Who makes a better leader — the one we fear and follow unquestioningly, or the one who motivates us to think for ourselves? Is the leader’s responsibility to turn followers into a domesticated, obedient herd, or into independent-minded, creative, emotionally intelligent individuals? For the older generation of leaders, the answer was simple — tough, decisive, authoritative and feared figures made the cut.
Today, the workplace has evolved and so has a leader’s role. Managers no longer stride out of the corner office to make a round of the floor; stop at desks to praise someone, reprimand another or solve another’s problem. Managers and teams are geographically dispersed, working across time zones. Ground-up rather than top-down is the way forward if one needs to deliver swift, out-of-the-box solutions to clients across the globe. “A leadership culture is one where everyone thinks like an owner, a CEO or a managing director. It’s one where everyone is entrepreneurial and proactive,” said Stephen Covey, the author of The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.
Given the context, the leader’s key role is to develop creative thinking, accountability and ownership. How the leader communicates within the team becomes one of the critical factors in shaping team culture. Many language tools come in handy.
Here are the Three Essentials in the Language Toolkit for leaders.
- Open questions: The right questions help create a psychologically safe space. Questions that enquire (Why do you think this project will require 6 months?), prompt people to think creatively (What factors do you think need to be addressed if we want to fast track the project and deliver in 4 months?), bring out facts and figures (What data do we have that point to this conclusion?), lend support (What do you need from me to deliver this project successfully?) are examples. Open questions start with what, why, how, when, etc. Closed questions (that require Yes/No answers) work better in courtrooms where one is trying to judge rather than open minds.
- Connecting words: Today’s leader does not just hand out decisions that the team is expected to execute. She collects data independently as well as from the team, factors in the opinions of stakeholders, and analyses all information before coming to a decision. Once she does that, she places it before the team in a clear, logical manner so that the team is convinced too. At this stage, terms and phrases that demonstrate logical reasoning (‘due to’, ‘as a result’, ‘since’, ‘hence’, ‘because’) and sequence (firstly, next, finally) get used. ‘A cross-functional team will work on this project’ may sound autocratic. Another way of putting it could be - ‘Multiple skills are required for this project. Stakeholders need to work collaboratively and stay invested throughout. Hence, our first task will be to identify the right resources and build a cross-functional team’. When presented in this manner, the chances of the team buying into the idea and taking ownership of the tasks is much higher.
- Imperatives: This is a grammatical structure used to give orders. A leader today still has to take quick decisions and give orders when needed. Encouraging independent thinking does not amount to a free-for-all. Creating an optimal space for productivity and efficiency also means setting boundaries and monitoring the space. That is where the imperative form is needed. ‘We had promised to include features X and Y in the product that was to be delivered by date Z, that can’t be changed two days before the deadline. Please complete it before you go on leave or cancel your leave’. Tough talk does not mean rude behaviour, it means ensuring exact standards. While it’s largely questions during the brainstorming and planning phase, it’s more about clear directions during the later phases of the project.
The heading of the Forbes article ‘People leave Managers, not Companies’ is true to a great extent. In the era of the Great Resignation post-pandemic, it makes even more sense for all leaders — from first-time managers to CEOs of companies — to speak the language of leadership.
Dolon Gupta is a consultant specialising in Communication, Culture and Soft Skills. She is the co-founder of Business Communication Facilitators Association of India (BCFAI)