Your Words are the Technology of Leadership

The Things We Don’t Know We Know

When we drive, there are hundreds of things that we do every minute that we don’t consciously think about.  Over time, we get so good at making these constant adjustments to speed and direction, gas and brakes, that we forget just how hard it is to actually drive a car.  If we’re not careful, our concentration will slip and that can lead to trouble.

The things that we don’t know we know are like that – they allow us to do incredibly complex tasks without thinking about them, but the unconscious nature of the action can also get us in trouble.

Leading and managing is a lot like driving.  When you’ve done it long enough, parts of it become automatic.  I don’t get to manage much in my current position, so when I get a chance to exercise my management muscles and I can see all these actions coming back, I’m much more aware of them than I was when I was a full-time manager.

Management is all about influencing from a distance.  The whole job is nudges and levers, questions and suggestions.  Little adjustments to keep on course, or speed up, or slow down.  That’s the art of managing.

The academic term for the things we “know” but can’t articulate is tacit knowledge.  It includes mostly things that we learn from doing.  Think about riding a bicycle – can you explain step-by-step how to balance while you’re moving forward?  It’s actually pretty close to impossible – that’s why we need training wheels.

We actually need training wheels as managers too.  Here is how Henry Mintzberg puts it in his superb book Managing:

Little of management practice has been reliably codified, let alone certified as to its effectiveness. That is why Hill found that people “had to act as managers before they understood what the role was”

It should be emphasized that, unlike other workers, the manager does not leave the telephone, the meeting, or the e-mail to get back to work. These contacts are the work. The ordinary work of the unit or organization—producing a product, selling it, even conducting a study or writing a report—is not usually undertaken by its manager. The manager’s productive output has to be gauged largely in terms of the information he or she transmits orally or by e-mail. As Jeanne Liedtka of the Darden School has put it (in a talk I attended): “Talk is the technology of leadership.”

Talk is the Technology of Leadership

I love that quote from Jeanne Liedtka – talk is the technology of leadership.  When was the last time you thought about how you use words?  That’s something we learned to do ages ago.  So long ago that we don’t even know what we know about speaking, or listening.

And yet, these are the core technologies of leading.  Speaking, and listening.

If you’re leading, or managing, it pays to think about these technologies a little more deeply.

Tom Peters addresses listening in a great document that he recently posted  called Presentation Excellence.  The main document is about presentation skills, and it’s useful.  For me though, the goldmine is the appendix on listening.

He starts this by saying “Interviewing/asking questions is a critical—and under-studied and under-practiced—skill. Few have treated it as a skill to be mastered akin to learning to play the piano.”  He then goes on to give 59 thoughts on becoming a better listener.  This is an invaluable resource – check it out.

In terms of speaking, I’ve also run across an excellent resource recently.  It’s a book called The Power of Framing: Creating the Language of Leadership by Gail Fairhurst.  Like the piece by Peters, this book contains a wealth of practical examples and tips for using language more effectively.

It’s time for us to consciously think about the things we do automatically.  If talk is the technology of leadership, than it makes sense to build our skills in this area.  As we do this, we should pay attention to one last quote from Mintzberg’s book:

It’s not [the manager’s] job to supervise or to motivate, but to liberate and enable (Max DePree of Herman Miller, 1990).

 Read more from Tim here.
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Tim Kastelle

Tim Kastelle

Tim Kastelle is a Lecturer in Innovation Management in the University of Queensland Business School. He blogs about innovation at the Innovation Leadership Network.

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comment_post_ID); ?> I am a senior citizen who has lived in many areas of the US, the farthest south being Virginia DC area. There are several church plants in the area--some failed, some doing well. One of the sadist failures was a plant in NW Washington near a large Presbyterian Church (I had been an elder in the church, so I knew the area) where changes in church doctrine was driving many away from the PCUSA churches. There were many mature Christians who lived in the area who were very willing to participate and give generously to the church. Its failure was a loss. The pastor and his wife lived in a VA suburb, wanted something that would appeal to their tastes, which included "praise music". There was a professional piano teacher and several people who had sung in choirs in the area. Their suggestions were completely ignored. Forget that there was joyous participation in singing hymns and silence by many for the praise music. The experienced church leaders that were attending were expected to seek the wisdom of the pastor who did not live in the area rather than have any role in leadership. There is another church plant in Northern Virginia that seems to be going the same way. My take: the pastors should get past their high-school and college days culture and get to know and appreciate the people of the community. Do not try to reproduce Intervarsity or Campus Crusade. Hymns are not a sin and "uneducated" (never graduated from college) should not be ignored as uninformed or stupid. People who have served in and/or live in the area are needed in leadership and not just to serve coffee and give. We all need to pray together and serve God in the community in which there is to be a plant. Glenna Hendricks
— Glenna Hendricks
comment_post_ID); ?> I like it Mac and do agree with your opinions on the matter. Thanks much
— winston
comment_post_ID); ?> In this era, we have the opportunity of professional church staff today who utilize their gifting to shape the image and atmosphere of the church organization. But the 100% real impact on the church visitors is genuine evidence of changed lives by the gospel and the active growing discipleship (just as it was in the first century church). One demonstration is financially rich believers ministering equally together with poor believers (how odd, and incredibly miraculous; all humble and bow at the foot of the cross.). It is the awesome contrast of church members vocations, race, gender, age, maturity, gifting, humility that demonstrates to visitors "there is a Spirit in the place". That first-time guest list of 10 are "physical excuses", not spiritual excuses. Those don't tell the story. The condition of facilities and publicly greeting people have zero to do with it. The power of God in and through believers lives dedicated to impact other people with their relationship bridge-building of acceptance of the lost around them. Empowered believers are infectious, loving, helpful, giving, self-less, dynamic, compelling, bold, Christ-filled. As I have been in many church settings domestically and internationally, the facilities can be poor, and yet the fellowship can still be rich. We need to operate with first church humility. People come to Christ on His terms, not on our human abilities of hospitality. A huge catastrophe in a community, disaster relief brings lots of people into churches – many come to the church in those terrible conditions no matter the physical condition of the local church. Off the condition of facility, and onto the condition of God's people (living stones).... and everything else will grow.... and the other physical issues will be corrected by the staff.
— Russ Wright

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