A comedian’s job is to entertain an audience by making them laugh. The comedians we remember long after the performance are the ones where laughter connects to something deeper. The stellar comedian performs jokes in a way that warms hearts and moves the audience to laughter. Like the comedian, the leader’s goal is to inspire, influence, and deliver results through people. This happens when the leader’s language connects with the whole person—touches the head, inspires the heart, and ultimately moves the hands to action.
The great Greek philosopher, Aristotle, understood that people are multidimensional. He believed that persuasion and influencing occur when a speaker connects with an audience in three dimensions. They are logos, which appeals to reason, the ethos for character, and pathos for emotion. Aristotle’s advice to leaders who desire to shift mindsets, influence behaviors, and drive lasting change in their organizations is to construct their communication in a way that appeals to reason, touches the heart, and is authentic.
Great sales agents make it a priority to understand their clients’ needs by connecting with them on a personal level. The logic is simple—people do not place big bets on strangers. Similarly, leaders must understand the players on their teams in a holistic way to influence them. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.” The leader’s language is the instrument for connecting with people, building trust, and increasing a leader’s influence. So, how can you uplevel your leadership language and speak to your audience’s hearts and minds? Consider the following:
#1 Direction Language: Simon Sinek, author of “Start With Why,” studied the most influential leaders from Martin Luther King Jr to Steve Jobs to the Wright Brothers. His study showed they all prioritized the “why” of their missions over the “what” and “how.” Communicating the “why” was their winning formula to overcoming difficult times and inspiring people to action.
Purpose-driven leadership is the leader’s language to engage, energize, and unleash employees during uncertainty. Employees are energized by leaders who provide clarity, and lead the way. Do not let your what and how to take priority over your why.
When purpose is known, and you pour your heart into it, success is inevitable.
#2 Empathy Language: According to John C. Maxwell, “No one cares how much you know until they know how much you care.” Unfortunately, many transformational change efforts do not yield the desired results and often fail because leaders address issues from their perspectives, not the receivers. This disconnect results in half-hearted commitment, low accountability, and resistance in organizations. Leaders can turn this situation around when they shift from monologue to dialogue and from talk-first to listen-first. This shift communicates to the receiver—I hear you, see you, and feel you. Before you launch that transformation in your organization, ask yourself if you are trying to make the audience understand your language or speaking theirs. In the end, people are persuaded by what is important to them, not what you say.
“The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” – George Bernard Shaw
#3 Authentic Language: According to Stephen Covey, author of “The Speed of Trust,” 57% of employees do not trust their leaders. This explains why many change messages do not land because of the trust deficit with leaders. Many times, leaders spin, do not give enough context on why change is happening, or deliver sugar-coated messages. Also, leaders get into trouble when they take on the role of parent and shield employees from the information they believe is detrimental to them or the business. Contrary to leadership perception, employees want to hear, and they can handle bad news when it is delivered from the heart. A leader’s authenticity is the down payment to gaining credibility and connecting with the organization. This occurs when leaders talk straight: share what they know and don’t know, and acknowledge what they know, but can’t share.
People join an organization because of its reputation. They stay because of its character. They exit when its reputation and character are not aligned.
#4 Quality Language: Have you ever been in a 1:1, and the person you are talking to keeps glancing at their phone, watch, or is multi-tasking? This unintentionally signals to the receiver that you don’t value their time or respect them. We live in heightened times of constant distractions from phones, instant messages, text messages, pop-up alerts, etc. In addition, there is continuous pressure on business leaders to navigate these times of unprecedented change. If leaders do not find a balance, they may save their businesses, but lose their souls. To avoid this, leaders must be proficient in delegating and choose quality over quantity time. Being fully present is a precious gift leaders can give their teams—it communicates you are a person of value and valued. What can you delegate today to enable you to invest in your most important asset—your people?
“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” – Maya Angelou
#5 Recognition Language: Chip and Dan Heath, co-authors of “The Power of Moments,” shared that across several studies that spanned 46 years, only one factor was cited every time as among the top two motivators: “full appreciation of work done.” Dr. Mike Murdock shared some insights on what happens when people are not recognized. “Anything unrecognized becomes uncelebrated. Anything uncelebrated becomes unrewarded. Anything unrewarded eventually exits your life.” In short, whatever you recognize increases in value, and whatever you don’t recognize decreases in value.
There is the argument for leaders who believe a salary is already a recognition, while others believe in treating everyone the same. Another perspective on recognition is to observe the watering needs of potted hydrangeas and cactus plants during summer. Hydrangeas plants should be watered at least three times a week, while cactus plants should be watered at least once a week. If a leader like the cactus plant has minimal water needs to thrive, the leader could assume everyone else is like that or label the hydrangeas plant as needy. Th end result—the hydrangeas is deprived of the water it needs to thrive. Like a gardener understands what each plant needs to thrive, leaders must understand each team player’s recognition style to foster a growth environment. Leaders speak their employees’ language when recognition is heartfelt, specific, and tailored to the individual. The simplest way to increase your awareness of your team’s recognition style is to ask.
“Instead of calling people out, call them up.” – Anonymous
#6 Humility Language: It is human to judge ourselves by our intentions and others by their actions. Leaders lose credibility when they do not hold themselves accountable when things do not go as planned. In his book, “Good to Great”, Jim Collins shared some insights that leaders can adopt. “Level 5 leaders look out the window to apportion credit to factors outside themselves when things go well. At the same time, they look in the mirror to apportion responsibility; never blaming bad luck when things go poorly.” Great leaders connect with their audience’s heart when they are vulnerable—they ask for feedback, admit what they do not know, and apologize for mistakes made. When last did you accept and apologize to your team for dropping the ball?
“Nobody stands taller than those willing to stand corrected.” – William Safire
#7 Culture Language: Great leaders are experts in fostering innovative environments that encourage employees to take risks and fail fast. A misconception about culture change is that leaders can focus solely on culture to transform an organization. Culture is an output of the behaviors, experiences, and results of an organization. Leaders change culture by ensuring they foster environments (experiences and mindsets) that encourage desired behaviors. For example, if you increase your conference room temperature to 70 degrees Fahrenheit, people start taking off their jackets because of the heat. If you reduce the same temperature to 60 degrees Fahrenheit, people put it back on because of the cold. The leader is not telling people what to do, but the leader influences certain behaviors by regulating the environment. If you are not happy with your organization’s culture and what you are seeing, take a step back to reflect on the climate your leadership team is creating.
“You don’t build a business, you build people, then people build the business” – Zig Ziglar
Leadership is a people business. People connect with the leader first before the organizational strategy and vision statements. When leaders connect with the heads, hearts, and hands of their employees, the vision of the leader becomes a shared vision. Howard Schultz, Founder and CEO emeritus of Starbucks, captured the essence of the leader’s language: “From day one, I wanted to build the kind of company my father never got a chance to work for. A company that honors and respects the dignity of work and the dignity of all men and all women.” The leader’s language is the vehicle for connection, inspiration, and building trust—it ultimately leads to shifting mindsets, influencing behaviors, and driving lasting change.