01/29/2016 04:21 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Vocabulary as a Barrier to Culture Change?


It appears to me that most of our attention is going into reacting against the issues of the past and, as a community, we seem unable to focus our attention and draw resources to sense and shape the future. I believe this is in part due to the language we use.

Our inherited leadership vocabulary is no longer fit to meet the challenges of our time. Climate change, refuge crisis, the worst four-day start to a year in stocks, dragged down by another drop in Chinese equities and oil prices at 12-year lows. How do we respond to issues like these with the old organisational vocabulary? We can't. We need a new vocabulary and a new collective leadership mechanism that allows a diverse constellation of players to connect, co-sense, and co-create.

The essence of leadership has always been about sensing and actualising the future. It is about crossing the threshold and stepping into a new territory, into a future that is different from the past. The Indo-European root of the English word leadership is 'leith', which means 'to go forth' and 'to cross a threshold'.

As change makers, we need to be flexible in our style and approach. If we want to change others, we need to be open to changing ourselves first. If we can't use hierarchy to change the system, then the main leverage we have is the quality of our relationship with other stakeholders. However, as we form this new vocabulary for leadership, there is a warning. To many, the language we use is perceived to be unattainable and out of reach. There is a deep-rooted scepticism amongst stakeholders, fatigued from discussing big ideas, with few ever witnessing lasting transformative change.

We should be comfortable using different language with different stakeholders. Innovation in complex systems requires us to be multilingual, to connect to the various stakeholders about the issues that matter to them. That means that single-focus approaches are almost certain to fail. Instead, we need to master the art of broadening and deepening the definition of the problem to get all of the relevant parties who need one another to change any system committed to participate.

While the path ahead is almost certainly connected to the deeper dimensions of our humanity - "What is the purpose of life? What is the value of life? Why do we exist?" - we need to recognise the role we play in the system and adjust our approach accordingly. Above all else, we need to demonstrate that we are making a tangible difference if we are to build confidence with our stakeholders and gain collective willingness to go forth and cross the threshold.