The language of Agang SA leader Dr Mamphela Ramphele seems to come directly out of a leadership coaching manual. It is leadership language, full of creative vision and possibility.

THE LANGUAGE that a person uses – or rather, the way that a person uses language – reflects and also defines their relationship to life. Leadership language is one of the first things that a leadership coach looks for and, with sensitivity, seeks to correct. Twentieth century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein put it this way: “The limits of my language means the limits of my world.”

leadership languageA simple example is the use of phrases such as, “I want to [take up mountain climbing],” or, “I have to [get fit].” These phrases reflect an inner state of desire or recognition and, while they may be experienced by the speaker as true, they do not commit the person to action and therefore are unlikely to cause any shift in their circumstances or reality. The coach would steer them towards the possibility of using the phrase, “I will.” This is known in the philosophy of language as a speech act. It creates the reality as a real possibility in their mind, and simultaneously commits the person to action to bring it about. More importantly, the use of a speech act has an impact on them in the present. You can physically see people wrestle with the decision to use a speech act, and when they do, they immediately feel its power. It also has the secondary effect of immediately starting to “cook” in their minds, and produce further results. For example, say you make a speech act during your coaching session – or while you’re at the pub with your mates – to climb Kilimanjaro by the end of the year. On your drive home, or latest by the next morning, you’ll start thinking about what you’re going to have to do to fulfil on that speech act. You might have to do some research into what equipment to buy, and start getting fit. This then has a knock-on effect to the next speech act and so the consistent use of the leadership language creates the reality.

To this extent, speech not only passively describes a given reality, but it can change the (social) reality it is describing. This is the linguistic equivalent of the quantum physics phenomenon that the measurement itself defines the measured reality. In quantum physics, if the experimenter wants to measure the speed of an atom, it flips into energy mode and shows speed; if the experimenter wants to measure the position of the atom, it flips into particle mode and shows position. Henry Ford clearly understood this when he said, “Whether you say you can, or say you can’t, either way you are right.”

Leadership language is language that not only describes reality,
but has the power to change it, to bring about a new reality.

Therefore, shifting a person’s language to the use of speech acts and what can be called “the language of possibility”, or “leadershipo language” has the effect of inserting a giant lever into their life. With this small shift a person’s whole world can begin to shift in a matter of weeks. In the hands of a leader, who directs the actions of many people, it can be even more powerful. Consider John F Kennedy’s statement in 1962, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade.” This was a speech act that included the all-important factor of a deadline. It was not a “maybe”, or a “we’ll try”. The goal was finally achieved in July 1969.

Leadership language has the power to change reality

Leadership language, then – language that not only describes reality, but has the power to change it, that has the power to bring about a new reality – is marked by words that imply taking a stand for something that does not yet exist. A stand is a declaration of what will be. It stands on itself. It is based on values. Once made it is unshakeable. Kennedy understood this and his language is marked by it. Consider these statements in Barack Obama’s 2013 inauguration speech: “We believe that America’s prosperity must rest upon the broad shoulders of a rising middle class.” The word “must” indicates that he is sharing a thought about a moral imperative. It is not a creative speech act.  A closer inspection of that speech reveals that “must” is used a number of times and notably in reference to the following: revamping the tax code, reforming schools, reducing the cost of health care and the size of the deficit, leading the transition to sustainable energy, being a source of hope for the poor, among others. The only creative speech act in the entire text is this one: “We will defend our people and uphold our values through strength of arms and rule of law.” Following that he goes on to say, “We will show the courage to try and resolve our differences with other nations peacefully.” Notice how the word “try” completely breaks the creative power of that sentence. There are claims that he has broken most of his campaign promises. Perhaps if we study all of his speeches we will find he never made any promises at all, except that same one, the commitment to go to war.

The power of a speech act lies in a person’s commitment to honour their word. In the Kilimanjaro example, the person who has a conscious commitment to honour their word will be compelled to bring it about as a reality. In generations past, honouring your word was considered non-negotiable. Deals were done on a handshake. These days we are driven by expedience. Whatever works, and whatever serves the bottom line. Whatever serves the interests of those who complain the loudest. America’s tolerance (and implicit support) of the toppling of the Morsi government in Egypt last week is a case in point.

Powerful leaders move the world forward by making
powerful speech acts based on values.

Therefore our speech acts don’t carry too much power, and we don’t see too many of them. The ones we do are laughable. After days of trawling media reports of quotes by South Africa’s current president, Jacob Zuma, this was the only one that appeared: “The ANC will rule South Africa until Jesus comes back.” He said that in March 2004 to a Gauteng ANC special council. This gives reason to be concerned, for he seems more concerned about the survival of the ANC than upholding Nelson Mandela’s speech act, made during his 1994 inauguration speech: “Let there be justice for all. Let there be peace for all. Let there be work, bread, water and salt for all. Let each know that the mind, the body, the soul have been freed to fulfil themselves. Never, never, and never again, shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world. The sun shall never set on so glorious an achievement. Let freedom reign. God bless Africa.”

Leadership language moves the world forward

Powerful leaders move the world forward by making powerful speech acts based on values. Zuma does exactly the opposite. “The ANC is more important than even the Constitution of the country,” he said in 2006, rephrasing a statement he had made to similar effect ten years earlier. The erosion of values is the hallmark of his presidency. Or try this one: “When you vote for the ANC, you are also choosing to go to heaven. When you don’t vote for the ANC you should know that you are choosing that man who carries a fork … who cooks people.” Or this: “I’ve always said that a wise businessperson will support the ANC… because supporting the ANC means you’re investing very well in your business.”

In a series of articles by Gareth van Onselen on, he analyses the meaning and implication of 20 Zuma quotes, and his conclusion is this:  “Take a moment to imagine the nature of the ideal world Jacob Zuma holds in his mind. One [that] is not a democracy, certainly not a constitutional state, with the bill of human rights, rather, a haven for every force that runs against freedom – a racial, bigoted and nationalist time warp, detached from modernity and all its virtues.”

Her leadership language is designed to inspire people to see themselves and their world in a whole new way, and to act to make that a reality.

Perhaps the saving grace for those who agree with van Onselen and care about values is his very complacency, for every leader knows that success is the most dangerous, vulnerable position to be in and success with complacency will inevitably lead you into the only other phase available to you, which is decline.

Leadership language empowers the listener

If there is a shining light in terms of leadership in South Africa, it may come in the form of Agang SA leader Dr Mamphela Ramphele. In her speech at the party’s launch in Pretoria in July she made a number of speech acts in the form of pledges, among them the pledge to “live by our founding democratic values”, as well as specific commitments, for example to raise the pass rate to 50% and train more teachers and to restrict direct family members from doing business with government.

There is more to her language, however, that points to a tremendous creative force. Here are some statements that stand out, not just for their visionary and inspirational quality, for that is what we expect from politicians, but for the degree to which they challenge people, with conviction, to take responsibility for a greater vision, one that is out of their current comfort zone: “I am here today to invite you on a journey to build the country of our dreams.” “I am inspired by a burning ambition to aim higher.” “All this is possible if we raise our expectations of the future.” “I want us to dream bigger, to expect much, much more.” “Imagine… Imagine… Imagine…” “This … is a future we can have if we expect more from ourselves.”

This is leadership language that empowers the listener. Where Zuma is making statements that you will go to heaven or your business will succeed if you vote for the ANC, she is inspiring people to see themselves and their world in a whole new way, and to act to make that a reality. While Zuma seeks to maintain the status quo and serve the organization over its values, Dr Ramphele makes powerful challenges based on adherence to values.

The quality of her leadership language was striking in the speech that she gave, and was confirmed in an interview a few weeks later. When asked specifically about her use of leadership language, she replied, “I believe that you have what it takes to shape your own destiny. That’s where leadership starts.” She followed that with, “It is so important to have leaders who can imagine a future different from the past, who have the guts to be able to create an environment where there are different viewpoints.” She came across as authentic when she said, “I’m excited by the possibility to rebuild this country that so many of my friends died for, that I sacrificed my youth for and that I’m now sacrificing my retirement for. Because I think it is possible.”

Her language works as leadership language because it uses speech acts based on values. It contains conviction and reflects solution statements as much as problem statements; it takes a stand for values and is not defensive; it is authentic to the point that she has nothing to lose, which she admits to, and it is not calculated to manipulate.

The question that remains is would this leadership language be sustainable if she ever got into power? To a trained ear it appears to be authentic and spoken with conviction. To this extent it seems that she would remain true to the values she stands for; that she is a woman of her word, and therefore a worthy leader.

I note that this is the title on her business card: Leader.