Humpty Dumpty…

 “When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”    “The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

I am pleased to say that I am in good company when using this quotation from Alice through the Looking Glass – it has been used in 250 judicial decisions in the US, including two from the Supreme Court.  I like to imagine that this piece will have at least as profound an impact, though that may just be my reputation as the office linguistic pedant fuelling my hubris.

Language is there to provide common comprehension and, without it, teams and society break down.  The story of the Tower of Babel is one of the earliest illustrations of a lack of understanding between people ostensibly working together and there are countless other illustrations of ‘crossed wires’ – whether amongst those of the same or different nationalities.  You only have to look at the wildly differing views on what ‘Brexit’ means to see that.

To try to get over such problems we have invented shared understanding of words and phrases.  It is most notable in the scientific field where there is universal understanding of what, for instance, a centimetre is – while the difference between US and UK gallons continues to muddle us.  In many safety critical operations, say air traffic control, there are common standards and a ‘universal’ language.

To a lesser extent the world of business has shared languages too that aim to help people understand what is going on, or to collaborate.  It is most obvious in the finance world where investors, analysts, accountants and managers have a common understanding of what, say, EBITDA, is (though maybe not what the inputs are to it).   Operators and logisticians also have common terminology – think ‘supply chain, stock level, quality’ – and can then have a sensible and constructive conversation around it.

It is therefore surprising that leaders don’t seem to have a language about the essence of their role (leadership) that is commonly shared, understood and, most importantly, practised by their team.  Of course, there is lots of talk about ‘role-modelling’, ‘accountability’ or ‘doing the right thing’ but it is rare to hear leaders and teams discuss what that actually looks like in reality as part of their agenda.

Humpty Dumpty had a Great Fall….

Without a language that is broadly understood, and frequently practised leaders will continue to be partially effective.  To address this, leaders need to ensure they:

If we accept that language is the first stage in the process through which thoughts become activities, then to neglect a part of the process spells failure – or as Humpty Dumpty discovered in another life, it will bring about a great fall.



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