August 29, 2018

The new language of leadership

We all communicate with one another through language, whether it is through speech or written words or the visuals of body language.

We begin to learn language in infancy, crying in different ways to convey different messages to mother. We continue to learn language as we get older and develop speech. And as adults, we also learn the jargon of our field.

Leadership is also a language in itself; how you communicate with your people is how you lead them. The trouble is, most — if not all — organisations tend to take the one-size-fits-all approach when “speaking” the language of leadership.

Additionally, many organisations also apply a one-size-fits-all approach when dealing with their customers, categorising them as a single homogeneous mass with similar characteristics.

But that’s actually not what true leadership is about. The new language of leadership speaks to a different level of leading. You become more self-aware, allowing yourself to have a deeper understanding of your people, your customers and your other stakeholders.

This is the essence of what Michael Ventura, an entrepreneur, author, designer and founder of Sub Rosa, a strategy and design studio, shares in his book Applied Empathy: The New Language of Leadership.

Mr Ventura has not only designed and mastered the new language of leadership, but also has helped his clients, such as GE, Nike and even the Obama administration, to apply this new language to design solutions for complex problems with his team at Sub Rosa.

In a way, the new language of leadership is intended to humanise leaders. It is not unusual for the leader of a business, no matter the size, to become rigid and almost robotic. Because they have a diverse group of people to lead and have to go through so much work at the same time, the most realistic thing to do is to lead with an iron fist.

The new language of leadership is about truly understanding. But it is not simply about being nice, showing pity or even sympathy towards your people or customers. It is about truly understanding.

I know what you’re probably thinking: isn’t it time-consuming and unrealistic to try to understand every single employee and customer? I have to say, yes it is. It really is time-consuming, emotionally tiring and, from my own experience, it makes you stop and think: is all this even worth it?

But as Mr Ventura writes, with the new language of leadership, “complex problems become more understandable, teams become more effective, and companies become more nimble”.

The result is greater sustainability. It is there for you as a foundation for your way of leading and how you react and communicate to your people. So here’s what speaking the new language of leaders can bring you.

First, it gives you new perspectives. But not just towards business, but also towards your people. It is impossible to get to know and understand every employee or customer. But when given the chance, the new language of leadership allows you to see things from their perspective.

Second, you’ll be able to solve complex problems because of those new perspectives. We solve problems based on our experiences and assumptions. Opening your eyes and seeing things through someone else’s eyes can actually bring about a different way of thinking; thus, you’re able to solve problems in a different way.

Third, you’ll gain a new sense of urgency and adaptability. Organisations do have annual plans of how the year is going to play out, and similarly to leadership, it tends to get rigid.

With the new language of leadership, you are able to stay consistent with your plans but also able to make important decisions on a moment-to-moment basis, and this is important, especially in our fast changing world.

Last, you’ll better understand yourself, the people in your organisation and your customers. We all have our biases that inform our decision-making process. When you truly understand yourself, you’ll be more self-aware about your own biases.

You cannot deny that it is vitally important to go beyond your own thoughts and perspective, and to see the world through someone else’s eyes in order to become a better leader and problem-solver. You don’t have to be born a great leader, but you can learn to be one and speak the new language of leadership.

Arinya Talerngsri is Chief Capability Officer and Managing Director at SEAC (formerly APMGroup) Southeast Asia’s leading executive, leadership and innovation capability development centre.  She can be reached by email at or

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