Language of Leaders

Language is powerful.  We have probably all heard how the Inuit and Yupik languages have over 50 words to describe snow because it’s so important to Eskimo culture. But what about the words we don’t have? Or the blind spots we have in the definitions of words we fail to question?

How do the words we have, or words we lack shape our culture?

How do the words we have, or words we lack shape our culture?

A friend of mine was remarking the other day that it was fascinating to him how most of the oppressed populations in the US have taken words that were originally used to degrade their specific cultural identity, and have transformed them to be words of power (at least when spoken from within the cultural ingroup). In fact, more than just adopting these redefined words and slurs, many populations have developed their own languages using intonations or inflections that separate and identify them distinctly from the rest of the population. I don’t belong in many of those ingroups, so it would not be appropriate for me to list out the words or even necessarily point out the stereotypical way in which they are often delivered, but imagine in your own mind the language we have and the way its delivered for: women, religious minorities, the LBGTQ community, and people of color.

Let’s just start there: people of color.

That just doesn’t seem right to me to begin with. White isn’t a color? I'm not suggesting that the definition of "people of color" that currently refers to those with black or brown skin tone should be twisted around so as to also include me, a caucasian.  Many within the "people of color" category separate themselves with pride from that distinction. I'm simply pointing out the blind spot in that somewhere along the line we designated a different category for those with black or brown skin tones because white had somehow become the "default" or "norm." 

White seems to be a color, no?

White seems to be a color, no?

This is where things start to get interesting with language as well. Those in power develop the language. So what are the slurs for white, upper-class, males?

Maybe I’m missing something but I don’t know of any. Why?

Because they wrote the language. The “articulate” speakers of our English language don’t have to separate out their own language – they were the original constructors of definition and tone. We all share this common, white, patriarchal, heteronormative way of communication and accept it as “the standard,” before adding our own inflections.

And I’m not trying to be a jerk here and say that if you are a white, upperclass, cis-male that you’ve done something wrong. Not at all.

We are all living in that same shared blind spot and it’s not one that any of us created, but we are all responsible for opening our eyes to it so we don’t perpetuate its support.

So how does this apply in the workplace beyond the traditional “diversity chatter?”

I want to focus in on gaps in language between the genders, solely because, as a woman, it's an ingroup that I can speak from.

When was the last time you took a good long, hard look at what defines a leader? Did you stop to ask who defines it?  As discussed above, the "who" in this case is probably clear (men).  And thanks to Google, we can easily answer the "what" in about 0.16 seconds:


lead·er ˈlēdər/ noun noun: leader; plural noun: leaders    

1. the person who leads or commands a group, organization, or country.

"the leader of a protest group"

synonyms: chief, head, principal;

antonyms: follower, supporter

Men have had the opportunity to articulate what language defines a “leader” because throughout history, they have been the leaders.  (Another fun exercise to do is to look at all the top selling books on "leadership" and count the number of female authors).

As the dominant ingroup, this "command" male language has stuck. In my opinion, too many women have gotten hung up in these definitions, deciding there is a false choice to be made. They can either be a “supportive woman” or a “commanding leader.” Again, I want to be careful to note that I’m not suggesting there aren’t supportive male leaders and commanding female leaders but I do firmly hold that this patriarchal language setup has limited the scope for many women, who by their own natural biological tendencies, don’t seem to “fit,” the traditional, "command" definition.

Whatever your gifts, there is room in the definition of leadership for you to add value.

Whatever your gifts, there is room in the definition of leadership for you to add value.

As the world becomes more connected, and businesses rely more heavily on relationship building to gain a competitive edge, I know our definition of “leader” is shifting at least conceptually. But we need to stop smashing round pegs into square holes.  Instead of manipulating our own gifts and unique abilities to fit a rigid definition written by someone who likely doesn’t share those same qualities, we need to use these distinctions to create our own definitions.

Define your own leader. Don’t let the language define you.