Leader Language Creates Culture

In practice, the concept of lingua franca is familiar to most people.

It’s the commonly used language used by groups to communicate thoughts and ideas that can be shared by diverse groups of people. And in specialized worlds – like that of leadership - it is the common thread that binds the activities and approaches to decision-making that help frame the ideas of organizations.

Visionary leaders have always used language to express their grandest ideas that would change the world. They are masters at figuring out how to get the rest of us to adopt their language to express our own intentions.


The kind of leadership that relies on dictate has long passed most organizations by as antiquated, ineffective and unsustainable (despite what some public discourse may sound like today). Instead, the idea of influencing behavior by tapping into what affirmatively motivates people is how the most successful leaders of our day operate.

Whether it’s the language of finance, community organizing, healthcare or technology transfer, the people we revere as transformational in their fields use language to motivate, inspire and shape the cultures that they find themselves in.

I would venture to say 75 percent of a leader’s role is to communicate expectations, inspire people to perform to their abilities, course correct when work is off course and transmit the importance of everyone’s participation to the larger goal of a project or enterprise.


To successfully do those things, leaders must possess a number of technical skills that are essential to understanding what “perfect performance” looks like in a given field. But, once a leader is able to demonstrate her technical bona fides, much of the rest of her portfolio is really about inspiring, convincing, influencing and praising the golden triangle of stakeholders for any organization: the company, the customers and the collaborators.

Noah Zandan, CEO of Quantified Communications once noted in an article published by Inc. Magazine that there are several ways visionary leaders can best create an inspirational lingua franca for your organization:

·      Use more of the present tense versus future tense language when speaking about your organization

·      Talk more about your team more than you do about the institution or yourself

·      Use more sensory or feeling language to describe how things appear

This advice goes for the language you use in written materials, as well. Transmitting a “sense” of “who” your organization is can have equally motivating impacts on people that are (or want to be) associated with your team.

I’m also reminded of Simon Sinek’s book Start with Why when considering how to use language to inspire. In it, he posits that people are inspired by “a sense of purpose”. It is that connection that must be made in order for a resonant lingua franca to begin to take hold and reflect your culture.

Below are a series of questions leaders should be asking themselves on a regular basis when seeking to figure out if he is using language that reflects inspiration:

·      How do you transmit vision?

·      How do you praise good performance?

·      How do you constructively criticize misses?

·      How often are you “walking the shop floor”?

·      At what point in a process do you offer praise for good performance?

·      At what point in a process do you offer criticism for poor performance?

·      Do you check to see if the language you use to lead is understood by your audience?

·      Does the language you use to talk about that vision support your vision?

·      Are new employees “taught” your organization’s lingua franca in a systematic way?  

All of these questions and many others ought to be considered when thinking about the development of a robust and inviting culture in your organization. Let us know if any of these concepts are helpful as you begin changing your own workplace cultures.


The Importance of Self-Efficacy

A large part of successful leadership is being able to empower people to “do their best”. Visionary leaders understand the importance of delegating important work to employees for the purpose of building self-efficacy on teams, and the development of a cultural approach to performance improvement.

Self-efficacy is most commonly defined as an individual's belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance objectives. It reflects confidence in the ability to exert control over one's own motivation, behavior, and social environment. This is different than self-confidence in that speaks to one’s belief in his or her self-worth and likelihood of succeeding in a given task.

The concept of self-efficacy helps shed light on how people look at trying new experiences in a profound way. It is also an approach to organizing teams that offers managers of people a framework to establish ever-rising standards of behavior and success in organizations.

Leaders with pronounced self-efficacy seem to have a higher level of "commitment" to completing tasks once they take them on, compared to people who find themselves lower on that scale. When leading people in organizations, it is not enough to have self-confidence in one’s technical abilities to achieve success.

According to renowned leadership coach Richard Seaman, adopting an "approach" behavior, seeking challenges and persevering with tasks are all qualities of high achievers and people who have high self-efficacy. Below are some examples of how to do this:

Below is a list of ways leaders can increase self-efficacy in organizations:

  • Improve training and professional development practices

  • Improve leadership and mentoring practices

  • Display confidence in your colleagues regularly

  • Systematize coaching strategies

  • Recruit employees with high self-efficacy

This has a direct relationship to how people see themselves, in terms of their self confidence and belief that they can accomplish certain things. At the same time, the opposite can also be true. 

In Albert Bandura's book Self Efficacy: The Exercise of Control, the author tries to illustrate the points noted above by examining the efforts by minority groups to encourage "pride in racial characteristics," as demonstrated in the term "Black is Beautiful." When a person's "belief" in one's self and one's self worth are knocked down consistently from different corners, a that person's self-efficacy can fall.


Interestingly, there are some that argue that past performance has an influence on self image. So, some people with low self-efficacy, who tend to avoid new challenges, give up easily or become anxious with tasks, may actually harbor some of those "insecure" feelings because of some outside stimuli that contributed to a lowering of self image.

From a practical standpoint, these levels of "security" vs. "insecurity" often serve as the barometer for how people might approach new experiences in the workplace. So, it stands to reason that if one of your employees has been given consistent negative feedback for how she delivers PowerPoint presentations, that stimulus is going to help foster anxiety within her the next time she has to present in front of executives in your organization.

As a leader, I've had to learn from a number of experiences that "self doubt" is the quickest way to get other people to believe that you can't do something. A healthy belief in one's abilities or self-worth helps set the stage for the adoption of a more confident approach to tackling problems.

Of course, overconfidence (the over toggling of self-efficacy) needs to be monitored and taken into consideration when evaluating employee ability and performance. The Delta between a person’s expected performance and his actual performance is where overconfidence can be an indication of whether self-efficacy has spilled over into the territory of overconfidence, which can negatively impact performance.

But, establishing a culture of leadership where appropriate praise for achievement and constant ratcheting up of expectations can positively support the self-efficacy of individuals in an organization, and help overall performance of the group.

When Leadership Fails Us

Last week was a difficult time in America.

The racially motivated murder at a supermarket in Kentucky, the politically motivated terrorism of pipe bombs being mailed to critics of the current president and the anti-Semitic massacre in Pittsburgh were only the latest incidents of terror, hate and violence that have been in the headlines that chip away at the bedrock of our Democracy: The basic norms that link the Rule of Law to Civil Society.

Antithetical leadership is the approach being adopted by many public leaders today. They are stoking the flames of fear, hatred, bigotry and violence in an effort to destabilize our Constitutional Democracy and push us closer to Dictatorship.

We first saw this in Europe during the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, culminating with the National Socialist Party in Germany, the National Fascist Party in Italy, the Falange in Spain, the Vichy in France and the Fatherland Front in Austria. Today, we’re seeing a replica of such movements with “Strongman Leaders” attempting to promote the concept of Nationalism as the way to address complex problems in Western nations. This goes against the “basic norms” as espoused by Hans Kelner, widely regarded as the foremost thinker in the field of the Pure Theory of Law. The question that we ought to consider asking now is “Are we repeating the same mistakes that led to a series of antithetical political leaders pushing an agenda of anti-Democratic public behavior?”

All the tools of leadership - effective communication, optimism, technical skills, vision, drive - can be used for the collective good of society, or to stoke fear. If measurements of success for leadership are performance-related, its is clear to me that using those tools to advance a vision that results in greater team and individual success is what the role of successful leaders are. With that comes financial and other fiduciary “wins”. But, if leaders fail to exercise their talents in ways that promote sustainable improvement, then that form of leadership can be safely categorized as antithetical leadership.

In the OVP Leadership Blog, we’ve discussed a number of “tactical” approaches to deploying leadership skills that bring people together, encourage reflection and offer ways to improve performance. Our hope is that some of the things discussed here have been useful to leaders of small and large groups, alike. We have deliberately tried to shy away from more obvious political discussions regarding leadership, because we recognize that our readers hold many different perspectives about the current political climate. But this past week’s events have caused us to reflect on the roles leaders have, beyond the tactical.

One of the many gifts that leadership ought to provide those of us that are fortunate to practice it, is humility. We ought to know, as leaders, that we are only as good as the people we work with. Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak would not have been able to “make” Apple Inc. into the phenomenon it has become by virtue of their sweat equity and smarts. They needed great teams of people to help make real their visions.

The same holds true for the current president of the United States. He has been given a gift of public leadership. He has a responsibility wield the power of his position carefully, lest he unwittingly (or purposefully) pushes this nation further into chaos. The framers of the United States Constitution specifically created the Separation of Powers between the three branches of the federal government to prevent an abuse of power.

Nothing in a Democracy happens in vacuum. The tragedies of the last week are tied to the idea of who "we" are as people and as "Americans". Many of the accomplices to these events - fear, xenophobia, anti-Semitism, racism, misogyny, hate, unfettered quests for power, lying and scapegoating - are "hiding in plain sight" in our public discourse.

Some people in leadership positions are failing us and reneging on their oaths. Other, more prominent people in positions of power are actively working to "turn back the clock" and strip away all of the societal gains this country has forged over the last 155 years. And still there is "debate" about how to respond in "abnormal " times.

Shame on all of us who call ourselves “leaders” for allowing the enemies of Democracy to stoke hate, normalize pathology and trample on human rights. Leaders have a responsibility to help pave the way for the betterment of the larger group. Leadership must not be myopically self-serving, at the expense of the greater good.

Our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents were confronted with similar fascists threats (here and abroad), and resolved to push back with Democratic Principles. But a key of their success was being able to agree on truth: All men are created equal endowed with certain unalienable rights, which include life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. We ought to be able to agree that hate is the enemy of truth, and that leadership is required to confront hate.


Decision Recovery Process

Leadership is often couched as a process to solving problems by way of calculated decision making. And as we all know, good leadership is often recognized through the prism of the “right” decisions that were made in the course of addressing a problem.

But, there are times when leaders make poor decisions that can set back the course of a process. Do a series of these “bad” decisions make one a poor leader? Not necessarily.

In any analysis of a designed process, conducting after action reviews are critical opportunities for learning. It is often critical to the success of your operations to be able to recover quickly following a miscalculation.

Visionary leaders use these opportunities not only to assess the pathways and connections of the process in question, but to learn new lessons that often influence how they approach future decision making moments.

In industrial settings like the car business or other heavy manufacturing the use of Kaizen or continuous improvement problem solving techniques has been standard operating procedure for decades. But with people-focused organizations, continuous improvement is becoming more common.

How can you as a leader start utilizing continuous improvement process design techniques to help recover from poor decisions that can impact your organization? Here are some suggestions:

  • Take an inventory of how you currently deal with problem recovery. Does your organization have a documented repeatable system to address process deviations?

  • Conduct an informal survey of your team to see if there is consensus on how problem solving is conducted and how best practices are formed following process deviation. Hearing from different parts of your organization will help broaden your perspective on what can b a critical nexus between meta-skills and technical skills.

  • Try to identify if there is a mapped process that can be measured. Seeing what an understood process looks like goes a long way to figuring out how you can spot where you went wrong in your decision making process.

  • Share your findings with everyone in your organization. Widening the scope of participants will increase the likelihood of finding a set of “fixes” that will be accepted by your organization. This also promotes the notion that everyone has a role to play in recovering from decisions that don’t pan out as planned.

  • Seek out expert process design help inside or outside of your organization to help formalize the way you approach problem solving and recovery on your team. It’s important to have people that have familiarity and experience in process design to help leaders think through these kinds of issues.

We all make mistakes in life. It is expected. How we choose to respond can mean the difference between achieving lasting success in the future and being susceptible to repeating the same mistakes.

Taking a measured approach and formalizing the way your organization tackles problem solving is a great way to show visionary leadership.