Language: Creating Enlisted Relationships

One of the most interesting facets of human interaction. i.e. leadership, is language. I’ll admit to being a recovering English teacher, and I’ve always loved to read—probably why I was wearing glasses by junior high. Words grab me. I’ve never met a terrific leader, at any level in an organization, who wasn’t a terrific listener.

Sometimes we have conversations in my sessions focused on stove pipes (departments that often know nothing about their organizational brothers and sisters). In California, they call the same phenomenon (with a wry smile) cylinders of excellence. And I long ago gave up trying to keep track of acronyms, especially since the same letters may stand for a very different thing between one office and the next. I simply play dumb, something I’ve been told I do well.

Then there are the (too) common buzzwords from the world of OD (for Organization Development, itself a godfather of buzzwords), like iterative prototypingforward-thinking, value-added, ROI (return on investment), employee engagement, and so on.

Of them all, two especially raise my hackles, even when they’re used with good intent. They roll easily off the tongue and are catchy, and maybe we need to think about them a bit more. One is The Law of Unintended Consequences. Robert Merton was a brilliant guy, also responsible for role model and self-fulfilling prophecy, two beauties. He often called his insight The Law of Unanticipated Consequences, and I wish he’d popularized that instead. For leaders, I think impact counts more than intent. I’m not letting bad actors off the hook here, or bad intent disguised as beneficence (English teacher alert). But once an action is implemented, intention becomes pretty meaningless. Those of us who have tried to do something nice and have it backfire know that well. I prefer to steer my groups toward the idea of Unforeseen Consequences, since foresight is an important part of leadership and takes intent out of the equation.

When I’m working with a group trying to embrace and manage change, I work hard to keep their focus on preparation (being flexible, candid, and skeptical of their own expectations) over planning (thinking they can control the ripples of the stone they’re about to pitch into the pond that is their organization). The first habit needs the free flow of ideas to work, which means those with more apparent power need to back off, at least a bit. Then we can shift the focus to anticipating consequences, understanding that we cannot control all the ripples, and on foresight rather than on intent.

The term I work hardest to shave out of the OD lexicon is empowerment. I warned you I’m a recovering English teacher. And words don’t just reflect what we think, they shape how we think. Empower is a transitive verb—it takes an object. In other words, you do it to people. So who really has the power? Often enough, I see this term used either as a fancy substitute for delegate or as a way for a supervisor to avoid a conflict: “The team has been struggling with this issue, so I empowered them to deal with it.” Uh-huh.

I try to plant the idea of power-sharing. You share power with people. That generates a more collaborative relationship than doing something to people. With involves dialogue, a lateral conversation (talking and listening across apparent boundaries of power) rather than vertical (talking/listening within boundaries). That frame is very different, more inclusive, more likely to foster alignment. I encourage groups to plan meetings together, rotate roles and responsibilities, develop agendas based on feedback from everyone involved. This sounds cumbersome and unwieldy, but it’s not. The more we can enlist support by sharing power, the more power is available to solve problems and move toward solutions.

Margaret Wheatley suggested, “Power in organizations is the capacity generated by  relationships.” Every organization has boundaries—parents and children, teachers and students, supervisors and employees, sales and marketing, and so on. When those boundaries prevent learning, collaboration, or feedback, we can turn our eyes toward power-sharing as a possibility for nurturing greater capacity through enlisted relationships.


Mac Bogert
Mac Bogert
I fell in love with learning, language, and leadership through the intervention of two professors—I had actually achieved a negative GPA—who kicked my butt for drifting through my first couple of semesters at Washington and Lee University. After graduate school at U. Va., I started teaching English at a large high school in northern Virginia. A terrific principal lit my fire, a terrible one extinguished it. I left after five years (the national average, as it turns out, maybe the only time I did something normal) and started an original folk/blues/rock band. That went well for a time until the record company sponsoring us folded. I toured for some years as an acoustic blues musician, primarily as an opening act for bands like the Muddy Waters Band, Doc, and Merle Watson and such remarkable talent. As that market dried up (disco), I earned my Coast Guard Masters License and worked for the next decade as a charter and delivery captain and sailing instructor. At the same time, I was working part-time as an actor and voice-over artist, selling inflatable boats and encyclopedias, and working as a puppeteer. Itchy feet, I suppose. I came back into the system in 1987 as a teacher specialist in health and drug education in my county school system, also part-time as Education Coordinator (and faculty member) for Maryland Hall for the Creative Arts. I ‘departed’ both jobs in 1994 (therein lie more stories than 350 words could hold) and started my own business. AzaLearning is the career I’d been dodging for decades. I serve 200 clients around the country, helping with all kinds of coaching, planning, transforming conflict, creative problem-solving, communication, and mediation (I also trained and worked as a community mediator somewhere during sailing and teaching): learning, language, and leadership. In 2016 I published Learning Chaos: How Disorder Can Save Education and actively contribute to a couple of online education magazines as well as publish a newsletter, a blog, and the learning chaos podcast.

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  1. Thanks very much, Aldo.
    I especially appreciate your insight that shared leadership arises from the team members. If we, those with more apparent power due to position, help create a context that both makes space for and nurtures efficacy, we’ll get to see the marvelous power of difference as a resource instead of as a threat. The more power we share, the more power there is.

  2. The evolution of the organizations and the markets in which they operate require building a collaborative decision-making process, sharing knowledge and collective responsibility for results, among all team members.
    Personally, I see shared leadership less as an organizational structure and more as a mindset and approach to management.
    Obviously, after centuries of leadership characterized by individual “power”, sharing leadership is not easy, but it is certainly possible and, in many cases, it is the key to success. For example, they encourage employees to experiment with leadership, reduce the distance from power within the hierarchy and stimulate the will to take the initiative.
    Shared leadership arises from team members, therefore it is by its very nature flexible, dynamic, interactive and rapidly adaptable to any evolving business reality. It maximizes the contribution of all staff within the company, leverages the contribution of talents and strengthens individual workers, offering them the opportunity to assume leadership in their areas of expertise.
    In addition, it also has a positive impact on the overall effectiveness of the team: the feeling of being more empowered results in higher levels of involvement, team cohesion and job satisfaction.

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