I teach my first class of the fall 2012 semester tonight: Leadership Communication. The focus includes writing but is not specific to it. Instead, we study how to lead with language (plus some non-verbal behaviors because we’re interested in communication). Because I will be thinking about the topics in this class quite often over the next 15 weeks, some of my blog posts are likely to lean in this direction.
Tonight we’ll watch the clip below from Crimson Tide which neatly captures the essence of effective leadership by contrasting the behavior of two US Navy officers: Hunter (played by Denzel Washington) and Ramsey (played by Gene Hackman).
The film is a testament to Tony Scott’s skill as a director. And it is fortuitous that the title of the film pays homage to my university’s football team.
The language of leaders has been a primary research interest for me for 10 or so years. In 2006, I wrote a trade book based on that research, Thinking and Interacting Like a Leader: The TILL System for Effective Interpersonal Communication.
When comparing Hunter and Ramsey, most readily agree Hunter is the more effective leader. Hunter has somehow made a personal “connection” with the seaman despite the fact that he is absolutely clear about who is in charge, what the seaman did wrong, and how he should act in the future. Effective leaders intuitively know how to achieve these apparently incompatible goals. In short, this book shows you what’s behind their magic—how to think (T) and interact (I) like (L) a leader (L): TILL.
It shouldn’t be surprising to hear me say neither the book nor the course is filled with platitudes about leadership language. I like the way Joe Downing (one of the book’s reviewers) said it:
While reading the book, it struck me how rare it is across our business communication disciplines to find scholars with the ability to adapt their work from an academic to a practitioner audience. It was no small feat, I would gather, incorporating the abstract tenets from sociolinguistic theory and—without losing too much conceptual nuance and richness from the original scholarly model—remove the academic jargon and repackage the contents in a framework that the average business reader can use daily. Reading Campbell’s book served as an important reminder how, as applied researchers, we bear at least some responsibility to make our work meaningful to those outside the academy.
I take great pride in Joe’s comments because I think he means I did my job — to make theory useful (that means “educational” in the best sense) for my students. At the end of the fall semester, I know my students will have internalized a system for leading with their language and be well on their way to becoming pros.