Nelson Mandela and The Language of Leaders

In honor of Nelson Mandela, I wanted to honor one of my favorite quotes of his.  He said, “If you speak to a man in a language he understands, you speak to his head. If you speak to him in his language, you speak to his heart.”

We all use words–that’s true enough. We might even be speaking the same “language”: English, Spanish or Afrikaans and yet we so often fail to communicate just the same.  I once heard an observation of England and the US as countries “divided by a common language.” Hmm.  How true.  I’ll never forget my year abroad in Britain when a classmate leaned over and asked to borrow my rubber.  After turning beat red and giggling like a child I learned he was speaking of an eraser not a condom.

Speaking the same native tongue can still leave us saying one thing but hearing another. Same words, different ideas. Richard Nixon is credited with quipping “I know you think you know exactly what you thought I meant to say, but what you fail to realize is what you heard is not what I meant at all.”  Our objective as leaders, as people, is to connect with others in their “native” language, the language of their heart. Use the words that they use, the way that they feel and think, to address the topics at hand. It’s too easy to interpret Mandela’s quote related to literally language, but I don’t believe for a moment that is what he meant. English might be my native language, but just because you speak to me in English doesn’t mean you’re speaking to my heart, and we know this to be true. Just look at the lack of communication and understanding between American liberals and conservatives – same language, no connection. Mandela isn’t talking about the native language. He’s referring to the language of our soul, the language we use to see and understand life. Think of how would you describe a sunset then have another person do the same. See just how different the words, emotions and meanings can be.  

Our goal as leaders is to be able to understand the language of those we lead (including ourselves) so that we can speak to them ( and us ) in those words and reach their heart. It is imperative that leadership today get out of our heads and get into our hearts.  Leadership is not just logical and intellectual and cold. Leadership is personal, it is emotional, it is connective.