“I am the leader. Your decisions are not final until ratified by me. A decision made in my absence is not valid.” — Anonymous
I sat next to a manager who was leading a failing project and watched him prepare, in the space of 30 minutes, a request for another million dollars in funding. I was leading the largest part of the effort in question, though he was the strategic project leader. He asked for very little input, and I received quite a lesson. What surprised me was how little detail he provided in his request and how he did the summary calculations to arrive at the figure he planned to request. But, what I really noticed was how different his reasoning and approach to the communication was than what I had seen before. And, I saw him get the funding almost overnight.
To that point in my career, though I had often held leadership positions I had been leading at the team level. What was just dawning on me was that diction—the words we choose to use and how we use them—is very different at the team level than at higher levels of management and in the C-suite.
Ever since then, I’ve reflected on this whenever first line leaders or team members have tried to speak to leaders multiple levels in the hierarchy above them—and failed. Or, succeeded, in interesting ways. And, I’ve seen plenty of examples of senior staff making attempts to hold some sort of open question and answer session with teams and the entire event would fall flat due to the level of diction they had chosen to use in setting context for the discussion or in answering questions. Sometimes I’d hear from team members as they walked away “Well, I learned absolutely nothing from that,” or “Just more management-speak. A waste of time.”
“Diction” refers to style of speaking or writing as dependent upon choice of words. In the cases I’m describing here, style of presentation and interaction is also a factor. It also refers to the accent, inflection, intonation, and speech-sound quality manifested by an individual speaker, usually judged in terms of prevailing standards of acceptability.
Often, I’ve seen people from the team level reach up the hierarchy above them and, no matter how good their ideas or observations were, they could not be heard—because of their level of diction. Generally speaking, we are very poor at listening and talking across boundaries and especially poor at doing so with skill and respect.
I’ve also seen people use diction to “pull rank,” though I don’t see it near as much in Agile-aspiring organizations as I used to “pre-Agile.” The corollary to using diction to “pull rank” is to use diction to defer to perceived authority. Interestingly, the best leaders I know don’t favor allowing people to defer to them, nor do they use diction to assert their leadership status. In fact, they work hard to talk across boundaries between levels in a hierarchy.
I remember one vice president of engineering telling his direct reports who were imploring him to use his power to cause certain changes in the organization. His direct reports kept insisting he had the power. So, he said to them, “Okay. I have the power. I give it to you.” But, they could not hear him, and in that organization, agility is rapidly flagging in his absence after years of impressive leaps forward.
And, I do think that this level of diction—the words we use and how we use them; the concepts we use as our basis for communicating with others—matter tremendously and can set a first line leader apart. Through seeing himself as able to serve the organization well by speaking up and using the language and level of detail best suited to his audience’s expectations, he gains influence. He speaks with the voice of a leader, not just conveys a request or offers a suggestion for improvement.
The challenge comes when we begin to believe we are our level of diction. I’ve seen this in academia. We are all created individuals in a white collar or knowledge working world. But if you walk into a wine and cheese shindig with a bunch of college professors and professional scholars, not only do you hear them reciting their curriculum vitae and publication credits, but you hear them using a level of diction—words and ways of using words—that you won’t hear on the average street corner. They’re doing their academic thing: They are establishing themselves and creating each other as academics.
The same thing tends to happen in organizations where “the leadership team” exists. The leadership team often uses different language and uses language differently than first line workers. They base their communication on different concepts about the work and, sometimes, the people doing it, than the people doing the work would use. They draw power to themselves through this diction, and come to see themselves as leaders because of the language they use and the concepts they base the use of that language upon.
I’ve written elsewhere about nominal leaders, and Robert K. Greenleaf has written a thought provoking book of essays about the “Journey to Legitimate Power and Greatness,” which is the subtitle of The Servant as Leader.
Over time, I have played with this use of diction in relationship to leadership and power. It works like magic. But the back side of this dynamic is the seductiveness of the notion that we are leaders because we’re using the leadership lingo. Rather, we are leading when we promote a vision that moves the organization or those in our sphere of caring in the organization to a better place.
If we are tempted to hide within the language of leadership and thereby set ourselves apart and identify ourselves as leaders through that language, it’s worth considering whether we are leading at all. Perhaps we’re just playing our own music because it makes us feel good to listen to it.
Now all this is not to say that there is no language of leadership and that we should never us it. Rather, it is to say it’s wise to be conscious of using it, know when we are using it, and know whether using it moves us closer to those we speak to or closer to the destination that will move them and the organization to a better state.
 You may wonder what a strategic project leader is. This project had a very interesting structure. One manager led the software development team. One manager led the deployment effort. One manager was responsible for interfacing with executives and negotiating the highest level of budget and schedule constraints. My role was to ensure that 3,350 users of the application were certified to use it, once it was rolled out, within a short period of time. The latter of the two of the roles mentioned above were later combined, and I took on the deployment role in addition to the role I’d had before.