The relationship between language and leadership

THE RELATIONSHIP BETWEEN LANGUAGE AND LEADERSHIP

Michael Sharma posted an insightful discussion recently concerning the relationship between language and leadership.

He posed the following question:

‘Every department in your company speaks a different language. So what?

The top leadership team speaks in the language of bottom line profits dollars/euros; the sales team speaks in the language of top line sales dollars/euros; the accountant speaks in the language of margin percentage; the purchasing team speaks in the language of per-piece cost; the sister plant speaks the language of inter-company transfer pricing; the master scheduler speaks the language of EOQ; inside sales speaks the language of OTD; shipping speaks the language of unshippable past due dollars/euros; and production speaks the language of units demanded.

What does this all mean for the company?’

In my opinion the answer to this question is that language is central to successful lean transformation.

The relationship between language and leadership is central to our people enabled processes research (people enabled processes are one of the elements of our lean business model®. Leadership occurs at all levels of an organisation and not just the Boardroom. However, the focus of lean varies for leaders at different organisational levels. These differences can be mapped again key variables of uncertainty and complexity:

Front line managers, for whom uncertainty and complexity are typically lower, tend to be focused on changing rules and procedures. For these leaders, the challenge is the changing work context.

Middle managers, for whom uncertainty and complexity are typically higher, tend to be focused on changing policies and strategies. For these leaders, the challenge is in their inter-personal relations, since their role is to translate both to those above and to those below in the organisation.

Senior management, for whom uncertainty and complexity are typically at their highest, tend to have less clear focus. However, the leadership challenge they face is likely in involve greater intra-personal skills and self-awareness. Leaders at this level must be mindful not just of what they are doing but how they are doing it. They can unravel months of improvement work in an instant through by an ill thought through verbal reaction. For this group language is crucial.

In summary, our evidence we have accumulated so far leads us to conclude that the language of leadership is the greater determinant of sustained lean transformation.  However, the implication in Michael Sharma’s discussion is right. The first step is to break down the functional jargon and get back to the basics and a common understanding of those basics. Without this, improvement will remain merely a noble aspiration.