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Language of leadership: The delicate balance between a sense of urgency and panic attacks

Proactive leaders are constantly faced with the challenge of getting people to focus and be concerned, and getting them to realize that tomorrow is at hand and issues must be dealt with almost immediately.  Proactive leaders often have to instill in individuals a feeling that consequences will result from inaction.  The slippery slope is knowing how to keep a sense of urgency in perspective and not let it become a full-blown panic attack.  Leaders must understand that a collective state of mind is, at best, delicate, and while they want to appeal to urgency, it’s dangerous to create panic.

The challenge therefore becomes–how to achieve this balance? The balance is best achieved through language.  Certain words have to be used in a cautious and delicate manner.  Language becomes everything. “Catastrophe” may me a great word for drawing attention to an issue, but may in fact bring a sense of paralysis.  “Inevitable” is a word that should never be used because it creates a sense that control is outside of one’s control.  “Spinning out of control”, while potent, is irresponsible.  Proactive leaders understand that vocabulary has to be focused.  Words and phrases can be tailored to give individuals a sense that they can prevail, can take control, and can anticipate, are empowering and get us beyond inertia.  Phrases like “measured steps”, “steady progress,” “achievable,” “challenging,” both signal crisis but also send a message of an ability to overcome.  Leaders should keep the following four principles in mind when using language:

  1. Use phrases and words that give a sense of urgency, but give a sense of hope through control.
  2. Avoid the language of inevitability.  Make it clear that nothing is inevitable.
  3. Avoid diffusion.  Use language that is focused and to the point.
  4. Minimize the drama.  Use language that is grounded in the concrete.

Proactive leaders understand that the misuse of language can lead to a stampede which may get out of hand.  In recent weeks, leaders in this country have been engaging in a search not only for solutions, but also for the right language, a language that gives notice to the challenges and difficulties of our time and gives hope in our capacity to cope.  That same search for balance has to take place in every workplace, in every factory, and in every community.  Now is the time for our leaders to understand the power of language.  Think before you speak.



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