Lead By Using Language That Sparks Possibility
Across the globe, people's lives and businesses have been upended. But even before the catastrophic events of 2020, many of us were feeling uncertain about the future and even lacked a sense of purpose. Workers feared AI would replace them, parents and Mark Zuckerberg worried about the TikTok revolution, and companies focused on their profits rather than their people. Few CEOs were thinking about how to look after employees or lead in a way that would make the world a better place. Companies were focused on profit over planet when they should have been thinking about the planet over profit.
We are now in the midst of a painful shift. The question becomes: Do we try to hold onto things the way they were before, or do we accept where we are and adapt to this new world? To adapt, we need to adopt a mental policy that empowers everyone to be his or her own Superman.
I didn’t come to this realization easily.
Like everyone else, I was on autopilot. I was working long hours, I felt numb and the line between work and home was as blurred as the time between weekdays and weekends. I didn’t know how my executive coaching company or the work I do teaching executives how to be leaders would fit into this new landscape.
I was in a gray zone, and I didn’t know how to move out of it until I took a tumble down my front steps and found myself in the hospital with a broken ankle. When the doctors told me I’d be laid up until September, I accepted the diagnosis as just another reason to wish 2020 away.
While recovering at home, I suddenly had time to slow down and think. That’s when I had an epiphany: Everyone needs to feel empowered to create a new narrative. We are feeling hopeless because we haven’t found our sense of purpose in this new normal and we don’t know where to start.
For many, the language we are using is out of date. During virtual meetings and in email exchanges, I’ve noticed that business leaders aren't fully adapting to our current situation. Rather than use terms that made sense six months ago, we need to create new ones that will allow us to acknowledge the past, express where we are now and show us where we could be in the future. Our language must allow us to talk about how to tackle this problem of purpose and create a sense of hope so that people can move forward.
While talking with a recent executive client, I took her through an exercise to help her update her language to fit today’s reality. The language she was using for her personal project didn’t connect to our present situation. I told her to start off by drawing a line in the middle of the page. On the left side, list at least 20 words that describe how people are feeling right now (tired, confused, scared, overwhelmed). On the right-hand side, list the opposite of those feelings that people want to feel (energized, certain, happy, comforted). Now look at the way you communicate verbally and in written form, and find a way to acknowledge the feelings your clients, customers or employees are having now and how your product, the way the company communicates to their people and their customers (also people), and help connect them with the emotions they want to feel in the future.
Adapting our language to meet this moment won’t be easy or straightforward, and it could take six months or more to feel less awkward as we develop our fluency to our new reality. It’s important work and it will allow us to show our clients, colleagues, even upward managing leaders to create a path forward at a speed never experienced before thanks to new tools and technology acceleration. Now more than ever, it’s essential that we acknowledge this shift to spark possibility and re-find our purpose in the world.