Review of L. David Marquet’s Leadership is Language

Leadership is Language drives home the idea that leadership is about people, and the author argues that leaders cannot lead effectively without an appropriately balanced interplay using words. A quick assumption about this book might be that it perpetuates overly soft, sympathetic, sensitive leadership approaches. It does not. Rather, it is about the leader detaching themselves from notions of invulnerability, certainty, coercion, and conformity. In terms of leadership interactions, whether person to person, digital, handwritten, or verbal; Marquet argues that if you want to be a truly effective leader, you need to think about the words you choose to use and how you apply them.

The book offers us six ‘plays’ that we can employ in order to lead effectively and enhance the performance of our teams, all of which ultimately combine to bolster morale, trust, and performance. They are summarised as:

  1. Control the clock, don’t obey the clock. Be able to ‘pause’ at any time to be mindful and deliberate with actions. Facilitate collaboration, broaden perspective.
  2. Collaborate, don’t coerce. Consider letting the doers be the deciders, you be the decision evaluator; encourage the sharing of ideas, be vulnerable, and recognise and accept that others can contribute to thinking and understanding.
  3. Commit, don’t comply. Commitment will always prevail over compliance because it unlocks discretionary effort in people. In complex, cognitive, custom teamwork ‘discretionary effort is everything’.
  4. Complete, don’t continue. Break tasks down into sizeable chunks and complete them one by one. Celebrate successes, focus on behaviours not characteristics, focus on the journey not the destination.
  5. Improve, don’t prove. Collaborate to get better, focus on achieving excellence in favour of avoiding errors.
  6. Connect, don’t conform. Demonstrate vulnerability and admit to not knowing. Care about what people think, how they feel, and their personal goals. ‘Connect is love’, trust is the outcome.

You will quickly discover that Marquet is motivated to changing the language used by modern leaders. He wants to evolve the sometimes dangerous, even fatal, Industrial Age ‘command and control’ leadership language that stifles curiosity, decision-making, and performance. These stubborn cultures of compliance and control only serve to yield a distorted common sense, coercive behaviours, and fear. The Industrial Age leadership approach is out of date and ineffective, and this is why Leadership is Language is a significant book. The author argues that if you change the way you communicate, you will positively change your workplace culture, and by changing the culture you will transform your team’s performance.

Leadership is Language makes it abundantly clear that teams need to interact and people need to share their anxieties, ideas, and opinions. This is vital since the leader needs to know whether they are making the best possible decisions after weighing up the best possible courses of action, informed by all the relevant information. Marquet gives the reader the contextual foundation and practical guidance needed to do this. The book goes some way to help us internalise numerous subtle and not-so-subtle changes in our language, allowing us to ’reinforce and rewire our thought processes in a more adaptive, learning, growth-orientated way’.

Some readers might argue that a lot of communication is non-verbal, a widely accepted idea that appears to be overlooked in the book. However, in Marquet’s central point the message is clear. It is not necessary to explicitly declare that you are open to constructive dissent, as leaders control the culture and, if true, this openness should be readily felt by the team without the need to state it. Additionally, leaders should harness the ‘eyes, ears, and minds’ of their people in order to lead them. Furthermore, readers are encouraged to think about leadership as the hard work of ‘taking responsibility for how our actions and words affect the lives of others’. Hence, how leaders behave and communicate, verbally or otherwise, so often characterises how their teams work and perform together.

Leadership is Language doesn’t claim to have all the answers. To aptly borrow from Field Marshall Sir William Slim, leadership is ‘just plain you’. The answers are in the language the leader chooses to employ when they interact with people.

Marquet makes it feel simple to the reader: ask questions in different ways to get different answers. Be curious. He delivers a crystal clear understanding that language creates the environment where teams are able to assertively state their queries, concerns, problems, and anxieties — and that they can perform highly as an outcome.

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