Leadership Fluency: Mastering the Language of Leadership

This post was guest-written by Hunter Williams, a missionary with the Awana Tenessee Network.

How would you define leadership? What analogies or metaphors would you use to describe it? For many, leadership conjures pictures of business gurus, sports coaches, and war heroes. Leaders are often associated with words like guidance, influence, direction, and ownership. But have you ever correlated leadership with language? 

At its core, language is communication. It’s how ideas are conveyed through words and symbols and how people experience deeper levels of understanding and intimacy. Without language, we would lack clarity and connection with others.

Leadership as Language

Leadership functions much like language. It communicates and conveys ideas. It clarifies and connects concepts to people, plans, and products. Whether leaders realize it or not, they are constantly communicating through their words and actions. 

Poor leadership is equivalent to bad communication. It makes purpose fuzzy, strategy muddled, and relationships strained. For a person to lead well, they must master the language of leadership by becoming fluent in all its aspects.

The language of leadership can be distilled into three aspects: character, decision-making, and relationships. Within each aspect, nuances inform and transform who a leader is, what he does, and how he relates to others. Growth in these aspects and their nuances leads to leadership fluency.

Character (Leadership’s Semantics)

In the study of linguistics, semantics refers to meaning. It uncovers the range of meanings a specific word or phrase possesses. Within a semantic range, the meaning of a word or phrase is typically found in how it’s used within context or in relation to other things. 

Why talk about semantics? Because it perfectly describes the character aspect of leadership’s language. Everything a leader thinks, says or accomplishes happens within the range of his character. Each decision and spoken word is given in reference to his inner values. The qualities of a person’s character colors how he sees himself and those he leads.

This aspect of leadership has two nuances: values and habits. Values are a person’s inner concepts of worth, and habits are mechanisms a person uses to express or shape their values. A leader’s values flow from his perception of himself and the world. For Christian leaders, values should extend from their theology (understanding of God). As they learn to see things as God sees them, their values should align with His. 

Leaders can recognize their lack of healthy values and aspire to adopt and display these inner concepts of worth through their plans and decisions. This is where the nuance of habits comes into play. Habits are minor adjustments and commitments we make that display and shape our values. For example, if a person values teamwork, they will create habits that assist in fostering this value. Or, if a person recognizes their lack of initiative, they will adjust their schedule and commitments to cultivate this value within themselves. To be effective, leaders must develop the semantic range of their character as they form and refine their values through habits.

Decision-Making (Leadership’s Syntax)

Syntax is the aspect of linguistics that lays out rules for sentence structure and the arrangement of words. Rules such as: a sentence needs a subject and a verb, the subject typically precedes the verb, and the subject and verb must agree numerically (both must be singular or plural). Without the guiding principles of syntax, communication can lose its clarity and authority.

In leadership, a person has to make decisions that clarify vision and strategically move an organization forward. This is why decision-making is seen as the syntax of leadership. It arranges priorities in their proper order and structures organizations for success. Bad decisions lead to misplaced priorities, causing confusion and disorder. To lead well, a person must become fluent in the syntax of decision-making.

This aspect of leadership has two nuances: planning and problem-solving. Growing in decision-making requires leaders to be proactive in planning so they aren’t overreactive when problem-solving. Said another way, how a leader plans in times of peace will determine how well she responds in times of chaos. Good problem-solving is an extension of good planning, and good planning is an extension of rightly ordered priorities. Correctly arranging priorities comes as a result of a leader clearly understanding the vision and mission of an organization. Only when a leader accurately understands the vision can she clearly impart it to others through his decisions. 

Growing in the ability to proactively plan toward vision and solve problems that distract from it aids leaders in becoming fluent in the syntax of leadership. 

Relationships (Leadership’s Pragmatics)

Linguistically, pragmatics refers to the use of language in context. Semantics shows the range of meaning in a word, and pragmatics helps us understand its meaning in its specific context.

For example, if someone said, “Look at that trunk,” the word “trunk” has a wide range of possible meanings. It could refer to an elephant, treasure, or car trunk. But which conveys the correct definition? Further context is needed to know for sure. If I told you the sentence was spoken by a little boy pointing to an elephant at the zoo, you would deduce that the word “trunk” refers to an elephant’s trunk. The context determined the use and intended meaning of the word.

Leaders don’t lead in a vacuum. They always lead in a specific context. More specifically, they lead particular people in a specific place. This relational context profoundly influences the nature of a person’s leadership. For instance, the types of decisions a leader makes among a few people in a start-up company will be different than the types of decisions a leader makes among dozens of people in an established business. The scope of a leader’s context determines the width of a leader’s decisions. Understanding context and relating well with others is essential to the pragmatics of leadership.

This aspect of leadership has two nuances: influence and accountability. It’s become popular to define leadership in terms of influence. Of course, leaders influence employees to champion certain values and strive toward specific goals, but influence is more than pushing people to accomplish desired outcomes. It’s a product of relationships. The width of a person’s influence correlates to the depth of relationships they have with those they lead. Such relationships require active listening and a willingness to receive helpful feedback. 

Healthy relationships not only elevate influence but also encourage accountability. A leader who cannot be held accountable to certain standards by others runs the risk of poisoning their influence. Just as pragmatics clarifies a sentence by limiting the meaning of certain words and phrases to their context, accountability clarifies and strengthens influence by limiting its use to specific standards and values. Leadership fluency is impossible outside the context of relationships. They determine the scope of a leader’s influence and the health of his accountability. 

Learning the Language 

Like learning a language, becoming fluent in leadership takes work. It involves humility, active listening, and practice. Start by reading books and listening to podcasts from time-tested leaders. Review the aspects of leadership above and begin formulating your values, evaluating your decision-making processes, and cultivating your relationships. Beyond these exercises, one of the greatest things you can do to master the language of leadership is to surround yourself with people who are already fluent in the language. Take note of their habits, problem-solving methods, and influence among their followers. Ask questions and get coaching when possible. The more you listen and converse with such leaders, the more fluent you will become. 

Leadership communicates. It reveals our character and competency and impacts our relationships significantly. What is your leadership communicating to those you lead?

About Hunter

Hunter is a missionary with Awana and has served in various ministry roles, including as pastor, youth pastor, and chaplain. As a child discipleship advocate, Hunter seeks to elevate the quality of discipleship children receive in the church and the home. He graduated from Moody Bible Institute with a B.A. in Biblical and Theological studies and is currently working on his MDiv through Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. He loves connecting with people, trying new things, reading, and going on adventures with his family.

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