The exercise of leadership happens when someone offers a presence, ideas, direction, or purpose which serve to unify people's focus and effort. It can only exist in relationship, that is, in connection, in engagement. As soon as one of us turns away or turns off, there is no leadership going on. As soon as one of us (often a senior manager) takes a disconnected or 'objective' or analytical position, we place ourselves outside or above the relationship. Leadership is founded in example and engagement.
The experience of leadership is personal, emotional, optimistic, grounded, trusting, valuable and memorable. When a manager or a worker provides good leadership, their colleagues will later say, "I always felt heard," and they will add, "I'd work with them again any time." When people tell stories about their best and most memorable experiences in work, they almost always include descriptions of such leadership.
The language of leadership is direct, passionate, caring, and talks of real human experience. It's distinctive for its use of sensory words, changing moods and inflections, and often for its use of stories, anecdotes, metaphors, analogies, actual illustrations. It's plain English - talking about things in tangible terms - things we can see, hear and feel. And the more we talk (and write) about 'real' things, the more we connect with each other, and the more our audience (colleagues, customers, the public) can relate to the things we say.
Living language is evocative, expressive, emotional. Because of this, it helps us to relate to each other as more complete beings, who are freed to be expressive, creative, open and trusting. High quality problem solving requires that we communicate in this way. No-one has ever been persuaded to trust a 'leader' who said things like, "... our people are dedicated to partnering with their clients to share their challenges – providing value by pushing the boundaries of ingenuity to achieve successful outcomes", by "investment in the delivery of operational excellence initiatives to support new business growth and capability development".
On the contrary, when a leader invites colleagues to "join me in turning our company around, to make it a place to be proud of, and to share the excitement of doing that," people are more inclined to 'give it a go', especially if the leader can hold them with a strong, compelling story, or clear images of that future - one with real people doing real things well.
It's about our clients "getting what they need", rather than "achieving desired outcomes" or "having a superior customer experience"; it's about us "doing good work", not "realising our aspirations"; about us "setting our own high standards which we can be proud of", not "matching or exceeding global benchmarks", or "exceeding customer expectations."
Leaders need to be able to talk simply and with compassion about changing company processes and structures, (including retrenchments), rather than speaking around their topic with briefings which say (sometimes over thousands of words) things like "To ensure that we are positioned to leverage our products and services to meet future customer demands and expectations and meet our strategic growth targets, as the economy starts to recover, I am pleased to announce the second phase of modifications to our operational structure and practices."
Organisational language ('corporatespeak') has become full of fluff, disassociated and lifeless. It includes a lot of jargon, but also includes many vague and ill-defined phrases too. Sadly, it seems that many people in organisations have become habituated to it, and get used to using it as a mark of their inclusion in the system.
Corporatespeak serves several important functions - it makes the speaker seem expert, it excludes others from the conversation/debate, it reinforces a sense of belonging (every club we belong to has its own lingo), it prevents tangible meaning by allowing multiple interpretations to be inferred, and creates an air of safety by protecting its users from frontal attack or critique. It is a form of language so far removed from actual experience that it allows rituals of agreement and collusion which would be impossible if people used more specific language or that of shared everyday experience.
Corporatespeak is a non-specific, encoded, disengaged and lifeless language. It avoids anything we might experience - things we could see, hear, taste, feel, smell. Every reader (or listener) will make their own images, and maybe feelings, about what they hear, in order to 'make sense' (literally) of what others say, but no two people will make anything like the same image. Corporatespeak doesn't (and is designed not to) connect to real people's experiences or emotions. Its function is to hold everyone in a detached, 'objective' place - one where we can be 'professional'. As such, it is a form of collusion among managers to speak in a language they can all nod to, while skimming over the surface of reality.
It should be no surprise, then, if this language serves to hold company staff in a disassociated, dispassionate, and unexcited state in their work. In truth, in psychologically unsafe hierarchies, this lifeless language serves to protect our backs. ("You can't attack me, I used all the right phrases" is a little like, "I did all I could, I used a well-reputed consulting firm."). A robotic environment succours robots. We become nondescript advocates for the machine we've become part of.
Unfortunately, corporate language has also become common in fields such as politics, sport, and even, in an exaggerated form, in the overblown descriptions of our foodie culture.
Leadership entails quite a different kind of engagement with our colleagues. The language of leadership is alive - it paints futures we aspire to, it illustrates how and why we could work well together, what we stand for, why our work matters, how we do things well, how our work brings out the best in us. It gives us clear, bright images of success, it connects to our emotional core, it shows us that our work is worthwhile. It helps us see how our work is connected to fundamental matters and important gains for the people we serve, and it makes us proud to work together to do this. Real engagement reinforces connectedness and interpersonal safety. It's robust and grounded.
The most powerful way to bring life to our discussions and presentations is through story - stories which illustrate our values, stories which show our values and beliefs in action, stories which demonstrate that we put our 'values' into action. (If we cannot do the latter, we are 'having a lend of ourselves' - a great Australian expression).
Stories are designed to be shared and constantly re-told. Every time they are re-told, they change, and we do well to accept this organic quality rather than try to 'control' them.
Good leaders use story in every aspect of their communication with others. They integrate it with direct language, strong interpersonal skills and good intentions.
A good example of the power of story lies in a speech given by Queensland Premier Anna Bligh during the Brisbane floods of January 2011. Opinion polls had put her somewhere between oblivion and disaster before the floods, but she visited affected areas, listened to many people, noted real and specific events, and included them in her speeches. For a period of time, her approval ratings reached record highs, in the aftermath of speeches like this, which combined tangible facts with people's stories (I recommend you read this aloud):-
From the ancient tales of dreamtime to the struggles of settlement, through to World Wars and times of peace, our history makes us who we are.
So often our story has been one of defiance, resilience and renewal. Mother Nature, who has given us so much, can sometimes extract a terrible price. But what our past also tells us is that our nation harbours a spirit that neither earth, nor wind, nor fire, nor water can extinguish.
Each year as we celebrate this national day, we add a chapter to our nation's story and this year Queensland adds a ripper.
After seven years of drought, the great flood of 2011 is a story of the awesome power of water.
Water, which impacted approximately 70 per cent of our vast land and affected around 60 per cent of our entire population. Water that has taken lives, destroyed homes and torn families apart.
From regional centres like Toowoomba, Rockhampton and Bundaberg, to small towns like Grantham, Condamine, Theodore and St George, to our largest cities like Ipswich and Brisbane, water left a trail of devastation and heartbreak.
The entire town of Theodore was evacuated by helicopter - the first time this has happened in our history. In the Darling Downs the town of Condamine had to be evacuated twice as flood waters rose, then receded, then cruelly rose again.
Across the State nearly 5,500 homes were inundated and over 21,000 houses were affected in some way. The Australian Defence Force transported a total of 680 tonnes of food and equipment and nearly 6000 people were evacuated.
The scale of the torrent is hard to comprehend. It took lives; it destroyed billions of dollars of infrastructure, washed crops from farms and devastated homes. It left behind economic and social problems that it will take every ounce of our resolve to fix.
But this story is about much more than devastation. It's a story of great courage and heroism. These stories have been told across Queensland and across the world and in 2011 we learned that heroes live among us.
Heroes like our emergency Chopper Pilots, who plucked victims from raging flood waters and rooftops including Mark Kempton who kept rescuing stranded people as his own family home flooded. That night he saved 28 lives and the next day he wept for the lives he couldn't save.
Or Donna Rice and her 13 year old Jordan and 10 year old Blake, who were trapped on the roof of their car as the torrent surged through Toowoomba. When rescuers arrived Jordan told them to save Blake first. They did, and Jordon and his mother were stolen by the flood.
There are stories of everyday heroes, like the 55 people from Barcaldine who reported for duty at the tiny community of Jericho less than 24 hours after the call went out for help.
And there are stories of have-a-go heroes, like the tugboat skippers Doug Hislop and Peter Fenton whose 40 year old tug Mavis became the little tug that could. Their actions steering the Riverwalk on the Brisbane river showed courage and skill.
We saw an army of volunteers rise up across our State - a mud army - that marched through our streets, moving mountains of debris and restoring faith in our communities. They helped us all back onto our feet and they showed the world what we are made of.
This year Queensland week will be dedicated to these heroes. We will work to identify our heroes in every community. We will cast a commemorative medal to honour every single Queenslander who played a role during the crisis and the recovery. We will host events across the State so local communities can honour their own and recognise the contribution they have made.
Our story this year is also about how ordinary people survive extraordinary events. Part of what it means to be a Queenslander is to laugh in the face of adversity. As I travelled through flood ravage towns I witnessed our sense of humour act as a source of strength.
At the Helidon evacuation centre I met an elderly couple from Grantham whose home had been taken by the waters. As they stood shivering before me the elderly gentleman was too overcome with grief to speak.
His wife, who was missing her top row of teeth, stepped in with all the tenderness of a lifetime partner and said; "Premier, this is my husband. The waters rose fast and I had to leave my teeth behind to save him. Right now I'm not sure I made the right choice."
They lost everything, but they still had each other, and they still knew how to laugh.
Stories like this that have been told and retold across the state. They have raised a smile amongst the misery and they have raised our spirits in our darkest hours.
These are stories told by Queenslanders, like Baralaba piggery owner, Sid Everingham, who was asked by a local reporter if he'd suffered any stock losses in the floods. "I've had 30 sows and pigs go down the river," he replied.
The next day the front page headline said '30,000 PIGS SWEPT AWAY - PIGS FLOAT DOWN THE DAWSON". The locals wondered how they'd missed the avalanche of pork. Maybe pigs do fly after all.
And who could forget Lucky the goldfish? When the waters started rising in Brisbane the little fella stayed in his tank on the sideboard in the kitchen. One wonders what went through his mind as the muddy waters rose to the top of his tank.
I guess we'll never know, but when the owners returned to their home, Lucky the gold fish wasn't in his fish tank. He was happily swimming in the bath tub! Where else but Queensland would a goldfish see a catastrophic flood as an opportunity to move to a bigger block?
This Australia Day, Queensland's story is about the awesome power of water. But our story is also about defiance, resilience and renewal - just as it always has been.
We have faced something truly terrible and it has knocked us to our knees, but as I look around our State, I see Queenslanders fighting to their feet.
The task before us is huge. There will be days when we feel it is too much and there will be days when we feel we can't go on. But I know we will.
Today, we keep in our thoughts those who have lost their loved ones and those who are anxiously waiting to hear news of a missing friend or family member.
But above all, we celebrate the great story of our nation and the chapters that Queensland has added to that story.
In the event, this was not enough to return her to government at the next election. It does, however, illustrate the power of real stories to create a sense of groundedness, connection and common purpose.
Storytelling brings us back to real communication - to talk with each other about the things that matter, like … what is important to us … why we would want to turn up to work each day … what we really focus on … why we believe in what we do … what it's all about … why I love my work … why I commit … what we expect of each other … why I'm proud to work here … why this is more than just a job … and the risks I'm willing to take …
Good leaders know that story is important, and they craft a story for every person and group they are talking with. Every time we hear a powerful story, it triggers our own stories too, and we immediately experience the common ground. Leaders' stories activate images and feelings which we can explore, and which we will take away with us, to guide us and to hold us.
About DAVID GREEN
David has been developing leaders for over 30 years and a good chunk of that time he has used narrative techniques.
He specialises in running leadership programs that concentrate on team dynamics, building trust and learning how to say what you mean.