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The latest insights on narrative, storytelling and leadership in higher education.

Language at the top

No need for translation: language at the top

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Language, and how we use it, has the potential to create a divided world of ‘us’ and ‘them’. But it can also build bridges. It should be part of every leader’s toolkit to build a foundation of expectations and behaviours.

So how comfortable are leaders at modelling the possibilities of using language in this way? And what does this look like when done well?

When I became a Head of Department and led colleagues in achieving a top score in a gruelling teaching quality assessment, the Deputy Vice-Chancellor held a champagne reception to toast our success.

I remember arriving five minutes late, to a teasing joke from the DVC.

‘Where the ‘ell have you been, mate?’

‘I’ve been teaching.’

‘Ah, you can forget all that now!’ he replied with a sweeping gesture, as though welcoming me into a new elite world in which the privilege of being a manager was not having to dirty my hands with anything directly educational.

All this speaks of a divided world, of codes of conduct for some and not others. Private and public faces. Authentic and inauthentic behaviours.

Around the same time, I took part in my first Heads’ Conference, a residential affair involving the ninety most senior leaders in the institution. Here, behind closed doors, I witnessed at first hand the language used at the top. At its worst, it was defensive, cynical, narcissistic, and disillusioned. It revealed a lack of belief in others and their potential.

Since then, I’ve heard colleagues from some institutions talking openly about how their Vice-Chancellors swear like troopers in top team meetings, and how on occasion the air can be blue with tales of clashes with governors or with rivals from other institutions. To my surprise, some of those listening even go so far as to speculate that ‘It must be great fun working at your place!’

All this speaks of a divided world, of codes of conduct for some and not others. Private and public faces. Authentic and inauthentic behaviours.

University meeting rooms are filled with language, and language bears the culture of the institution. It reflects choices we can make, consciously or otherwise. We can use language to show off, to obfuscate or to oppress.

Clarity in language

We can also use language to set clear expectations, to model the kind of practices we would like to see replicated throughout a university.

What about the Vice-Chancellors, fortunately in my experience in a huge majority, who convey at once an overwhelmingly positive sense of what it’s like to work with them? They have a transparent sense of what they want to achieve for their organisations rather than for themselves. By choosing their words deliberately and consistently, they are

energised,

inspired,

dynamic,

appreciative,

passionate

and generous.

It’s fascinating to see how they use language in practice, to reinforce a credible, likeable and trustworthy leadership identity. They make sure their language is part of a natural repertoire.

At their best, these leaders are brilliant at telling stories about meaningful encounters with individuals and teams who exemplify their institutions’ narratives.

They use it to link their enthusiasm for their leadership work with the activities which make them feel most alive in their leisure time, from sailing, cycling or hiking through to artistic and cultural pursuits. These in turn can become metaphors for institutional challenges and how people can tackle them.

At their best, these leaders are brilliant at telling stories about meaningful encounters with individuals and teams who exemplify their institutions’ narratives.

One of my favourites was shared with glowing warmth by a Provost in New England, who described how the university’s President spoke to his students whenever he met or addressed them in groups. This was in a public institution with a strong record of enabling first-generation students to succeed. The President was the university’s first African American to hold the office.

The Provost’s eyes filled with pride in the telling:

‘When our President looks into the students’ faces, he loves every one of them.’

The message and narrative couldn’t have been clearer.

How many of our universities are open to language such as this, let alone feel comfortable with modelling it at the top?

By Paul Gentle

Paul is the Academic Director at Invisible Grail. A leadership expert, Paul has dedicated the last ten years to creating and delivering leadership development programmes in Higher Education.

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