Mind Your Prepositions: The Linguistics of Management Versus Leadership

Much has been written in the business literature about the distinction between management and leadership. At its core, management is about directing the operations of an organization. Effective management depends on clear reporting structures and accountability. Leadership, on the other hand, is about vision and strategy. Competent leaders do not focus so intently on control and directives, but instead foster creativity and collaboration. They leverage their social and emotional intelligence to inspire and influence across the entire enterprise.

How a C-Level Leader Changed his Mindset

What are some of the nuts and bolts, in specific situations in the real world, of transitioning from being a manager to a leader? The transition ultimately depends on a fundamental shift in the individual’s mindset and personal narrative about their evolving role. The linguistics of this transition matter. The following account of a coaching engagement demonstrates how a seemingly minor change in language — from one preposition to another — can have a major impact.

A C-suite client in the biotech industry told me in a coaching session that he was worried about the recent arrival of a new CEO. He had heard from colleagues that this individual had a reputation for being a taskmaster and stickler for weekly metrics of success. This reputed trait stood in stark contrast to the hands-off demeanor of the company’s outgoing CEO. As a self-starter who already held himself accountable to high performance standards, my client had enjoyed and thrived in that trusting work environment where he never felt micromanaged. “I just don’t know what it’ll be like to work for this new CEO,” he told me, with trepidation in his voice.

This kind of decrease in self-confidence isn’t unusual in the context of major change. But it was striking to me that this seasoned executive, an accomplished research scientist with an MBA and years of experience as Chief Scientific Officer (CSO), regarded himself as a subordinate. He expressed to me that he would be working for the incoming CEO. While wanting to be careful to avoid nitpicking, I intervened and asked if he would write down that sentence and examine its structure and content. He agreed to do so. Instead of disregarding this manifestation of a passive mindset, I thought it might be worthwhile to examine his word use. “What do you think of this sentence?,” I asked.

With a quizzical look but an open-minded spirit, he read and re-read the sentence. He said that he was surprised by the uncertainty and lack of confidence he had expressed. I replied that I had noticed it as well, and that one word stood out to me. “May I sound like a middle school grammar teacher for a moment?”, I asked. He granted me permission. “Take a look at the one preposition you used,” I said, “and let me know what you think about it.” He immediately identified “for” as the word in question. I asked him to reflect on its contours of meaning. He realized that this seemingly innocuous word reflected an unjustified and self-limiting fear of the CEO.

Reducing Stress by Shifting the Preposition

Much of the coaching to that point had focused on his developing a leadership mindset, with clear understanding of his strategic role and influential voice in the company. So, noticing his use of the phrase “work for” demonstrated the nuanced, underlying persistence of passivity and a dreaded sense that he was going to be “managed” by the CEO. “What other prepositions do you think are available here?”, I asked. He at first joked that “below” and “around” came to mind. After we lightly chuckled at those thoughts, he said with a more serious look on his face, “I think I know what you’re getting at. Perhaps the word with would sound a bit better.”

He went on to say that mentally switching from “work for” to “work with” provided enormous relief. The remainder of the coaching session became a conversation about an action plan flowing from this linguistic change. We discussed how to approach the new CEO in a collaborative, open-minded manner. He remarked that it must be stressful for this new CEO trying to lead a well-established company in a niche of the industry in which she had never held an executive position. This empathetic mindset led him to think that he should ask how he can help her get settled in her role, rather than tremble in fear about how she might interfere with his success and quality of life. He resolved to reach out to her proactively to ask what more he could do to support her and optimize his own role at the same time.

A mere change in a preposition led to a remarkable reduction in stress and an ensuing set of trust-building actions. Months later, he and the CEO were working well together and implementing a major initiative that had been on the back burner. This positive outcome can serve as a reminder to coaches and clients that slowing down, noticing one’s use of language, and proactively changing a word or phrase can have an outsize impact and lead to resounding success. Linguistic changes, even if they seem minor at first, can make all the difference in advancing from management to leadership.

Keystone Partners: Experts in Helping Leaders Transform their Mindset

We have been working with executives and leaders across all industries become more effective in their roles. For more than 40 years Keystone Partners has been helping companies of all sizes across all industries overcome their people and leadership challenges for the last 40 years. Our team of coaches has extensive experience helping leaders function more effectively, leading to employees to be happier and more engaged in their jobs.

Interested in learning more? Contact us today to find out how we can help develop your organization’s leaders realize their full potential.

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