2 Language, identity and exploring the unknown

We are going to spend some time here considering the language used in leadership practice. The language we use also shapes how we experience the world. For example, organisations can become fixated with instrumental language – we do x in order to achieve y. Instrumental language can replace alternatives, such as the language of ethics, of intellectual stimulation or political language. After a while, organisations settle into a pattern of speaking that shapes the way they think and see the world.

There is always something lacking in the language and knowledge available to us, however. Language always fails to capture all of our ambitions for leadership: we often chastise ourselves in this regard. We wish we had produced a more perfect policy report or been more eloquent at a meeting. Yet the fact that we can find it hard to find the right words, the fact that we stumble mid-sentence can be a sign that we are exploring something important – that we are entering the unknown.

We advocate a practice of noticing and working with the cracks and flaws in our language as important in signalling to us when we are starting to explore the unknown. We can help each other in collaborative leadership by encouraging each other to explore further these issues that we find hard to communicate satisfactorily.

A practical example will serve to illustrate the point. Think about the last time you felt something strongly but lacked the words to express yourself satisfactorily (as Ellen found in the audio you heard earlier). Or the last time you spoke with someone about something that mattered to them and their talk was filled with pauses, repetition, uncertainty, contradiction. These moments are a sure sign that you are onto something important.

The reason you find it hard to express is precisely because your identity and system of thought are being stretched.

This is a provocative proposition as most of us are taught and trained to pursue only eloquence and coherence. We seek to only speak out loud when our thoughts are fully formed or to only share polished, final drafts of papers. Yet could it be that we close off all kinds of opportunities for growth by working in this way?

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Figure 2

1 Ellen reflects on the unknown

2.1 Grappling with the unknown through language