It was great being in Edinburgh again! I really enjoyed the time I spent talking with the senior executives and influencers from across Scotland and the UK at the event organised by Remarkable – our exclusive delivery partner of Intent-Based Leadership in the UK and Republic of Ireland – and leading Scottish law firm Anderson Strathern.
Scotland is a particularly important place for me, not only because we have Scottish ancestors and my parents both went to Carnegie Mellon University, but because Scotland is where James Watt invented the first viable steam engine that heralded in the Industrial Revolution. The impact of that was momentous in terms of the quality of human life and language. But our language needs to go through another revolution or else it will anchor us to Industrial Age workplace culture.
We're all trying to do the right thing and be the best leaders that we can, but sometimes the outcomes aren't what we want them to be. If you're like me, often it's our own language that we’re frustrated with. I felt like I was programmed to react in certain ways. For example, if someone told me “Hey, you're wrong,” then I would argue my case, defend my position and explain why I wasn't wrong. In general, I would respond, react, reply. I would run the Industrial Age play.
When it comes to leadership, this is not the most useful response. It would be more useful to be curious about what the other person means. What is it that they see that we don't see and what is it that they know that we don't know - and to enquire about that. I felt what I needed to do was reengineer these Industrial Age plays into a new playbook.
Here’s why. The focus of the Industrial Revolution was on doing and a special kind of doing that benefitted from reducing variability. The Industrial Revolution that James Watt started was a manufacturing revolution and manufacturing views variability as an enemy. So the organisation, the people, the way we sat, the way we talked, and the way we ran meetings were all designed to reduce variability.
You can also replace the word variability with the word diversity, diversity of thought. So what we need to do is read, replace, or reprogram these reduce-variability plays with embrace-variability plays because what we want now is creative thinking; and variability is an ally of creative thinking. Our relationship to variability has changed but we're stuck running Industrial Age reduce-variability plays in an embrace-variability game, so we have less than successful outcomes.
I view this new playbook as a re-engineer of the language we use. We need to ditch the Industrial Age language that bakes in top-down command-and-control leadership not by choice but because it is the way we have been taught to communicate.
My new book, Leadership is Language builds on my last book, Turn the Ship Around!, where I told the story of abandoning the leader-follower framework and empowering my crew on the USS Santa Fe to turn the worst performing submarine to the best performer in the US naval fleet. We talk about how we can achieve better norms and rhythms for decision-making and execution through six building blocks of language re-engineering. Here are six basic plays from the Industrial Revolution we need to rescript. The new and old plays are…
These new plays lay out the operational rhythm between decision-making and execution as grounded in the language we use.
Scotland is full of insightful, enterprising, strong leaders breaking new ground and leading the way, from housing associations to public bodies and everything in between. Just as the Scotsman James Watt launched a formidable new chapter in humanity with the Industrial Revolution, we need another revolution, this time taking us past the old language. I’m confident Scotland will play just as prominent a role in this new workplace language and culture revolution – ultimately creating better lives for millions of humans.
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