Blog Business Writing Why Leaders Must Harness the Power of Language

Why Leaders Must Harness the Power of Language

A.J. Ogilvie

A.J. Ogilvie

Professor of Business Communication at the University of Southern California

Published Dec 22, 2020

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Contents:
  1. Why Leaders Must Harness the Power of Language
  2. Ability 1: Adaptability
  3. Ability 2: Empathy
  4. Ability 3: Creativity
  5. Ability 4: Clarity
  6. Going Forward

Why Leaders Must Harness the Power of Language

There is no shortage of articles offering advice on how to be a great leader. Many of these articles focus on how leaders can build trust, improve decision-making, and increase innovation, among other topics.

Yet what few of these articles discuss is the inextricable and critical link between leadership and communication: or in other words, the idea that great leaders must be great communicators.

On the surface this might seem self-evident. We can all think of leaders who were powerful communicators; Steve Jobs, Martin Luther King, Barack Obama, to name a few. But what are the key communication abilities and skills that these great leaders have? Below I articulate four critical communication abilities required for great leaders.

Ability 1: Adaptability

The famous British author H.G. Wells once said, "Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative."

What Wells says about the importance of changing and adapting is true specifically of effective communicators and leaders. Successful communicators are flexible and able to pivot, and they understand that there is no one universal message that works for all readers. So they change what they write based on each kind of audience they encounter.

Leaders must do this as well: in the morning, a CEO might speak to investors, at lunch time a group of VPs, and in the afternoon the company as a whole. For each of these groups, the leader must craft a message that is tailored to the needs and expectations of those specific audiences.

A great example of a leader who is adaptable is former US President Barack Obama. As President, Obama was revered for his ability to adapt his communicative style based on the audience. This talent was covered in a 2012 New York Times article entitled "Obama’s English," which described Obama’s unique linguistic adaptability: with an African-American audience Obama would employ a style characterized by aspects of African-American English, and with other audiences Obama would lean more heavily on a "white syntax." Obama’s communicative flexibility enabled him to engage a disparate group of American voters on a human level, which is no easy feat.

Thus, the key goal of adaptability, for leaders, is connection. Leaders are only successful if they achieve buy-in from everyone at their organization (and people outside of it).

Ability 2: Empathy

For the past several years, empathy has been a buzzword in the business world. And while it might seem cliché, empathy remains a critical requirement for compelling communicators and leaders. In particular, empathy is a core element of adaptability: in order to figure out how you need to adapt your message to a particular group, you must first understand that group.

But what does it mean to have empathy as a communicator and leader? It means that you take what your team members say as significant, that you actively listen to them in order to understand, and that you attempt to step outside of your own worldview in order to try and see someone else’s.

A great example of an empathetic communicator and leader is New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern. In March of 2019 New Zealand suffered a tragic terrorist attack against its Muslim community in Christchurch. Ardern’s response to the tragedy was shaped by empathy in two key ways.

First, rather than loudly proclaim her own views on what happened, she first met with and listened closely to the members of the Muslim community in Christchurch. Second, she wore a hijab when she met with them, which showed them she understood and respected their religion. Days later, media outlets around the world would write about her successful handling of the terrorist attack. One, the Huffington Post, wrote an article about her entitled "Muslims Praise New Zealand Prime Minister for Her Empathy."

jacinda ardern

For leaders, communicating with empathy shows your team members that you genuinely care about them and that you want to understand them, and in turn they are more likely to be open to your ideas.

Ability 3: Creativity

Creativity is a capacious, multi-dimensional term and there are many ways to define it; thinking outside the box, doing things differently, seeing what’s not there. But in terms of communication, creativity involves finding unorthodox but effective ways of using language. And it’s critical for leaders to be creative today in how they communicate because they are competing with the constant hum of various technologies like social media that all want our attention. So communicating creatively as a leader means finding new ways to spark people’s attention and keep them engaged.

There is perhaps no better exemplar of creativity than Steve Jobs, who is heralded as one of the most transformative and creative minds of our time. Yet his creative communication approach is often overlooked. This unique ability to find interesting and engaging ways of connecting with audiences is evident in his now famous iPhone launch presentation from 2007. While there many creative elements to this speech, one strategy in particular stands out and it is Jobs’ ability to tell a compelling story about the iPhone’s touch screen. A leader who didn’t think creatively would have perhaps just told everyone about the feature in boring, straightforward terms:

"To use the iPhone you touch your finger to the glass and control what it does."

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Instead of just merely telling them about the feature, Jobs creates a narrative of how that feature came to be, and in doing so keeps the audience invested in the narrative arc of the story. He does this first by framing the story as a set of questions:

"Now, how are we going to communicate this? We don’t want to carry around a mouse, right? So what are we going to do? Oh, a stylus, right? We’re going to use a stylus. No. Who wants a stylus? You have to get them and put them away, and you lose them. Yuck. Nobody wants a stylus. So let’s not use a stylus."

And then, knowing he has the audience’s attention, he provides them with the answer:

"We’re going to use the best pointing device in the world. We’re going to use a pointing device that we’re all born with—born with ten of them. We’re going to use our fingers. We’re going to touch this with our fingers."

What could have been a dry product explanation becomes, in the hands of Jobs, an artful story of innovation.

Leaders might assume that Jobs’ creativity was the result of innate genius, but the truth is that Jobs’ creativity was deceptively simple; any communication can become an engaging narrative with enough effort and ingenuity.

Ability 4: Clarity

Of the four key qualities we associate with exceptional communication, clarity is perhaps the most important. If a leader’s message is not understood it doesn’t really matter if it’s been tailored, or if it’s creative. At the end of the day audiences must be able to act on what they’ve heard from a leader. But making your communication clear and actionable to audiences is no easy task.

One approach to creating clarity in communication is found in a maxim offered by communications expert Tim Pollard, who believes that effective communication must simply "land a few big ideas powerfully." Many people think clarity occurs when you comprehensively and thoroughly explain an idea or concept to someone. But in truth, clarity comes as a result of the refinement of ideas, not the expansion of them. Pollard’s advice is informed by the idea that most people can only handle one or two big ideas at a time, and so you should take the time to craft those one or two ideas.

A great example of Pollard’s advice involves Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google, who realized they needed a simple and elegant way of explaining Google to investors in 2004. They came up with a simple mission statement that is easily remembered and retold: "to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful." This big idea conveyed to investors that Google had incredible potential in clear and accessible terms and made investing in them a less complicated decision.

Going Forward

These four qualities—adaptability, empathy, creativity, clarity—offer any leader, manager, or organization a way of thinking about and describing the communicative qualities required for effective leadership. It’s important to note, however, that these qualities aren’t fixed but are in fact developmental. That is, all leaders and communicators are always in the process of becoming more adaptable, empathetic, creative, and clear: these are not landmarks but abilities that become more sophisticated with time and practice.

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A.J. Ogilvie

A.J. Ogilvie

Professor of Business Communication at the University of Southern California

A.J. Ogilvie, PhD, is a professor of business communication at the University of Southern California. He has taught business communication, consulting, and writing courses for over ten years, and has published research on the theories of teaching, learning and communication.

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