The Language Of Leadership


These days, we talk a lot about the benefits of embracing diversity in the workplace. Of how intermingling people of different cultures, beliefs and nationalities can allow us to tap into the diversity of thoughts, ideas, and perspectives that go with these unique demographic elements.

Of course, sometimes it can be difficult to appreciate just how these differences can help us to discover new insights, particularly if we live in a fairly homogeneous population. As such, I’d like to share the following four words from languages found in different parts of the world to not only show how these diverse viewpoints can benefit your organization, but also how they remind us of the underlying commonalities that we all share.

1. Meraki – Creating work that ignites our creativity and soul
In the Greek language, there is a word they use called “Meraki” which means ‘doing something with soul, creativity, or love’; that you’re able to put “something of yourself” into what you’re doing. In most cases, meraki is used to refer to how one prepares a meal, arranges a room, or sets an elegant table.

Although meraki is typically used to describe moments in our home lives, there is an important message here for us to take note of in terms of the kind of work environment we create for our employees.

If we look at today’s thriving organizations, we can that many of them are encouraging meraki because they create a vision for their employees that makes them feel like what they do is special and that it matters. Consequently, their employees are willing to commit their discretionary effort – their talents, creativity, and insights – to their organization’s shared purpose. In other words, their employees gladly put something of themselves into the collective efforts of their organization.

Over the last few years, we’ve seen a lot being written about the importance of bringing happiness into the workplace. But what about creating an environment where our employees thrive? What about creating a vision for our organization that would allow our employees and ourselves to feel a sense of meaning and purpose in what we do?

If we really want our organizations to be more innovative and adaptive to external changes, we need to provide our employees with an environment where they can test and challenge their assumptions, if not also providing them with a vision that’s bigger than ourselves. We need to consistently communicate to our employees not only why what we do matters, but how their contributions can shape and define the course we take moving forward.

In so doing, we can encourage meraki in our workplace – where our employees put something of themselves in the work they do – because of our focus on creating an environment that ignites our collective creativity and fuels our soul with meaning and value.

2. Sawubona – Seeing those we lead for the people they are
In the Zulu language, there is a greeting they use “Sawubona”, which means “I see you”. Beyond the literal meaning, this greeting refers to the cultural concept of seeing the whole person – that we move beyond our perceptions about another person and instead, seek to learn what matters to them, what do they care about, what do they love, and what they can’t live without.

Sawubona reminds us of the importance of not simply viewing our employees in terms of the tasks and roles they perform in our organization, but that we make efforts to see and understand who they really are. Indeed, study after study has shown that today’s employees are disengaged in the work they do because they feel a disconnect between what they do and what matters to them.

And this disconnect will only get worse as the demands for a leader’s time, attention, and resources continues to grow, which can minimize our field of view and what we make time to take note of. That’s why it’s important for us to take note of sawubona – so that we make intentional our efforts to nurture relationships with those we lead, so we can understand what matters to them, and how they can contribute in a meaningful fashion to our shared purpose.

After all, if we want to create an environment where we tap into the collective creativity found in our organization, we need to see and understand the full version of our employees – their needs, dreams, goals, and aspirations – and how that can be tied to the shared vision we have for our organization.

And this is where we gain the benefit of sawubona – in recognizing the importance of moving beyond our own perceptions to see and understand what our employees need from us to succeed and thrive.

3. Ubuntu – Becoming aware of the impact we have on those around us
In the Bantu language there is a word called “Ubuntu” which has come to reflect the idea that we see our humanity as it is reflected from others back onto ourselves. That without the presence of others, we can’t see who we really are and what we put out into the world.

In many ways, ubuntu reminds us of the importance of what I wrote about in my previous piece on the secret to successful leadership, where we recognize and understand the impact we have on those we lead.

Consider, for example, those times where we get frustrated because after telling our employees about a new initiative that will fuel our long-term growth, we’re met not with excitement but with reluctance or even outright resistance.

Although it’s easy to focus on the reactions of our employees, ubuntu reminds us to consider the bigger picture – of the actions we took and words we spoke that preceded this moment, and how they served to shape the perceptions and assumptions of those we lead about what’s really important to our organization.

Ubuntu tells us that we should look outwards to those around us to understand how they experience our leadership to better understand what it’s like to work with us, as opposed to simply relying on how we view our leadership.

That’s why I’ve written a number of times about the necessity of leaders helping their employees to succeed and thrive – as ubuntu points out, the success and growth we see in those we lead is very much a reflection of what we create and foster through our leadership.

4. Taarradhin – Transforming compromise from zero-sum into a win for all
When it comes to negotiating, most of understand that it requires compromise, where we have to give something before we can take. And while giving is normally seen as a positive thing, when it comes to compromise, it’s invariably seen as something negative; where we lose something in exchange for getting something else that we want in return.

That’s what so interesting about the fact that in the Arabic language, there is no comparative word for compromise. Instead, what they use is the word “Taarradhin”, which means “a happy situation for all parties involved.”

In other words, the act of compromising is not a zero-sum game, where we measure what we’re giving up against what we stand to gain. Instead, the focus is more on how do we create a solution that addresses the needs and concerns of both parties; where both participants can leave feeling like equal winners.

Interestingly, this is exactly the approach Nelson Mandela used when negotiating the end of apartheid with former South Africa president F.W. de Klerk. In those negotiations, Mandela didn’t treat de Klerk as his oppressor, but as his partner in helping to shape a new vision for their country where all men could be free. In so doing, both men were not only able to come out of those negotiations as winners, but they also went on to share the Nobel Peace Prize for their collective efforts.

In our rush to get things done, it can be easy to simply demand or put expectations on others that will help to make things easier for us so we can deal with what we see as more pressing issues. However, if we want to tap into the discretionary effort of our employees, we need to make sure that we are creating taarradhin, where our employees see that they are not only creating value for our organization and for those we serve, but for themselves as well.

In other words, we need to create a vision and shared purpose where the needs of our employees and our organization are not in competition with one another, but serve to uplift and fuel one another.

Although the various words I’ve shared here do serve as windows to help us see and understand the perspectives and outlooks of those who come from different lands, they also serve to remind us of the commonalities we all share. Of how we want to be seen for our full selves and have the opportunity to commit all that we are – our passions, our talents and our genius – towards a goal or vision that creates a sense of value and meaning for all involved.

From this vantage point, these words are very much the language of leadership in today’s business environment. For taken together, they shine a light on what’s required by today’s leaders to help their employees to succeed and grow while helping to achieve the shared purpose of your organization.

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Tanveer Naseer is an award-winning and internationally-acclaimed leadership writer and keynote speaker. He is also the Principal and Founder of Tanveer Naseer Leadership, a leadership coaching firm that works with executives and managers to help them develop practical leadership and team-building competencies to guide organizational growth and development. Tanveer’s writings and insights on leadership and workplace interactions have been featured in a number of prominent media and organization publications, including Forbes, Fast Company, Inc Magazine, Canada’s national newspaper “The Globe and Mail”, The Economist Executive Education Navigator, and the Ritz-Carlton Leadership Center.

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