareness and inspire a self-fulfilling yearning to reach a desired state. But the language of leadership isn't confined to words.

In the Ethos of Leadership, I discuss leading with character. To build credibility, talk the talk, walk the walk. Credibility comes before trust. Leading with an open will means being clear about expectations and inviting input and feedback and solution-oriented discourse. This language of leadership isn't flowery. It's real. Say what you mean and do what you say you're going to do.

Leading with an open heart requires pathos. Nothing bespeaks an open heart like passion. Leaders who are passionate about their work recognize that their work is dependent on their passion for people. Wear your heart on your sleeve. Show your feelings openly. Take on the perspective of another person. Experience people's emotions. Suffer and celebrate with your team. Leading with an open heart requires compassion. Luckily for some, compassion is a learned skill. So it's never too late.

I pay close attention to the language of leadership. You should too. Buzzwords, clichés, and euphemisms are often confused as the language of leadership. They're not. Instead, they raise suspicion and build resentment among followers. They may be popular at cocktail parties, especially in academic circles, but not so much for leading. Leaders need to be rhetoricians who inspire, not impress.

A former colleague and collaborator of mine has railed against leadership language (and its lofty reputation) and has made it a personal mission to stop abetting its use: "Pretentious mumbo jumbo violates our trust in words. It undermines communication. Ask any communications expert."

If we as leaders want to be intentional about how we lead, let's stop saying it and start doing it....and if we must say it, leave no doubt in anyone's mind what you mean.


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