Tag Archives: jargon

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.