The Language of Leadership

Simon Lancaster’s Winning Minds is a very pleasant read. He was a special adviser working in UK politics and wrote speeches for a living which comes through in the entertaining prose style that he uses.

He talks about how important it is for leaders to use the right language. Some of it sounds obvious but in my experience few seem to do it well. I never cease to be amazed by how many leaders seem to actively work on draining enthusiasm from their teams.  Lancaster outlines some tricks for generating a sense of excitement and shared mission which can only help, such as using humour effectively. Apparently even Gordon Brown (the seemingly dour ex-U.K. prime minister) had a joke he liked to regularly use. Sadly, for whatever reason, he never really persuaded the British public he was a fun sort of guy.

Lancaster has some practical advice although I will say that I’m not necessarily endorsing it. “It is said that Enoch Powell avoided going to the toilet before making a speech — another ancient Roman practice — to ensure he projected the right sense of urgency in his speeches…” (Lancaster, 2015, page 106).  (Powell is famous for one especially nasty, angry, racist speech — maybe he would have been a happier and better person if he hadn’t used this technique).

I was interested in Lancaster’s use of science. As he admits he isn’t a scientific purist; his use of science is loose. I’m torn on this. I believe it is helpful to convey scientific ideas more widely but at what point does it cease to be a valid description of the science? I’m not sure what I think, or that my views are necessarily internally consistent. To be positive, if Lancaster’s slightly cavalier approach to science helps improve the communication style of leaders it will have a definite benefit.

I liked the way he emphasized simplicity, that it is often senior people who use the simplest language. It highlights a problem I regularly find in student writing. They have just heard a fancy word and often seem to feel a need to use it. (Sadly often incorrectly). I always suggest to my students to use normal language — there is nothing worse than attempts at fancy language that fall flat. At their best leaders can engage with everyone and don’t need to resort to trying to intimidate with big words.

Read: Simon Lancaster (2015) Winning Minds: Secrets From the Language of Leadership, Palgrave Macmillan