The new book of the week is David Marquet’s Leadership is Language: The Hidden Power of What You Say and What You Don’t and I was extremely happy to find this book at the airport after just having listened to his podcast episode in Coaching for Leaders.
There are so many insights in this book in how we can lead better that it is likely to take a few posts to actually unpack most of the ideas.
But as I have been reading through this book, I have also reflected on my own language, the way I listen (or don’t), and how I can improve the way I interact both at work and at home.
Why we are stuck in traditional management
In the book, David makes a very clear distinction between blue workers and red workers: blue workers are the ones who traditionally make decisions whereas red workers are the ones who execute.
In the traditional industrial style model of management, there was very little correlation between these two groups in companies.
In fact, more interaction was actively discouraged due to the strong drive for efficiency and effectiveness: everything needed to be streamlined, “standardised” and made the same in the big factories that started mass production.
This is why there was very little need for new ideas or discussion between frontline workers and managers: each had their own task to do and the faster that task could be done, the better.
But what this mode of working did was to stifle innovation, cut out problem-solving where it could have saved expenses, and reduced ideas that could’ve made better and higher quality products.
It also devolved responsibility away from workers: they could “just do” what they were told and if something went wrong, it was not their fault because they just executed orders.
Yet, in today’s complex and increasingly interconnected work, most of us are called to do two things in any role: doing (taking actions = redwork) and thinking (being curious and exploring different ideas and alternatives = bluework).
Bluework is often much more challenging because it requires us to pause, it takes much more of our mental energy due to complexity, and it is much more controlled and slower than just following orders.
But we need both in every role.
Linking innovation and listening better
If a company or an organisation or an individual aim to remain competitive, innovative and agile, it cannot any longer rely on such separation.
We need everyone to be able to balance these two modes of work, and hence we need everyone to participate, collaborate and innovate if we are to see lasting results.
Most of us know of courses, workshops, and certification programs where we can acquire “agile leadership skills”, become a black belt ninja leader, or acquire the 7 simple steps to success.
David, however, offers something far simpler yet profound in this book: what if we sharpened our ears and eyes first?
What if we changed the way we gather information and give orders and instead truly created spaces where people feel that they can ask questions, bring up problems, and be genuinely a part of discussing and finding solutions?
He offers various insights into how we can do this better: for example, in order to make sure that diversity of opinions does work, leaders should facilitate conversation with curious questions, yet state their own opinion last.
You can get anonymous voting cards where each member can write down what they think is the answer, and these are read out loud to the group in order to discuss, not to judge or guess who said what.
This way you are making sure that even the quiet ones who might have different opinions and insights are able to express these.
This is crucial because your decision-making is only as good as the information on the table.
If you don’t get the right knowledge and insights on the table, you are not in a position to track a path that can get the company and the people where you need.
Leading through language is a skill
But all of these things come down to how we actually feel at work: whether we feel it is safe to voice our opinion even if it differs from the leaders’ position, whether we think diversity of thought is encouraged, and whether we think we can pinpoint potential failures before they occur.
By reading this book, I’ve noted and brought to mind so many examples at work and at home where I clearly see how I have failed to truly listen to the person, or where I have participated in meetings where I have failed to lead through Intent-Based Leadership (asking questions and encouraging discussion).
In some cases I felt there wasn’t space to say what I wanted to say so I held back; in some cases I just wasn’t bold enough to ask more open-ended questions but felt I had to know the answers, and in some cases I let the dominant voices to keep going.
I didn’t open up the floor to more curious questions neither did I make profound and helpful questions myself that could’ve engaged more people in the room.
But I have been super inspired and empowered by this book in that listening and using language in a way that opens up opportunities is a skill that can be learned.
True leadership really is about how we impact others:
“Leadership is about the hard work of taking responsibility for how our actions and words affect the lives of others” (p. 25).
This is not the popular idea of leadership as it has less to do with hierarchical power than with situational power: that when we do lead, our measurement stick should be how we impact the outcome but also others in the process.
Leadership is about being an example of someone is vulnerable and admitting that one head is not better than many; being brave enough to facilitate conversations even when we have a very particular opinion that we are dying to tell others.
Some decisions are to be made by people in particular positions, and just seeking out diverse opinions doesn’t always mean that the outliers are always right.
But it means that you are not exposing yourself to ignorance because you chose not to listen and were fixated on a particular decision that you made and decided not to check the course once the decision was made.
Our decisions are really hypothesis about what we think could work.
“A hypothesis is more than just a decision point. It builds upon a decision… with a rationale… and an endpoint, and it establishes how we will measure our results. During each experiment, we compare current conditions with predicted conditions” (p. 134)
Decisions are in other words experiments where you can see what works, investigate the different kinds of perspectives and knowledges that are brought together, and jointly figure out a way forward… and having the courage to change that decision when conditions change.
Climate adaptation language
All of this has such relevance also to issues like climate change adaptation and how we even speak about adaptation and the kinds of knowledges that we bring together in trying to figure out which adaptation strategies are effective.
Anyone who works in this area knows how we embed many assumptions in “what works” and that often we are not listening to the diversity of voices and experiences because there are standardised models of adaptation or schools of thoughts that dominate the discussion.
Yet, adaptation is not a one-off strategy or project but a string of decision points; it is as much as everything else a hypothesis we have about what “effective” and “successful” adaptation looks like.
Just like with El Faro, we need to listen to what is being observed about the changing conditions, and be ready to change course, change the strategy, and have a culture of openness where the insights from those who are adapting are heard.
The decisions we make is only as good as the information on the table.
Let’s make sure that we are part of a growing intent-based adaptation that uses both redwork and bluework in fostering more learning and insights in what we do and can do for others.