Decoding The Language of Leadership

“I’m sure cutting off heads is satisfying, but that’s not the way you get people to work together” – Sansa Stark, Game of Thrones

There is something about language propagated by leaders in our high-octane start-up world that evokes a sense of the medieval. Early in my career as an entrepreneur, I was given a book by a very senior mentor, entitled “Leadership secrets of Attila the Hun”, and the war analogy didn’t stop there.

In my many years of experience, I have often heard statements like “Take no prisoners” and “Kill the competition”. How many times have you heard, “Business is war”? Does it have to be war? Are these metaphors of war and aggression necessary for survival and success? As a civic society, shouldn’t we espouse peace over war? These are questions I have often pondered. I believe the leadership language of war is rooted in the concept of the sole victor — the alpha male, the solitary lion of each pride, defending his dominion.

This testosterone-centered vocabulary didn’t appeal to me in the slightest, though I initially tried to fit in rather than speak up. As I progressed further in my career, I began to think about the leadership language that I could use that wouldn’t conflict with my own identity. This led me to wonder whether the difference in leadership styles could really boil down to something fundamental. It is, after all, the lionesses in prides that hunt together and share the spoils. Could my discomfort with the common parlance of leadership simply be a result of being a female leader? Theorists suggest that language could be a reason why women are underrepresented at senior levels largely because many senior women still work in industries and companies that are governed by traditional masculine norms, and therefore, one’s competence may be judged by the language filter. This can have important implications on who is noticed and offered more opportunities. Is creating more equitable environments caused by a lack of creating a bridge language to merge the distinctive styles of leadership?

Thinking further about leadership, I am reminded of a program I had participated in many years ago. One of the activities at the event involved completing an intense hike. We were divided into groups and each group consisted of leaders from a wide variety of occupations. As the group started to develop strategies on how to best tackle the hike, I noticed that some participants focused on being the fastest to get to the top. However one of the leaders — who happened to be a chief of police — offered to be the “sweeper”, he wanted to make sure that no one in the group was left behind, encouraging and helping those who found the hike more difficult. This experience fundamentally changed my approach to leadership. Is the only type of leadership the one which centers on “reaching the top as fast as I can”? What actions can then be justified in order to reach first? What about the responsibility of the leader to ensure that no one is left behind?

All this to say that for me today, leadership means the following things –

  1. A leader is someone who must have an unwavering moral compass that gives them the decisiveness to act, especially when things are going wrong. They have to be the light found in the darkest moments and truly lead their team out of any hardship that befalls them.
  2. When, on the other hand, things are going exceedingly well, leadership is about taking your people along with you on your ride to the top. It’s about not leaving behind the people just because they are a little slow.
  3. Leadership is about workspaces that truly let people thrive and reach their best potential.
  4. Leadership must be about being authentic. For me, to reach the top, I need not embrace someone else’s definitions and principles. I need to be authentic to my true self.

To conclude, being a good and successful leader is about creating a supportive and generous workspace, rather than eliminating all competition. We need to find ways to discuss unconscious bias and create pathways for women to have opportunities to excel. Perhaps the first step on that journey is to consider an inclusive language of leadership, allow for different views to coexist.

And for women, claim the leadership language that you can relate to and thrive on. Educate others on why this is relevant and important for you.

VC @Kalaari. Committed to entrepreneurship in India. Yoga enthusiast, Daily Meditator, Occasional runner & mom of two girls.