Read: Leadership is Language

I stumbled upon this book, Leadership is Language: The Hidden Power of What You Say–and What You Don’t in Amazon while I was looking for a book by the same author, L. David Marquet. I was initially curious about Turn the Ship Around!, but then I saw this more recently published title (just this Feb 2020) and it had a 5.0 out of a 5.0 star rating out of only 26 reviews (but still!). The title also got to me because I like language. When I read and the author chips in some tidbit on certain word usage or history, I’m more than likely to be appreciative of that info.

After having read it, what I like the most is how it brings to light some of my usual tendencies and offers better alternatives. Say, for instance, I like showing appreciation towards my colleagues, and I might say something like “Cool! Good job!” A better approach would have been to say something more specific and descriptive, Another example is how we’re inclined to give instructions over providing info e.g., “Be back by 10AM” vs “We’ll start at 10AM.” The difference feels so subtle but it’s there.

Now, I doubt my language patterns would change overnight. But awareness is a start.

Sharing here the rest of my notes…

We’re continuously OSCILLATING between thinking and doing

  • Like in PDCA (plan-do-check-act), we shift between action and reflection, doing and deciding.
  • Before action – what are we going to do? what are we going to learn?
  • After action – what have we learned?

DIFFERENTIATING between embracing variability and reducing variability

  • Thinking benefits from embracing variability
  • Doing benefits from reducing variability
  • Big mistake example: “Often, leaders driving toward consensus are reducing variability when they should be embracing variability and driving away from consensus. Then they wonder why they’re not hearing new ideas from their team. The problem is they’re calling the wrong play. They’ve brought a reduce-variability playbook to an embrace-variability game.”


  • Starting in redwork… Transition from redwork to bluework with:
    • CONTROL THE CLOCK, not obey the clock
    • COMPLETE, not continue
  • While in bluework
    • COLLABORATE, not coerce, with the goal to:
    • IMPROVE, not prove
  • Transition from bluework back to redwork with:
    • COMMIT, not comply
  • And use the enabling play:
    • CONNECT, not conform

CONTROL THE CLOCK, not obey the clock. This highlights importance of introducing and allowing for PAUSES to address something wrong or to get into some collaborative work; and that this is responsibility of leadership (to create space for it, or to initiate this himself as folks might not feel empowered to do so).

COLLABORATE, not coerce. This highlights a funny point: ‘Often “collaborating” is really coercion in disguise.’ So we need to be mindful that we really are collaborating, rather than just subtly getting people to agree or validate our own ideas.

  • Vote first, then discuss – If the boss goes first, others might not be inclined to share own ideas.
  • Interesting language shift: Avoid binary yes/no question. Shift towards asking how, tell me more.
  • 7 sins of questioning and their corresponding alternative
    • instead of question stacking, try one and done.
    • instead of an attempt at a teaching moment with a leading question, try a learning moment (asking how would that work, tell me about that)
    • instead of a “why” question, try “tell me more.”
    • instead of dirty question (subtly holds biases and anticipates a particular answer), try a clean question (asking what do you mean by… or what do you want to have happen?)
    • instead of a binary question, start the question with “what” or “how”
    • instead of self-affirming questions, try self-educating questions (like what am I missing, what could we do better?)
    • instead of aggressive questioning jumping to the future, reset, start from a place where they feel secure (known, present, past), and move gradually toward areas of uncertainty and vulnerability (unknown, future)
  • Interesting language shift: Give information, not instructions. Instead of saying “Be back at 10AM,” say “We’ll start at 10AM.”

COMMIT, not comply. This highlights that commitment is more than a decision, it entails action that is attached to the decision.

  • Interesting language shift: From using “don’t” rather than “can’t” to express commitments e.g., “I don’t miss deadlines,” rather than “I can’t miss deadlines.”
  • Apart from committing to ACT on a decision, also commit to LEARN.
  • Escalation of commitment “means that once we select a course of action, we stubbornly stick to it, even in the face of evidence that the course of action is failing.” It’s like sunk cost fallacy, and is something to watch out for.

COMPLETE, not continue. This highlights the need to make completion a part of the process of doing work. Upon completion, apart from the mental reset (and possible celebration), you put in some reflection to see what you’ve learned and to see whether it makes sense to still follow through the actions for a decision, or if the decision itself still makes sense.

  • Provides the critical pause for self-reflection and improvement, and celebration
  • “To celebrate with, not for: appreciate, don’t evaluate; observe, don’t judge; and prize, don’t praise.”
  • Interesting language shift: From something that gives judgment (e.g., Good job!) to something specific and descriptive (e.g., Thanks! I noticed that you structured the document really well, making the points really come through.”)
  • Interesting language shift: From recognizing characteristics to the specific behavior. Instead of saying “You guys are a great team,” say “It looks like it took difficult cross-department coordination to deliver this product.”

IMPROVE, not prove. This highlights the need to drop the ego and be open to think about what or how we could be better, or how we can make the work go better.

  • Resist the temptation to be good idea fairies. Use the team backlog and process the ideas in the next scheduled bluework pause. But this requires the right support framework to be in place. No backlog, no process, no scheduled time to process mean the good idea fairies will continue to be at it.
  • People’s own egos are the blockers of the improve play. Solution is not to blame; but to acknowledge that people can get defensive, and so the right mindset and language needs to be used when initiating this play.
  • Focus forward – don’t dwell on the mistakes, emphasize the potential
  • Focus on others or on the process – don’t play the blame game. Shift focus on how to help the team, how to help customers, how to improve workflow.
  • Focus on achieving excellence, not avoiding errors.

CONNECT, not conform. This part is about caring and trust — that you can’t connect without these two.

  • A flatter power gradient allows for more open communication that feels safe to say truth, tell it like it is, admit mistakes, and deliver bad news. But to achieve this rests on the hands of those who are in power.
  • Interesting language shift: From judging to observing e.g., instead of saying “You wrote that ugly report poorly,” say “I noticed a couple of typos, and paragraph 3 missed a few points that we covered in the review.”
  • Be open, trust first, assume positive intent
  • Don’t shut people down from participation or voicing out ideas by thinking you are/know better.

One thought on “Read: Leadership is Language

  1. Pingback: Lessons from Leadership is Language on Feedback | testkeis

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s