Dare to Lead: Book Overview and Takeaways

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Leadership Is Language" by L. David Marquet. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What’s the problem with the traditional language leaders use? Why is the relationship between leadership and good communication so important?

The language you use to speak to your employees is crucial. If you’re speaking to them in a way that minimizes or silences them, then you won’t have a functioning team that will help you on the path to success.

Keep reading to learn why leadership and communication are more important now than ever.

The Language That Leaders Use Is Outdated

According to L. David Marquet’s book Leadership Is Language, the way many leaders speak and many modern workplaces function is based on the leadership and communication model developed during the early 1900s—one that prioritized maximizing output from workers and maintaining strict control over all decisions and operations. In the fast-evolving digital age, however, organizations achieve success not through efficiency, but through adaptability, learning, and innovation. This means that rather than silence workers, leaders must now use language that encourages them to speak up.

Benefits and Drawbacks of the Autocratic Leadership Style

The traditional leadership model that Marquet discusses is often referred to as an autocratic leadership style, one of three styles defined by a psychologist in the 1930s. Autocratic leadership is a key part of classical management theory, which argues that leaders don’t need to consult subordinates when making decisions. As a result, employees can often feel ignored and experience low morale.

While, as Marquet notes, this leadership style has become increasingly obsolete, others point out that autocratic leadership still has some benefits. In Primal Leadership, Daniel Goleman argues that, as long as leaders are emotionally intelligent, their autocratic style can help group members feel connected and emotionally in sync during high-stress situations. Based on Goleman’s insights, you could consider adapting your leadership style depending on the situation: In urgent, high-stress situations, you may lean toward an autocratic style, while in normal situations, you might default to Marquet’s advice and invite your employees to be innovative and vocalize their opinions.

Traditional Work Divisions Lead to Poor Decision-Making

According to Marquet, the traditional leadership model divides people into thinkers (managers who make decisions) and executors (workers who follow their commands). Today, often without being aware of it, leaders still use language that discourages workers from offering suggestions, questioning decisions, or raising concerns. Silencing workers, however, results in bad decisions. When one person is in charge of decision-making and others feel uncomfortable challenging them, organizations allow bad decisions to play out.

(Shortform note: In Rebel Ideas, Matthew Syed elaborates on why organizations shouldn’t exclude people from decision-making: Groups are more intelligent than individuals, particularly those that are cognitively diverse. A cognitively diverse group is made up of members with different perspectives and expertise, which gives them greater collective knowledge. Together, group members can avoid blindspots and solve problems faster and better than individuals because they can analyze problems from more angles. When you get your entire team involved in decision-making, you can improve your team’s cognitive diversity and ability to make intelligent decisions.)

Excluding workers from the decision-making process also negatively affects the workers, causing them to become less engaged with their work. When people are given little say in the work that they do and how they do it, they lack internal motivation and put in minimal effort to accomplish their tasks.

(Shortform note: Some studies suggest that most American workers aren’t engaged in their work. In Carrots and Sticks Don’t Work, Paul L. Marciano defines engagement as having a deep and intrinsic commitment to your work. He argues that when workers are engaged, they take initiative, innovate ideas, support team members, and exceed expectations. According to Marciano, people feel less engaged when managers take credit for their work or if they feel like their work doesn’t matter, which may be a belief people develop if they’re regularly excluded from making decisions that affect them.)

Marquet contends that this division into thinkers and executors prevents everyone from reconsidering if a decision was the right one. Leaders make decisions, workers follow them, and neither reassesses them again. Our brains play a role in this, too. We naturally gravitate toward doing tasks rather than thinking about them or reconsidering them because it takes less brain power—and our brains are biologically wired to conserve energy as much as possible. As a result, we don’t naturally interrupt ourselves in the middle of a task or consider whether we’re taking the best course of action. Instead, we become absorbed in meeting our goal. This can lead to unethical behavior like jeopardizing quality to reduce costs or approving faulty products to meet quotas.

Examples of Traditional Leadership Language

According to Marquet, traditional leadership language communicates certainty and discourages input from workers, making leaders’ decisions seem unchallengeable. Here are a few examples of how language can perpetuate ineffective workplace practices.

Language that communicates certainty sounds like: “There’s nothing to worry about” or “Let’s buckle down and get this done.” The first phrase, perhaps used with the intention of reassuring workers, only makes people less comfortable speaking up if they run into something that does worry them. The second phrase, which might be used to motivate workers, discourages them from doing anything other than “getting the work done,” such as voicing concerns or suggesting alternative actions.

Language that discourages input sounds like: “Does this sound good to you?” or “We should work on this part of the project first, right?” These phrases already suggest the answer is “yes,” rather than allowing people to voice their honest opinions.

The Problems With Leadership and Communication Today

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Here's what you'll find in our full Leadership Is Language summary:

  • Why most leadership language discourages workers from speaking up
  • A new approach to leadership that empowers workers to participate
  • How to create an adaptive, innovative, and high-performing workplace

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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