Learning Hub

Language and leadership


Imagine practising medicine without knowing the language of medicine, including terminology and informal jargon. Surgeons, doctors, nurses and other specialists wouldn’t be able to make clear diagnosis. Communication in any clear way with peers and patients would be unworkable.  Command of the language of medicine provides practitioners with a resource that allows them to make sense of and interact with the world of illness and patients differently from those that lack the language.

“So I leveraged my core competency and without opening the kimono was able to engage my key stakeholders”

The language of leadership is no different. It is a language that gives access to teams, departments and organisations in a distinctive way, creating the opportunity to lead more effectively.

Unfortunately, the language of leadership, unlike the language of medicine is not a skill that leaders or executives learn, practice and hone. Poor use of leadership language leads to misunderstandings, poor decision making, lack of action and ultimately wasted opportunities. Worse still is overuse of business gibberish or jargon. Jargon masks real meaning. Executives use gibberish or jargon to avoid thinking about goals and the direction they need to give to others. 

Unlike the language of medicine and science the language of leadership is not clear, consistent or agreed-upon and can often employ turning nouns into verbs or conjoining words resulting in jargon, conjoined words and gibberish. Consider the terms ‘knowlivators‘ and ‘flexsponsive‘.

These are words used by leaders from big business to replace four perfectly acceptable words (knowledge, motivator, flexible and responsive). I attended a meeting recently where the words volunteer and told were conjoined to make ‘voluntold‘. To those using these words they may make perfect sense, but to others who must hear them they act as a deterrent to understanding and distraction to listening.

Do leaders who use terms like, ‘leverage’, ‘core competency’, ’empower’, ‘open the kimono’, ‘think outside the box’ and other gobbledegook believe that they are more engaging and convincing than those leaders who use clear unambiguous language? Why is so much gibberish used in the language of leadership?

Is it that leaders and executives are insecure and use jargon to make them sound knowledgeable or is it that they are lazy and haven’t thought through their ideas and end up filling in the gaps some blah blah? Whatever the reasons, anyone in the domain of business should learn, practise and hone the language of business until they are a master of it. Ultimately the language leaders choose to use will ultimately be the language of future success or failure.

Language, is the vehicle we use for making decisions and articulating new possibilities. Without command of the language of a particular discipline, medicine, law, aviation, science or business, one cannot practice effectively in that discipline. 

The IMI has been developing leaders and executives to be jargon and gibberish free for over 60 years. Check out our 2015 essential starter guides for Business Finance and Cloud Strategy.

Alan McDonald is a learning design specialist at the IMI. Alan has held a number of management positions where he has significant expertise in programme design and delivery, executive and team facilitation, managing in a global matrix environment and executive coaching. 


Did you enjoy reading this article?