Define Potential Blog

The language of leaders – Part 1

25 November 2017

Humans are linguistic beings.  We cannot exist separate to language.  Even if there is no-one else in the room, we are using language – reading, thinking, singing, listening etc.  There is no escaping.  And, most of the time, we can be unaware of the extent to which we are surrounded by language.  But how effectively do we use it? 

Language can be considered to be a ‘technology’ – it has a basic toolkit which we all use all the time.  The more proficient we are with our toolkit, the more effectively we can coordinate action with our team, colleagues, and stakeholders. 

Imagine two carpenters with the same set of tools.  One is just beginning his apprenticeship, and the other is an experienced master in his field.  The apprentice, in using his tools, might use them clumsily, make mistakes, produce something with rough edges, or that doesn’t quite fit.  The master, however, can use the same tools, to create something beautiful and elegant, with style and grace.  His craft seems to come naturally, with little effort, and fits the purpose beautifully. 

Humans’ use of language is just the same.  Think of a leader that is masterful with their use of language.  They use exactly the same toolkit as you and me, to cause results and bring about action.  We all use this toolkit constantly, we don’t even think about it.  We use it in our thoughts, and in every sentence we speak, every email we write. 

This unconscious use of the toolkit, means that we are mostly unaware of how we use it – the different effects of each tool.  Think of how some leaders craft a message when it is really important, or they are delivering a speech – this is one of the times when we pay closer attention to how we are using the tools.  In these situation, we also think more about the impact of what we say upon the listener – we are responsible for how our language lands with others.  If we can gain conscious mastery in each of the tools in more situations, we can create more effective communication all the time.  

By observing our use of the basic linguistic tools, we may notice fundamental patterns that we tend to use.  Each of these patterns has a unique way of generating reality.  We may develop a better understanding of each tool, and how to use if more effectively.   

Language is particularly important for leaders.  What leaders say carries more ‘weight’ than others.  Your teams are watching and listening when you speak.  Each linguistic tool has an impact on those around you.  Effective leaders understand the impact they might be having on staff, colleagues, stakeholders, and use each linguistic tool effectively and deliberately. 


What are the Basic Linguistic Acts? 

Research by John Searle suggested that there are five general ways of using language which are common to all cultures, regardless of the mother tongue.  This work was further developed by Fernando Flores and subsequently Rafael Echeverria who developed a classification of fundamental actions in language, referred to as the basic linguistic acts.  

Below is an overview of each linguistic act.  Future articles will provide more information on the effective structure of each act, how to use each one effectively, and what responsibilities come with each one. 

  1. Assertions:  This is not about being assertive.  Assertions are the basic linguistic act with which we label and categorise things in the world.  They are a process by which humans determine what is factual andisnot factual.  For instance, both of the following statements are factual:  “I am wearing brown pants” or “There are 27 people employed in this organisation”. 
  2. Assessments:  These are our judgements, opinions and evaluations.  For example – “It is a beautiful day today”, or “Our team works well together”.

Most of us tend to conflate assertions and assessments.  Assertions are much rarer than assessments, in our general everyday use of language.  We can often relate to our assessments as assertions – that is, we hold our opinions so strongly that we relate to them as fact.  This can be dangerous for our own way of operating, but more importantly when leaders are relating to assessments as assertions, they are more likely to make decisions and take actions based on faulty information, leading to unwanted outcomes. 

  1. Declarations:  Declarations are statements that immediately bring about a different set of circumstances in the present and the future.  There are two broad types of declaration – social and personal.

Social declarations are made by someone in a position of power and authority (judge, referee, CEO etc).  For example, a CEO may declare that “Our company is commencing a recycling program from 1 January 2018”.  In this example, this will result in the creation of a new future, starting immediately – people will start taking actions consistent with that new future. 

Personal declarations use our own authority – “I will go to the gym three times a week for the rest of the year”.  The extent to which this creates a new future generally depends on how good you are at keeping your word in relation to your own personal declarations.  

  1. Requests:  We use requests to ask for and gain willing commitment from someone to do something you require.  For example “Could you get that report to me by the end of the day?” 
  2. Offers: This act involves putting yourself forward to do something for someone – observing some way you could assist and nominating an action we are prepared to take to provide assistance.  “Would you like me to format the report for you?” 

If an offer is accepted, then it also results in a promise. 


Leadership and language  

Effective leaders spend most of their day using the basic linguistic acts to coordinate action with their teams, colleagues, stakeholders and other leaders.    

Leaders who understand each of the linguistic acts, how to use them effectively, and when to use them will find their jobs much easier.  

Future articles will outline in more detail the purpose of each separate linguistic act; how to be clear about the difference between assertions and assessments; how to effectively and responsibly use declarations; and how to make strong, effective requests. 

Kate Neser, Principal Executive Coach – Define Potential, Director – Kate Neser Executive Coaching and Consulting 

Kate has worked as an executive coach since 2010, after managing a successful career in the public sector for nearly twenty years. Kate specialises in executive coaching, interpersonal communication and leadership and management development.

Prior to 2010, Kate worked across a number of public sector departments, spanning service delivery, policy and central agency roles. Her final public sector role was the Chief Finance Officer of the ACT Chief Minister’s Department, and prior to that she held the senior executive role as head of Corporate Management.



This article is based on work of the Newfield Institute, and draws on writings from John R Searle, Fernando Flores and Rafael Echevarria.

Sieler, Alan. Actions in Language.  Newfield Institute

Sieler, Alan. Coaching to the Human Soul.  Newfield Australia.  2003 

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