Five Ways Leadership Can be Changed by Language

By Human Capital Group
18th January 2021

Here at Human Capital Group, we have been lucky enough to learn from the wisdom of many industry experts from across the globe. They bring with them a wealth of experience and a treasure trove of advice for executives working in the UK housebuilding industry.


As part of our popular webinar series, our Managing Director, Gerard Ball has most recently spoken to David Marquet. David is a retired United States Navy captain, a previous submarine commander, a New York Times Best Selling author of the seminal autobiography book on leadership “Turn the ship around” and his newest book is titled “Leadership is language”.


He is also a very entertaining world-class keynote speaker and consultant, working with top listed PLCs as well as SMEs across a range of different sectors. He focuses on leadership good practice and how this should look in different situations.


David and Gerard discuss how housebuilding companies can change their hierarchical structures and use new language techniques to increase employee engagement, create resilient teams, improve succession planning and develop a more mentally strong workforce.

Without further ado, let’s submerge ourselves beneath the waves of David’s experience and learn from five of his top takeaways on leadership and language.


1. How ‘language’ translates to the housebuilding and construction sector


At the end of the day, humans are involved so it has to translate!

The entity of leadership itself is quite a nebula word. In the real world, it translates into practical concepts like ‘how to run a meeting’. As a goal, it is safe to say that every company wants to operate in a way that empowers its staff to collaborate and communicate better.

The language that we have come to use is often coercive in nature and designed to get people to ‘do’ actions rather than think. If you don’t change your language, then the way you run a meeting isn’t going to change either.


2. Why hierarchical structures can get in the way


From David’s submarine commander background, he was taught that “Leadership can be defined as directing the thoughts, plans and actions of others… so as to obtain and command their obedience, their confidence, their respect and their loyal cooperation.”

David has come to realise that people’s activities need to be coordinated but not controlled and this can culminate in a real unity of effort.

Removing traditional hierarchies involves changes your company from a ‘permission-based organisation’ to an ‘intent-based organisation’. This creates ownership as well as encouraging teams to think and create new solutions to problems.

A relatively easy change is to remove the concept of ‘they’ from a workforce’s language, and to replace it with ‘we’. This removes the tendency to blame others for failures and instead take responsibility as a whole. This can create a more resilient and adaptive organisation.

Essentially, language has the power to control our mindset, meaning if we change the language we use, then our actions will start to follow suit.


3. Why construction companies need to re-join forces


Many of the leadership practices being used today are relics from the industrial-age business revolution.

At this time, all processes and workforces were separated which created very disconnected organisations where tradespeople were focused on doing and leadership was focused on controlling.

Construction companies often follow this structure, with one group concentrating on building, and one group focused on planning.

The reality is that construction is all about problem solving so actually you need everyone to think. The issue is that if problems have to be constantly escalated to the leadership team, then work stops for a decision to be made, the teams on the ground (who probably know the answer to the problem) aren’t consulted and it thus makes the whole process inefficient and time-consuming.

The ‘building teams’ need to be empowered to make decisions so they aren’t co-dependent but are encouraged to be skilled thinkers who can grow into leaders.


4. How to apply a new language


Ultimately, you want every job to involve some thinking. By making some specific language changes, you can get more information out of your teams and encourage greater engagement:



Are you sure?

How sure are you?

Is it safe?

How safe is it?

Will it work?

What’s the probability it will work?

Will that prediction be true?

How confident are you in that prediction?

Does that make sense?

What seems unclear?


How could this be wrong?

We good here?

What are we missing?

You got everything you need?

What else would you like to have?

Have you thought about…?

I’m wondering how that would affect…


How does that align with our values?

The key is that you don’t want everyone to think the same, but rather you want to invite different opinions and make a decision accordingly.

Debates aren’t real if your workforce already know what you want them to do – they will find it difficult to speak up and voice their opinion as they won’t want to be seen to be going against their leader. Consequently, you need to avoid self-affirming questions, but create an open dialogue instead.


5. What if the leader already knows the answer to a problem?


Even if you already know the answer to a problem, why not see what your team thinks and learn from their knowledge? To create a stronger organisation, you need to be able to build their thinking and strategizing ability and you never know what new ideas might arise if they are empowered to give their opinion.

It also creates ownership of an idea and they’ll be more likely to carry the project forward positively than if they had been told what to do. As a leader it will also help to build your confidence in a team as you’ll know they can cope without you and you’ll have less fear about things going wrong.

The key thing to take from David is that all organisations need to create a richness of communication. A workforce needs to be given the parameters of what are you trying to achieve at the highest tactical level, and then be allowed to come up with the solution themselves.

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