When I was an undergraduate at NYU, commuting by subway to the Washington Square campus, the path was laid out for me: economics or medical school. In my last year I stumbled into a passion for art history when I completed a course on the French impressionists. The course made me entertain the possibility of diverting from my path and getting a Ph.D. in art history. I approached my instructor with this somewhat fleeting thought and he reacted as blunt could be when he said, “You don’t speak like an art historian should.” I sheepishly crawled back on the subway back to Brooklyn and proceeded to the University of Wisconsin and became a Cornell professor of management. Several years later I had occasion to speak about a book of mine at another well-established university when a faculty member came up to me and intended to flatter me about my relatively casual speaking style. Unfortunately for him, he used the same language the art historian did eight years before: “You don’t speak the way I thought you would.” While he meant well, I had a flashback to the art historian and in an extremely exaggerated New York accent said, “But I write real good, don’t I?”
The years have evolved, but I remain cognizant of the fact that language and style become a subtle mode of discrimination. Recently I’ve been working with some colleagues in Baton Rouge. And they related to me how often that they, as smart, articulate women, are often dismissed by their Louisiana accent, which lead others to stereotype them in unflattering ways and certainly label them as being incapable of being art historians.
Language and style often trump content. These two things often exclude many from leadership positions. I’m struck more and more when selecting leaders we become obsessed with their presentation of self, and we are overly concerned with how they say something rather than what they say. Do they speak in a thoughtful, reflective manner? Do they use the right language? These are important, but in the final analysis, these are issues of style, and not much more than tassels on a pair of shoes or the shade of Brooks Brothers tie. Not irrelevant, but not grounds for dismissal.
Over the last number of years, my time has been spent in the world of leadership training. In this context, I’ve had to hire trainers and deal with leaders. The challenge has been to match the trainer to the leader. But I found out that consistently that people are concerned with the content much more than with style. In this culture, surrounded by style, people are listening much closer to what you say than your accent. Globalization is going to demand from each of us to ask a simple question: Does he or she know what they are talking about–and should I pay attention? Soon there will be more and more art historians who don’t speak the King’s English, and that world, one in which style and language are secondary is one we should welcome.