The following is a conversation between David Marquet, Author of Leadership is Language: The Hidden Power of What You Say and What You Don’t, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving

Captain David Marquet, Author of Leadership is Language

Denver: Too many leaders fall in love with the sound of their own voice and wind up dictating plans and digging in their heels when problems begin to emerge. Even when they want to be a more collaborative leader, they can undermine their own efforts by defaulting to command and control language we’ve inherited from the industrial era.

My next guest says it’s time to toss that old playbook, and that begins with choosing the words that can dramatically improve decision making and execution on your team. He is Captain David Marquet, Author of Leadership is Language: The Hidden Power of What You Say and What You Don’t. 

Welcome to The Business of Giving, David!

David: Hey, thank you, Denver, and thanks for all your listeners for joining us. 

Denver: There are so many leadership books out there, but not that many, that focus on language that leaders use. Why do you think that’s the case? David? 

David: I don’t know, but I have a couple of guesses. First is, that they don’t actually know the words that you need to say to make things happen. It’s great to say, “Oh, take care of your people. Oh, have a collaborative workspace. Oh, invite the sending opinions.” OK, great. I’m in a meeting. This is what the other person just said. What do I say in response?” So, that’s and I think there is this almost condescending, “Well, that’s unnecessary.” If I give people the idea. Then they can choose their own words. I don’t want to program them necessarily.” Unfortunately, I think it’s a reprogramming because we’ve been programmed with unhelpful language. And I’ve seen it over and over again where the leaders want to be a certain way, but the language is different. The language comes out different. 

Denver: When did the power of language and its importance of being an effective leader first hit you? 

David: When I was a submarine commander. 

Denver: Tell us about that. 

David: Right. So language is very important. And so there are two things. Just in the normal day to day business of being a submarine commander, we think very deeply about exactly what we’re going to say and in what situation.

So for example, let’s say you’re about to shoot a torpedo, and then you decided at the last minute that you don’t want to shoot because you don’t, you’re not sure enough if that’s actually the enemy target; that could be a camouflage. And so what’s the order that you give? Well, you might say, “Don’t shoot.” That, however, lands itself to peril because what if they don’t hear the “Don’t shoot?” and this has happened. This has happened where commanders have given the order,” Don’t Shoot!” but there’s a bang or a clang or a noise or something happens during the “don’t” and all they hear is “Shoot!” And then now we’ve shot, and then it’s very hard to undo that. So we’ve learned, for example, we would say, “Hold!”

Or “Hands Off!” was one of the things we’d go to, which basically means don’t do it, but you’ve got to say what you want, not what you don’t want. So that’s just one example, but the idea is we play with the words, and my programming as a submarine commander was about telling people what to do.

My specific story was I went to a ship at the very last minute that I wasn’t trained for. And it was weird because I’d made a decision. I’m not going to tell these guys what to do. I’m going to get them to tell me what we need to do because they actually know the submarine. But over and over and over again, the words would come out. And in little ways, I’d be like, “Well, so don’t you think we should go North?” 

Denver: Old habits are hard to break.

David: “Oh yes”. Right, right, right. “Oh, I didn’t really tell you, I mean, you decided to go north, right? Not me”. And even that, “right,” “You decided to go north, right?” Even that little “right” at the end of the statement, it’s just, it’s a little micro coercion.

If the idea is, yes, nod your head, go along; comply with what I wanted you to do. Don’t think too hard about it, don’t challenge me, don’t question me. What I think the leader should say at that moment is, so even if he is saying, let’s say the team is making you make the decision, you say, “OK, great. We’re going to go north. How could this be wrong? What’s incorrect about my thinking or our thinking?” That kind of thing. You want to make the easy path, you want to invite the dissenting opinion as opposed to “Make sense? We good?” 

Denver: You all with me? 

David: You all with me?

Denver: Yes, no, it’s that open-ended question which allows them to really expound as to what they think, as opposed to just following along. 

David: Well, the open-ended question is… so one way to think about it is just how many words is each person saying? And if all I ask is closed-ended questions, will it work? Should we launch the product? Is it safe? Will the assumption be true? Then the team responds with yes, no, no, yes, whatever.

And I’m saying a lot more words than they’re saying, but if I said: Qhat’s the probability it’s going to be true? How do you see it working? How sure are you that we should launch the product?” They just say more words, and that leveling of the words turns out to be very important. 

Denver: I think they call it, what, “share of voice”?

David: Yes. And so we kind of discovered this accidentally. One of the things we analyzed in the book was a very unfortunate tragedy where a ship, in 2015, this was not hundreds of years ago, left Florida heading for Puerto Rico, ran smack into a hurricane and sank. And this was the El Faro. It was hurricane Joaquin in 2015. And people said, “Well, how did this happen? How could it possibly happen?” Well, fortunately, the government found the black box, and so we have the whole recording. Now, airplane black boxes, just like an airplane, airplane black boxes, though they’re typically 10 minutes.  The recordings are pretty short, but here we have 25 hours. It’s a 500 -page transcript. And we can hear the captain and the officer and the crewman on deck. We can hear them talking. We hear the captains on the bridge with the team; when he’s not on the team, we can hear it. And in this language, we hear the words that trapped them into following this failed course of action. And they’re not bad people. The captain’s not a bad guy, he’s come up through the system, and he’s saying the exact same things that I was programmed to say as a commander. 

And so here’s what, so the first thing we did, all I did was count the number of words. I didn’t care what kind of a word it was. And it turns out that every time there were three people on the bridge: the captain, an officer, and a crew member, the word count quantitatively matched the salary count. It went in order, and it was almost like numerically relative to the salary. So the captain made the most, then the officer had made a little bit less, and then the crew made it a whole lot less. So the numbers were like 55%, 40%, 5%. 

Denver: Like junior people don’t get a peep. 

David: Yes. And then when the captain would leave, the other two people would speak, and it would be almost 50/50, but again, the more senior person, it’s almost as if they had this meter. That, OK. “Well, you’re the senior person. You get the number of words relative to your proportion of the salary of the people in the room.”

And it just happened naturally, but we know that when you have a more even share of voice, and that happens either because the leader says less or because we get more participation by the team, it’s a more resilient, more adaptive team, you’re going to make better decisions, and you’re going to have less fragility. It’s less likely that you’re going to do something like launch 737 Max software, which was a bad idea. 

Denver: Let me take this off the ship for a moment and bring it into the workplace. OK. Now I’ve been going to meetings my entire life, and I’ll tell you what frequently happens as you well know. You have a major topic on the agenda you want to discuss. The leader gets up there, frames the issue for us, and we discuss it. And then maybe at the end, we’ll take a vote on what course of action we should follow. Tell me, what is wrong with that approach? 

David: That is the industrial age approach. It’s called: discuss then vote, and everyone does it. We don’t even make a decision about it. Of course, that’s how we’re going to attack this problem.

Well, it turns out, that if you wanted to create a process for running a business, of running a meeting that resulted in compliance, that resulted in not hearing dissenting opinions, that resulted in everyone just going along with doing what you wanted them to do, the thing you described is exactly what you would do.

Why? First, you anchor the group to what you think. And then the group starts talking, and more likely than not, some right-hand person or the boss is going to say, “Oh yes, boss. We’ve done all the testing. It’s going to work. It’s really important. We got to catch up to the competitors, blah, blah, blah.” And so the group starts falling in line, and then the person who is sitting over here, who’s down in engineering… who actually knows that there’s some problem… just slumps down in their seat.  And it’s less and less likely for them to speak up.

So it’s an unthinking way. The fact that we run the meeting that way, it’s something we don’t even think about. We don’t teach it at business school, how to run a meeting. And so we just repeat what we’ve started, which has been repeated from what was done, which comes from the industrial way, and it’s about compliance.

So what you really want to do is vote first, then discuss it. I mean, the vote should be if possible, depending upon the safety of the group and how big the group is, you want to make people be able to vote in a probabilistic thing. So I would say something like,” Let’s say we’re going to, it’s a decision to launch a product. How sure are we that the product is ready for launch? One to five”… something like that. And then what you do is you look for the outliers. And if most of the group was standing up at four and five, then you look at the other people. It is very important for the people now, one and two, and you listen to them first. You invite them to speak first. That’s how you get away from this psychological trap. 

Denver: And that’s where all the innovation comes right? With the zeros and the fives, or the ones and the fives, not with the threes and the fours. 

David: Yes. Yes. All innovation. We call it “embrace the outlier.” All innovations start as an outlying opinion. If it weren’t an outlying opinion, it wouldn’t be innovation. It’d be something I was already thinking. It’s that, that person who comes to you with that idea, and your immediate thought is, they’re like, “Hey, why don’t we do this?” And your immediate thought is, “No, that’s crazy!” 

Denver: That’d never work.

David: “That would never work. No, we tried that five years ago, blah, blah, blah”. And so my advice to business leaders at that moment is to, you can think that but then don’t say anything, and then be curious first and ask some questions. I call it: you can create like a blank space. Like you don’t know. Assume this is the next greatest thing.

Now you don’t have to do it. I’m not saying you have to do it, but you make that decision after you’ve been curious. 

Denver: Got you. David, you draw a distinction between red work and blue work. What is the difference, and how should a leader’s language change according to the kind of work that’s being done?

David: So this is a useful model that we found, which is we have two different kinds of work, and we use our brains in two different ways when we’re engaging on those two different kinds of work. The first kind of work is what people mostly associate with as the work, which is what we call “red work.”

And generally, it benefits from focus. I’m coding. I’m driving. I’m flying an airplane. I’m running or doing surgery on a patient. I’m giving a presentation. It’s the actual work…I’m on an assembly line. Pretty much the red work is the person on the assembly line. It’s physical, it’s visible, it’s active. It benefits from conformity and compliance.

We want everything the same, I want the holes drilled exactly the same. Red work, however, is improved by something which we called “blue work.” Now blue work, we use our brain in a totally different way. In blue work we don’t want that focused exclusive mentality. What we want is very broad, open, inviting mind where we like variability. We like different opinions. Whereas variability, when it comes to manufacturing the car, is bad. Variability when it comes to thinking about how to improve the manufacturing processes is good. So, there’s two different brain processes. The problem is if you don’t understand: Is this red work or blue work, you don’t know whether this is a process where I should be focused and excluding variability, or I should be broad and embracing variability. So the problem with that meeting is that that meeting is being run in a way to reduce variability. So variability, i.e. how different do people think?

So, since a decision is what we would call blue work, it benefits from variability. It then benefits from dissenting opinions. We need to run it in a way which embraces variability. And so, it’s not like, if I wander through the day, I’m sort of embracing variability, I’m sort of focused. This is the way most people live their life. You want to be hyper-focused when it’s time to be focused and hyper broadly aware when it’s time to be broadly aware. 

Denver: Let’s talk about work today, because what you described between blue work and red work, when I think of the industrial age again, I think between exempt blue and non-exempt, exempt and non-exempt, leader and follower, college-educated and high school, white-collar, that would be blue, blue-collar, that would be red ironically. What color is work today?  Is it more purple? 

David: Yes, I think that’s exactly the problem. The way industrial age firms handle the problem of red work and blue work is they say, “OK, what would make it worse?” Separate the workforce into two. Some people. And like you said, the unionized folks, the high school-educated folks, they’re going to do the actual work. 

And then the college-educated kids, they’re going to do the blue work. They’ll do the thinking. So what we’ve done with this, so it’s easy. We don’t have to flip mindsets. I’m either an expansive thinker, or I’m a focused worker. But the problem is the thinkers are making decisions about work, which means they’re getting a different group of people to do something that they haven’t decided to do. So the structure is inherently coercive. It doesn’t matter what kind of lipstick you’re going to put on that. You can call it motivation, inspiration, or whatever, but it’s basically, “I got to get someone else to do something I decided they needed to do. That’s coercive. So today, we know the best performing teams like the people doing the work make decisions about the work as much as possible.

So if you stood way back, it’s purple by timeline. It’s purple, it’s not a shmear. It’s blue, red, red, blue, blue, red, blue, but it happens so quickly. 

…your job as a leader today is different. Your job as a leader today is not to make decisions and tell people what to do. It’s to structure that red work/ blue work rhythm so that the team steps out of the production work.

Denver: The variability.

David: Yes, but if I stayed way, way, way back. And so your job as a leader today is different. Your job as a leader today is not to make decisions and tell people what to do. It’s to structure that red work/blue work rhythm so that the team steps out of the production work. If you step out every other minute, you’re not going to get anything done. So that’s too much. If they don’t step out for 10 years, you’re out of business because you didn’t change fast enough. So somewhere between one minute and 10 years, but that’s your job. Right? I’ll bound it for you. You could probably do better than that, but as things become, so for example, for our clients, one of the things that we’re having them do is pre-COVID… another way to think about it is you have an expiration date. Every time you make a decision, there’s an expiration date. So let’s say your standard decision, how we’re going to do something… features for our product, whatever, the expiration date used to be three months.

Now COVID comes along. Things are changing much more rapidly. So for our clients, what we’re having them do is shrink up their expiration dates. OK, now the expiration date might be just a month. So I’m not telling them what to do, but we’re creating a structure so that the team has to make these more frequent pauses that allows the people in the work to say, “You know what? This isn’t the way it is anymore. We’ve got to change”. 

Denver: Very smart. And you don’t even have to wait for that pre-pause. I mean, if you’re doing that red work, and you see something going awry, you do a time out and say time to go blue here; we have to stop and see whether what we’re doing is what we should be doing.

David: Exactly. This is the function of the and/on cord in the Toyota production system that most people have heard about, which is if a worker on the assembly line had a problem, he had a cord, he made a light go on and said, “Hey, I have a problem here” and the purpose of that was to shift from doing production focus work to problem-solving. So we’ve got to pause — step one, you can’t problem-solve when your brain is under stress. And time pressure is a huge stressor. So the first thing leaders need to do is stop the line. We’re going to pause; I want everyone to think. We have time to get it right.

And you’re going to feel, as the leader, you’re going to feel under stress because you’re going to be “I’m losing production time”. But you’re going to make a better decision, and the team’s going to learn, and then you can go back to production. Production will be faster and robust and all that good stuff.

It’s OK to tell people what to do in the right… in this domain of red work, but it’s also OK, and you want to avoid telling people what to do. But you have to understand, Are we in red work, or are we in blue work to enter that decision tree?

Denver: Give me a little flavor of the language, David, the language you would use when you’re in blue work as a leader and the language you would use when it’s red work. 

David: So in blue work, typically you’re thinking, Hey, it’s a meeting, it’s some collaboration. So there are a couple of opportunities. One, we’re making a decision: launch the product or not. And so the idea is: ask questions that are probabilistic. Here’s a simple rule. Just start all your questions with the word “how.”  How sure are you? How likely is it? Or “what.”  OK, what would that look like? As opposed to a binary. Are you sure? Does it work? This is what we typically hear because a binary question is the reduction of variability to two possible answers.

Also, you do what we talked about before. You vote first, then you embrace the outliers. And we’re asking, how do people see it differently? How could this be wrong? When we’re projecting into the future, we are saying: Imagine it’s six months from now, and this all went sideways, what’s the most likely reason? And the engineer stands up and says, “Well, I can tell you.” OK, great. I just learned something. So it’s very embracive, curious, open-ended. It feels slow. It’s aggravatingly frustrating for someone who’s used to like, “No, no, no, just do this. And we move on”. 

Now in red work though, it’s about compliance and conformity. Wearing your safety gear, it’s not like we’re going to have a conversation about this. You work on a construction site, you’re going to wear your hard hat, your steel-toed shoes, and your safety vest. This is not something you can decide. You can decide whether to take the job knowing that if you say yes, you’re going to wear a hard hat, safety vest, and steel-toed shoes. But you don’t get to decide that every day when you come to work.  That’s compliance at that point, and it’s appropriate. 

And again, I see the mistake over here. There was a tragic accident in construction in New York City. The worker, near an elevator shaft was supposed to be connected by a harness, wasn’t. A supervisor came by at some point during the day. The conversation is not recorded, but what we do know, the supervisor did not order him to put a harness on, because later he didn’t have a harness on, and he fell and he died. 

So, it’s OK. It’s OK to tell people what to do in the right… in this domain of red work, but it’s also OK and you want to avoid telling people what to do. But you have to understand, are we in red work, or are we in blue work to enter that decision tree. 

Denver: Yes. And I’m just thinking here, as you’re talking about those questions beginning with “how”  and “what”  because I imagine the response is not only you’re getting the share of voice, but you’re getting nuanced responses. They’re the kind of things that allow you to deal with the complexity of a problem which can bite you on the other end, and that opens up. On the other hand, “why”  would not be a good first word? Correct? 

David: Yes.  I’m not a huge fan of “why”  because “why” can come across as provocative. It could come across as testing. So for example, Denver, you said to me, “Hey, I think we should delay product launch by two weeks so we can do more testing”. And I’m like, “Why would you want to do that?” You immediately realize that this is not good news. I’m not happy with it. 

Denver: You also made me very defensive. I get defensive immediately, you know. 

David: Right, and you’d probably say, “Well, I’ll tell you the five reasons”. Some people might say, “Yes, never mind.” Or knowing that that’s a pattern, they don’t even bring it up to begin with. I’ll give you a very simple example of “how”  plays out, even amongst trained professionals.  Flying on a cross-country flight, middle of the night, a lady stands up, faints, basically falls over in the aisle. Flight attendants turn on the lights; they come rushing over, big to-do. “Are you OK? Are you OK?” That’s the question they’re asking. What’s the lady’s response? “Yes, of course, I’m OK”. I mean, she’s basically embarrassed. No one says:  “I’m not OK.” 

I was riding a bike in a group with a guy who crashed. He’s lying on the ground. Other guy says, “Are you OK?”  He says, “Yes.” It turned out later, he had a broken hip. 

Denver: I’m a tough guy. I’m fine. I’m OK. Don’t worry about me. 

David: The problem is we’re asking the wrong question. We should say, “How are you?”  Or “Where does it hurt?”  Or “What are you feeling?”  Or “How are you feeling?”  Or “Where’s the pain?”  Something like that. People can respond; they will respond to that. 

They plopped this lady in the seat next to me because it was empty. And so I asked her like a how question, like, “How are you doing?” “Oh, actually I just feel a little lightheaded. I feel a little embarrassed.”  So she was talking to me; she wouldn’t say anything. So the flight attendants can go back and write in their journal, “Well, we asked the lady if she was OK.”  She said, yes. So I’m covered. Lawyers are happy, I guess, but that doesn’t work. It doesn’t work in business. It’s basically just what we’re trying to do there is really an abdication of responsibility.

Denver: There it is, yes. These are leading questions to get a response that will get you off the hook so you can move on.

David: Exactly. 

Denver: Yes. I mean, it doesn’t make any sense whatsoever. We talked about this industrial age language. Do you think this pandemic, David, this lockdown… working remotely is going to do anything to accelerate the demise of the industrial age playbook and those areas where it still exists? 

David: Yes, and no.  I think it depends on how firms look at this. On the one hand, the uncertainty that’s involved is pushing people, tends to put people back into sort of: I need to know what’s going on. I’m going to keep you in a Zoom meeting all day long so I can check on you, you know, whatever it happens to be. And that uncertainty is playing havoc with our ability as leaders to trust, to give up control, to allow a team to make decisions. On the other hand, a number of our clients have done things where they — We talked to a big bank the other day. We got a five-year plan to get 20% of our people working remotely. And we weren’t doing anything. 

Denver: Congratulations. 

David: We hadn’t implemented yet, and we were just debating whether it was OK to implement. And then COVID came, and now a hundred percent of people are working remotely, and it took three weeks. So the question I asked them is, “OK, like, what are the behaviors? What did you learn? So your bank’s still standing. I see. Right? OK. But what are the behaviors, and can we turn it into something strong?” We know, your muscles atrophy if they’re never put under stress. We intentionally go to the gym to put our bodies under stress to make us stronger. And there are other things. Fasting, immersion in cold water, blah, blah, blah. We can put ourselves under stress, and we will live longer healthier lives with these periodic stressors.

So rather than thinking about this as you’re triggering my PTSD, post-traumatic stress disorder, think about it as post-traumatic stress growth, which organisms can, in nature… nature lives on the principle PTSG. So your company could live on that same principle. So capture the things that are happening and be stronger coming out from this.  And it’s, hey, we didn’t choose it and there are… there’s a tragic aspect of what’s going on obviously. 

Denver: But they’re the company. 

David: We’re going to have to deal with it anyway, so we might as well do the best we can… 

Denver: Yes. Well, as they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and companies are under that stress, so you can come out the other end in better shape if you get the right lessons and do the right things.

David: Yes. But, I just read today, Wall Street Journal. I read this: there are only 4 of the top 30 airlines showing a profit in the last quarter. Big surprise. What do they have in common? They had the agility to convert their airplanes from passenger to cargo. And so this idea is: I’m not a passenger airline or cargo airline, but I’m agile. I’m flexible. I’m resilient. I can do this. I can do that. I can change. That’s the thing that’s going to keep you stronger. So. 

Denver: Yes, well, they think outside the frame. Almost everybody thinks inside the frame, and that is putting people on those airplanes. You got to think outside to survive. Well, with this industrial age playbook, which will eventually fall by the wayside, you talk about a new playbook and that includes six plays. Just say a word about those. If you would. 

David: I think a bit like programming, just like playing football. A situation comes up. We’re going to respond in a certain way. We as humans, we as leaders, we as bosses. For example, if someone challenges me or asks me a question, I’m going to defend. I will explain it. Curious about where they’re coming from and thinking they’re right is probably not on my automatic playbook. And I see this all the time:  

Getting on the airplane, someone’s putting a bag in the overhead, it’s a little bit big, it’s not going to fit. And I said something like, “Hey, I’m not sure that bag’s going to fit up there. You’re going to break the bin and we’re not going to be able to get it up. His immediate defense, “No, it’ll fit”. You know, we defend, we react, respond, reply. That’s it. React, respond, reply. It’s not curious. It’s not, “Hey, well, what are you saying that I’m not noticing about this?” “Well, you tried eight times. It didn’t work”. In any event, it’s not about this guy and me, but it’s about we’re programmed to react in certain ways. And as leaders, that’s how we react. And our programming is designed from the industrial age, from that original coercion. 

My whole thing is to get other people, to get the red workers to do what I’ve chosen for them to do in the way that I’ve chosen for them to do it. So all my language, and so the plays are things like:  Obey. First of all, the first industrial play is: Obey the clock. That’s why we have words, clockwork. Yes. That’s what it was about.  We clock in. It’s because the clock controls everything. The problem is…

Denver: I think about, I think of Lucy and Ethel on the assembly line with those chocolates.

David: Exactly. Exactly. Right. Yes. I am the only other guy in the whole audience who’s going to know

…the idea is, even though you may want to be an enlightened leader, the language you’re using, unless you’ve deliberately changed it, is anchoring you in an unenlightened way. 

Denver: Yes, what we’re talking about.  

David. Exactly. So, it’s about obey the clock. And what leaders today want to do is control the clock. And then the next thing is: we coerce people into complying with what we want them to do, and we continue the work as long as possible. 

When Ford started its assembly line with a model T, he went for almost 25 years before doing a major overall. Meantime, the roaring twenties, GM came along, and they never caught up. And we want to prove that we’re doing the right thing. We want to conform in a hierarchical position. So now we want to get rid of all that. And what you want to do instead of obey the clock is: collaborate truly, which results in a commitment because we’ve been part of the decision. Then we’re going to complete. So we’re going to do the work in chunks. Like this idea, I talked about before, the expiration date– one month, three months, a year, and I’m going to pause and reflect.

Then we’re going to improve. The problem is in the industrial age play, I didn’t care about your emotional wellbeing, because I didn’t ask you to do anything to tax it. I had one, I said, “I’m going to stand behind you with a clipboard and I’m going to evaluate how you’re doing”. Now, what we want, we know the best performing teams, people stand up themselves and say, “You know what? We could have done that better”. But in order for that to happen, they need to feel they’re in a safe enough environment. And so this idea that I got to care about your emotional condition is all new, and only it matters because I’m going to ask you, “Hey, how could we do things better? If I didn’t have that as part of work, then I wouldn’t care.

I mean, I would care maybe, I’m human, but I wouldn’t really care. So the idea is, even though you may want to be an enlightened leader, the language you’re using, unless you’ve deliberately changed it, is anchoring you in an unenlightened way. 

Denver: I love your comment about  “improve.”  I’m trying to think the last company that said, “This is how we’re going to improve over the next 90 days.” They should have that on CNBC sometimes. “This is how we improve.” It’s all the numbers and the cents and the shareholder. 

David: Yes, because it says it’s approved and so the quarterly goals, I’d say, “Show me your quarterly goals. We’re going to sell this much, make this much, do this much.” What are you going to learn? Do you have quarterly learning goals? Then you can look at this in the annual reports, and you’ll see it. And the ones I like to compare back in 1999, I compared, no, that’s not true. 

Today, recently I’ve compared the Amazon and the GE annual reports from 1998, 1999. You look back in that year or the end of Jack Welch, Bezos coming into Amazon. Jack Welch was all about doing. “And that’s what we did.” There’s a little bit of lip service about learning, but it’s kind of vague. Bezos says plain out in his very first annual report. “We’ve started, we’re on our way. We have much to learn.” And so when companies make quarterly goals, I said, there’s got to be two dimensions: What are we going to do? What are we going to learn? 

Denver: Yes. Yes. Excellent. Finally, David, as a leader becomes more, if I can say so, of a coach, than we have traditionally viewed the role of a leader, what new skills do they need to develop to be effective in this new capacity? What new skills did you have to develop? And how did you develop them?

David: So I kind of like the idea of the word coach. It can go sideways, and people think I can never tell the person what to do. I mean, the coach sometimes has to say, “You know what?” So I’m a swimmer, a triathlon guy and I don’t need a coach to say, “Well, what do you think you need to do? I just need him to say that “Hold your hand this way, just like…” Tell me. I can’t see myself.

So it’s OK to have self-discovery, but it’s also OK to just tell people what to do. It’s the ability to flex. I would just say, DSD… do something different. And so one day I’m asking questions, I’m letting the team figure it out. And another day I’m just saying, “No, this is the better way to do it, like this.”

And the ability to flex back and forth across that spectrum is key. It’s just like the ability of the airline. OK. “We were shipping passengers. Now we’re going to ship stuff.” It’s the flexibility and agility, because I don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow, but we’re going to keep having these shocks like COVID.

The world, the conditions for these shocks are simply getting more and more prevalent. The world is becoming more connected. 200 years ago, a pandemic in China would have been, it would be slow-moving. We’d be 10 years before we even heard about it.  Or think of the Black Death, but it was very slow-moving.

Now it’s like, Boom! 12 hours later, we got guys in Seattle, sick. So, these kinds of shocks are simply going to increase in severity and frequency. I’m pretty sure about that. What they are? I have no idea. And so the ability to respond and react to these things; that’s the skill you want. 

Denver: The book is titled Leadership is Language: The Hidden Power of What You Say and What You Don’t.  There are a lot of things you can do to become a better leader, but it’s hard to imagine any which would have a greater impact than changing the language you use. And this book really shows you how. Thanks, David, it was a great pleasure to have you on the show. 

David: Cheers.

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