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The Language of Leadership

As leaders, we are often tasked with managing the activities and performance of our teams, while simultaneously driving strategic initiatives and cultural change within the company. Both activities create the outcomes that our stakeholders desire and, as leaders, we need to use the “Language of Leadership” to avoid confusion as we guide the organization forward. Teams need to know exactly what to do to meet current expectations, and they also need to understand the implications of change…i.e. what they are expected to do differently in the future so that the company’s strategic expectations are met.

This is why the “Language of Leadership” is important. Because it is what we say as leaders (and how we say it) that makes all the difference as we navigate the challenges of managing current and future expectations. At Butler Street we use the term “Leadership Development” vs. “Management Development” – because leaders can be found at any level of the organization and don’t always have direct managerial responsibilities.

When we assess the progress of leaders who have completed our program, we often listen for cues in the organization which indicate that cultural change is actually happening. We see the “Language of Leadership” manifesting itself across organizations in three ways: The Language of Discipline and Accountability, The Language of Customer Focus, and The Language of Change Awareness.

The biggest problem with communication is the illusion that it has actually happened.” - George Bernard Shaw

1. Discipline and Accountability

These are the words and phrases which indicate that the organization is aligned around accountability:

​Indicative Phrase


This Language Indicates:

“Win Your Play Moments”

​“Well done, John – that was truly a ‘win your play’ moment!”

“I didn’t complete all my tasks today – I didn’t win my play”

That the leader has a focus on steering individuals towards their most important current success factors

That that the individual has taken personal accountability for their success and that of the company

“Socially Accepted Excuses”

“I lost a deal, but I’m not going to offer any ‘socially accepted excuses’ – I got outsold.”

That the individual has adopted a mindset demonstrating personal accountability as a cultural imperative

"Successful Failure"

“Tim, I understand that you didn’t complete that project on time. How can we make this a ‘successful failure?’

That leader is creating an environment where team members can learn through making mistakes and that “progressive improvement is better than postponed perfection”

2. Customer Focus

You can be sure that your organization is focused on the customer if you hear phrases like:

​Indicative Phrase


This Language Indicates:

"Customer Money"

“Our paychecks are all made of ‘customer money.’”

That the organization recognizes that without satisfied customers, the organization fails and we don’t get paid.

"Operating Reality"

“Our presentation talks too much about us – how do we get into the Customer’s ‘Operating Reality?’”

A recognition that understanding the customer’s critical needs and wants – and using language that they recognize – drives growth

3. Change Awareness

If you hear these words, then you know your associates are aware of the strategic changes that are taking place:

​Indicative Phrase


This Language Indicates:

"In the habit"

“To be successful, you need to be ‘in the habit’ of prospecting every day.”

Leaders are placing emphasis on the critical success factors of the associate’s position

"Yes, And"

“Yes, I like that idea, and we should talk about what needs to happen to make it successful”

A culture of positive reinforcement in an organization that values input from all levels.

Strategic initiatives fail for a variety of reasons, but the most common is due to poor communication. Leaders are tasked with setting the cultural tone for the organization and driving performance. And the language they use makes a huge difference.

Let’s be honest – people don’t leave companies, they leave leaders. They leave leaders who can’t articulate the company’s vision and strategy. They leave because they don’t understand the current expectations of their role. And they leave because they aren’t being coached.

The “Language of Leadership” is easy to recognize in organizations that are successfully transforming:

- Every leader and every associate knows the critical success factors of the company. - They can all clearly articulate the strategic initiatives defined for the next 18-36 months. - They are engaged in the process and use the same language, regardless of their role. - And they are acutely aware of the importance of the customer at every touchpoint.

Are you hearing the Language of Leadership in your company today?

If not, here’s how you can learn more about our Leadership Effectiveness and eLearning programs to help you: strengthen communication, increase engagement, build highly productive teams, and drive cultural change.


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