Category Archives: Language in organisations

Have universities forgotten their purpose?

Of the many fierce debates provoked recently by the Australian Government’s controversial budget, none has been more intense than the furore over proposed cuts to higher education funding. But in all this palaver about the future of our universities, something fundamental is missing.

It’s an omission for which the Government can hardly be blamed, because academics themselves should take responsibility for leading public discussion of this topic and in Australia they have been generally silent. The thing that’s missing is a clear, cogent answer to a large but simple question: What is the distinctive purpose of universities today?

0003116_300A book published a few months ago typifies the inability of senior educators to get a grip on this question. Although it’s a competent analysis of the pressures and policy constraints that universities currently face in this country, its focus is almost entirely administrative. I’m referring to Raising the Stakes: Gambling with the Future of Universities, by Peter Coaldrake (Vice-Chancellor at Queensland University of Technology) and Lawrence Stedman (Principal Policy Adviser at QUT).

The business-like approach that Coaldrake and Stedman take in Raising the Stakes is the book’s strength but also its limitation. I don’t want to quarrel with anything in its pages; my concern is with what’s not there.

At the end of their concluding chapter the authors state that in the hard times ahead ‘individual institutions will need to…be more selective about the areas in which they can teach and research.’ Perhaps so – but on what basis should such decisions be made? Are there any principles that can establish whether some mooted new field of study belongs properly within a modern university or not? Coaldrake and Stedman don’t raise this question, let alone suggest an answer. Yet without a firm grasp of appropriate criteria, any decisions about what to teach and research, and how to go about it, are likely to be merely bureaucratic and pragmatic – even opportunistic, with scant regard for qualities that might differentiate university programs from those of a different kind of institution such as a polytechnic.

UnknownI suspect that some senior academic administrators couldn’t precisely articulate a cogent rationale for determining what their core activities should include or exclude.

One might hope to find this point illuminated in Stefan Collini’s book What Are Universities For? Collini, a Professor of Intellectual History and English Literature at Cambridge University, was guest speaker at a recent forum on a related topic organised by the University of Sydney – which deserves plaudits for publicly airing such questions at a time when most institutions are not.

I couldn’t cross the continent to attend the Sydney forum, but to judge from Collini’s book I doubt that I’d have found his views entirely satisfying. In What Are Universities For? his focus is on the modern British university, which he regards as ‘a marriage of convenience between a type of school and a research laboratory.’ In his opinion it has marginalised the humanities (e.g. literary studies) by a narrow emphasis on useful outcomes. There’s some truth in this observation, which he expands into a lively polemic. But he doesn’t seem able to explain clearly the philosophical principles and historical foundations on which a more satisfactory concept of academic purpose should be based. In a review of Collini’s book, Peter Conrad’s verdict is that it’s ‘heavy on hand-ringing and light on real answers.’

How then should an institution decide whether a particular area of knowledge and practice has the intellectual credentials or community benefits to constitute an academic discipline? Would a principled university welcome a generous offer from a private citizen or an industrial sponsor to fund a program in (say) stamp-collecting, astrology or hairdressing? If not, why not?

In the past I’ve made public my own thoughts about these matters. I’ve argued that a field of enquiry can claim a legitimate place in the modern university only if it fulfils four functional requirements, all historically based. Three of them relate to ‘the public good’ and so they are functions that government agencies can legitimately monitor (but not control):

  • a capacity to advance knowledge through disinterested investigation;
  • a capacity to be socially useful through application to material needs;
  • a capacity to enhance cultural awareness through creative and critical enquiry.

The fourth requisite function may not interest government inspectors or other external stake-holders and yardstick-wielders, but it does concern the intrinsic intellectual quality of the particular field in question. It’s just this:

  • a capacity to subject itself to rigorous and principled self-scrutiny.


If it can do this (in balance with the other three functions), continually re-evaluating its own philosophical rationale and professional practice, it’s worthy of being supported as an academic discipline.

My book Higher Education or Education for Hire attempts to analyse some implications of those requirements, and more generally to uncover values implicit in the language that Australian higher education uses to characterise its activities. Since I wrote it the political environment may have changed a bit, but I remain convinced that universities cannot deal properly with the pressure of external circumstances unless they can communicate a clear understanding of their distinctive purpose.

What ‘leadership’ should mean

In a previous post, The bogus lingo of big-shot leadership, I commented on ridiculously misconceived ways of describing leadership attributes. Glib business-school textbooks, sloppy newspaper articles and trite job advertisements are full of distorted hype and delusional clichés. There’s an obsession with ‘charisma’, with ‘passion’, with ‘transformational’ leadership and so on.

But why make a fuss about this inflated language? Who cares?

Well, it matters to me because, having had a fair bit to do with community-oriented programs for emerging leaders (more about that later), I believe it’s important to demythologise the concept of leadership – which means looking critically at the way people talk and write about  this topic.

In considering what makes a good leader, we need to shift the focus away from captains of industry, political chiefs and other (usually male) big shots. Not all leaders occupy prominent positions at the head of an organisation. Leadership can develop, and have a significant impact, in many different roles and at all levels. It’s not primarily about the rank you hold. It’s about the influence you exert over others – which depends largely on what kind of individual you are, how you relate to those around you, what values you embody – and how you use language to communicate.

A New Yorker cartoon by Steiner (reproduced here on the ‘fair use’ principle) captures some of this nicely. The patriarchal figure at the front of his flock may think he’s in charge, but the real leadership is coming from further back – and not from an aggressive round-up sheepdog either, but from a quiet female cat. ‘She’s not all over you, but she gets the job done.’

Steiner cartoon

In what I’m calling the bogus lingo of big-shot leadership, personal attributes are too often idealised. In the real world, most leaders are not heroes, clairvoyants or saints. They are just ordinary individuals with an unusually strong sense of purpose, and enough basic knowledge and skills to pursue that purpose in an energetic, persuasive way that draws followers along in a shared commitment.

Leadership isn’t simply about your personal repertoire of talents and qualifications.  Yes, it may help if you’re what people regards as a born leader, with great natural gifts and drive. But we’ve all seen highly gifted and motivated people crash and burn, or just fade away without ever fulfilling their promise. In contrast some people eventually achieve great things as leaders after mediocre beginnings or even a string of failures (think of Abraham Lincoln), if they know how to find value in adversity, learn from others, persevere quietly, and grow into their responsibilities.

To be influential as a leader, it’s not sufficient to have certain innate attributes. The important thing is what you do with them. Someone may possess remarkable charm but use it in a self-serving way for the satisfactions of power, status and popularity. Someone else may have brilliant capacities but never fulfil that potential because no-one wants to follow. The quality and impact of leadership depends on the way a leader relates to other people and motivates them.

For a leader, the most important kind of knowledge is an understanding of what makes people tick, what matters to them, what motivates them, what draws out the best in them. Part of this is self-knowledge: being calmly aware of your strengths and weaknesses, and of how others see you.

In addition to an understanding of people (including yourself), there’s a particular kind of know-how that is vital in a leader’s skillset: being able to imagine and tell a compelling story about where your organisation or group needs to go, and how it is going to meet the challenges that face it. I don’t mean ‘storytelling’ in the literal sense of spinning a yarn. I mean communicating a ‘vision’ in the best sense of that over-used word. Good leaders know how to engage people’s belief that a situation they face can be taken forward to a positive outcome if they are willing to shape the pattern of events. This requires the knack of persuading others to do together something substantial, difficult and worthwhile that they would not otherwise have done.

Of course it’s easy to delude yourself. The rhetoric of setting ambitious goals has to be subjected to regular reality checks. It’s been remarked that some would-be leaders talk a lot about their ‘vision’ because they don’t know how to spell hallucination. In contrast, truly visionary leadership, which can take people forward together as co-authors of a credible narrative, combines insight with outlook in a way that’s well informed and thoroughly realistic. 

A cliché popular among aspiring leaders is that you should ‘follow your passion.’ What – always? Some passionate people are crazy. Think of the image in that  famously scary poem by W.B. Yeats which conjures up a doomsday when ‘the best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.’ A leader may be passionate without embodying any positive value. (Isn’t it often preferable to be compassionate?) Strong passion will sometimes weaken individuals and groups.

Genuine leaders understand that their apparent strengths can become weaknesses, and vice versa. They know themselves well. They don’t fool themselves or others with grandiloquent slogans. They know the difference between a realistic vision and a shallow mirage. They are open to experience. And their ambition is directed towards the betterment of the wider community, not just the advancement of their own personal careers.

The program devised by Leadership Western Australia (LWA) – currently celebrating its 10th anniversary – embodies those principles. (Declaration of vested interest: I was its founding CEO.) Each year’s selected cohort brings together high-achieving people from many walks of life. They differ in their backgrounds and assumptions but are alike in wanting to use that diversity as a collective learning resource for helping to meet major social challenges. After completing the LWA program, participants contribute their expertise in a pro bono capacity to not-for-profit community organisations. In doing so they benefit from the happy paradox that the best way to enhance one’s individual development as a leader is to take the focus away from oneself and look outwards and forwards to the needs of one’s community as a whole.

The bogus lingo of big-shot leadership

These days the word ‘leadership’ reverberates around us, usually with an inflated meaning. Every second job advertisement claims to be offering a leadership position. Every second captain of industry, according to business magazines and gung-ho publicists, regularly shows strategic leadership of colossal stature. Grandiloquent cliché epithets like ‘visionary’ and ‘dynamic’ often cling to those who are hailed as leaders. Not all leadership talk is suspect, of course; the topic can and should be discussed with useful precision. (More about this later.) But the bogus lingo of big-shot leadership  deserves our sceptical scrutiny.

Hero copyA quasi-military model is popular in the male imagination. You see this in a pervasive lexicon of strategic manoeuvering and in the guru status accorded to figures like retired army generals as speakers on the celebrity circuit. Adulation of highly aggressive corporate warrior lords is part of the same notion: leaders are supposedly defined by their heroic feats on the business battleground – a world of conflict in which winning only occurs if there’s an enemy you can crush. Sporting achievement is often represented in the same melodramatic terms of belligerence and dominance.

The warrior is just one version of a more general stereotype that muddles a lot of thinking about leadership. This underlying stereotype expresses the misconception that a leader is a big shot endowed with extraordinary talents – a superhero. It’s a false image.

Perhaps the most mis-leading notion about leading is that it requires ‘charisma’ – a magnetic, inspirational quality possessed by exceptionally gifted individuals. This isn’t true: a reputable study by Warren Bennis and Burt Nanus found nothing in personality or style to distinguish successful leaders from anyone else. What’s more, this misconception is likely to bring trouble: trying to be charismatic is a recipe for inauthentic behaviour that would soon alienate any perceptive group that an aspirant may want to lead.

584086A serious defect of some courses in management and leadership is that they treat what are really aspects of character as if they were simply matters of technique.   One popular textbook on Leadership (by Andrew Dubrin) contains the appalling statement that ‘charismatic leaders…use the assertive impression management strategies of exemplification and promotion to secure and maintain desired identity images of their selves, vision and organisation.’ If only this were a conscious parody of debased language! – But no: the same self-advancement manual goes on to assure the reader earnestly that ‘a person can increase his or her charisma’ by following certain steps. These include ‘remembering people’s names’, ‘displaying an in-your-face attitude’, and ‘smiling frequently.’ I’ve got nothing against smiling, or remembering people’s names, but this ‘impression management’ ludicrously trivialises the attributes of leadership!

Dubrin’s textbook also declares that ‘charisma is a key component of transformational leadership.’  You may be familiar with this alluring phrase. It’s usually invoked as part of a loaded contrast: on the one hand a ‘transformational’ leader, who accomplishes major positive change, and on the other hand a ‘transactional’ leader, who operates on the basis of negotiated deals and expedient give-and-take arrangements. No doubt every leader would like to be seen as transforming an organisation or a society rather than merely conducting some clever transactions. So you get impressionable MBA students and ambitious young managers wanting to learn the formula for turning themselves rapidly into transformational leaders. When I read earnest advice like the following (it’s Dubrin again), I don’t know whether to laugh or cry: ‘Create visions for others.  Being able to create visions for others will be a major factor in your being perceived as charismatic.  A vision uplifts and attracts others. To form a vision, use the guidelines presented previously in this chapter…’

There are three things drastically wrong with this way of attempting to prepare people for leadership:

  • It implies that visions are always splendid and change is always desirable.
  • It’s confused about motivation: are we supposed to be creating and communicating a genuine vision so that members of our organisation will be persuaded to go forward together on a worthwhile journey, or are we producing something that purports to be a vision just because it makes us seem attractively charismatic individuals and fast-tracks our elevation to star status?
  • The assumption that transformational leadership – suffused by a charismatic and visionary radiance – is more valuable than transactional leadership is an absurd oversimplification. James Burns recognised this in his biography of the great American president F.D. Roosevelt, showing how the powerful influence of FDR’s leadership stemmed from his ability to combine the transactional (brokering deals) with the transformational (driving fundamental change).

Burns subtitled his biography ‘The Lion and the Fox.’  That little word ‘and’ sums up the point: successful leadership is not a matter of being charismatically transformational like a lion rather than cunningly transactional like a fox. The best leaders are both: they adapt to circumstances, knowing when to be bold and when to be shrewd. The Renaissance philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli made this nicely balanced observation in his book The Prince five hundred years ago. A leader, he said,

 should imitate the fox and the lion, because the lion cannot defend himself from snares and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. Therefore it is important to be a fox in order to understand the snares, and a lion in order to terrify the wolves. Those who choose only to be a lion do not really understand.

Does all this matter much? Why make a fuss about the bogus lingo of big-shot leadership? Well, that’s a question I’ll pursue soon in a sequel post…


Lazy language: how our organisations mess with our minds

Geo.Orwell70 years ago George Orwell wrote a trenchant essay about the damaging consequences of waffle and jargon. ‘Politics and the English Language’ was a powerful statement at the time, and has lost none of its impact since then. In fact it seems even more relevant today because the trend that Orwell criticised is increasingly widespread: nearly every kind of organisation, public or private, has now become pervaded by clichés and empty slogans.

Orwell’s argument is that habits of careless communication contribute to a general blurring of ideas. We often fail to convey our intended meaning with proper precision, and this failure leads to vagueness about what exactly we mean anyway. So effects can reinforce causes. Our language, says Orwell, “becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” Is this downward spiral inevitable, then? No. It can be avoided if we take the necessary trouble to communicate clearly. This isn’t a matter of pedantry. It concerns the lifeblood of a community’s wellbeing, as Australian writer Don Watson shows in books such as Death Sentence: The Decay of Public Language.

We’ve all encountered (and in our weaker moments we may have used) this slovenly kind of language, because most workplaces are full of it. Once it gets inside an organisation, remarks Don Watson, “it spreads like duckweed down every channel of communication.” As in the boxed sample below…

jargon - parody

OK, I confess to writing this parody.

But aren’t the vacuous phrases depressingly familiar? And don’t they mess with our minds?

The “politics” of language, for George Orwell, isn’t confined to parliamentary contexts. He regards language as political in a broad sense that includes the way people speak and write within organisations. Pause for a moment and call to mind the tone and vocabulary favoured by senior managers in a workplace you know well. Now look at the following sentence, quoted from Orwell’s essay, and ask yourself whether the cap fits. “As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no-one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse.”

And the result is…

jargon - thesaurus

Think for example about universities. As services such as education grow more market-oriented there’s a corresponding change in their use of language. The sociolinguist Norman Fairclough remarks that “this includes ‘rewordings’ of activities and relationships”: learners turn into consumers and courses into packaged products. The jargon of advertising and management invades teaching and research. To observe these trends isn’t necessarily to lapse into nostalgia for times gone by, or into an unworldly and simplistic idealism. Whatever the financial exigencies, those who work in universities must surely cherish the principle that clear thinking (which requires clear language) is what our academic institutions should uphold above all.

Just as common as those dubious “rewordings” are the many instances of glib rhetorical inflation in universities today – and in most other kinds of organisation too. It’s easy to get caught up in this devalued lexicon, and it has political effects because it dulls the brain, making us passive and pliable. Consider the flapping flag of “Quality” for example: underneath it, quality improvement (a worthy aim) slides into quality control (which may be less benign). Similarly, ordinary things get puffed up into slogans. Corporate hype can convert any half-baked notion into a “Strategy”, any hallucination into a “Vision.”

I’ve written at length about these matters in my book Higher Education or Education for Hire? Language and Values in Australian Universities. They continue to bother me. Lazy language, especially in organisational jargon, contributes to confused ideas and to what Orwell describes as “the worst follies of orthodoxy.” Much corporatised language is designed, he says, “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change all this in a moment, but one can at least change one’s habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase…[he gives examples – but supply your own!]…into the dustbin where it belongs.” Such irreverence ought to characterise any principled academic community.

“Phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated henhouse” – perhaps you, dear reader, have spotted some of these in your working environment, and would like to share them through the comment box below?

And another question: Is it unduly optimistic to think that there may be a special role for creative writers in the noble cause of resisting lazy language ? I’d be glad to think that those who write inventively, with a disdain for moribund clichés and a skill in choosing lively words, can at their best help to clarify and energise the thinking of their readers. George Orwell himself surely did so, being not only a great essayist but also the author of such challenging fictional narratives as Animal Farm and 1984, which imagine the political consequences of debased language. We need more writers like him.