The Language of Leaders

By Scott Herbst, PhD 

bSci21 Contributing Writer

One of the recurring themes of the articles I tend to write for this site is that we live in a world constructed in language.  It shapes our view of reality and then gives us our actions with respect to that reality.  When I present on this topic, I have a slide I like to show.  It’s a picture I pulled off of Google images when I searched “weird thing.”  I think it is a silk handkerchief or maybe a scarf.  When I present it, however, I add the label “Cantonese House Slipper,” and I tell people, “Now I want you to look at this picture of a Cantonese House Slipper.”  (And yes, I capitalize words when I speak).  And then I say, “Now, this isn’t a house slipper.  But I bet when I said that it was, you immediately started interacting with it in a way consistent with a slipper.  You started wondering how you would get it on your foot, or thinking Cantonese people really don’t have it together around footwear.”  At that point, enough people usually laugh that it guarantees I’ll do the same thing in my next presentation about language.  Why they laugh, however, is instructive.  The laughter is that of recognition – of being caught thinking exactly what I said they were thinking.  The audience got caught in a harmless, verbal prank.

You see, once you have attached a word to something, it’s difficult to interact with that thing in ways that aren’t consistent with that word.  If I had showed you the same picture, and simply said, “Imagine all of the things you could do with this,” you could have probably come up with hundreds.  But once I call it a slipper, you immediately go to one or two things.  And then, knowing that it isn’t actually a slipper, if you’re like me you may look at it and still find yourself thinking about how to get it on your foot.  Language gives our reality. 

Of course, we don’t often look at our language as shaping our experience of reality.  Instead, we think our language describes reality.  However, if you look closely at your actual experience, you’ll quickly see the creative powers of language.  Think of someone you know who is “annoying,” or maybe “overbearing.”  Have you got someone in mind?  Now, what happens when they show up on your birthday, having cooked your favorite meal, with a nice bottle of wine, and a bouquet of flowers?  It isn’t a stretch to think that, when the annoying person shows up, you’ll feel annoyed, and when the overbearing person shows up you’ll feel put upon.  What is that about?!  All they’ve done, to this point, is show up with your favorite meal!  And yet, there you are annoyed and put upon.  Isn’t that interesting?

You can think of your labels like rules.  You may notice that you have a pretty predictable, patterned way of responding to that person in your life who is annoying or overbearing.  Maybe you make sarcastic remarks.  Maybe you get quiet.  Maybe you tend to lash out, or tune out, or put on your best face.  The point is, you’ve got a whole set of behaviors that are perfectly correlated with the reality that the rule describes.  And, you’ve got an emotional experience that is perfectly correlated as well.  In the above examples, you’ll probably find that there’s no sense of peace, or freedom, or you don’t really feel that you can “be yourself.”  You probably don’t have the sense that love is present, or experience a connection.  I’m calling this the impact of labelling.  The impact is the reality that you’re left with as a result of these things. 

Realizing this, the impact that one’s language is having on the perception and experience of reality, is a very powerful thing.  When one begins habit reversal the very first step is bringing that habit to awareness (e.g., Woods, Miltenberger, & Lumley, 1996).  Often, when people have habits, they don’t even realize when they are doing it.  I used to smoke, and occasionally I would get interested in cutting down.  When I did, often when I was driving I would find myself reaching for a cigarette,  and then tell myself, “wait another 20 minutes.”  And then I’d put my pack away and keep driving.  It wasn’t unusual that, after I did this, a few minutes later I would find myself with a lit cigarette!  Where did this come from?!  I didn’t even remember lighting it, and it was only five minutes after I told myself to wait 20!  Awareness training is an important first step. 

In your personal life, one powerful tool for bringing awareness to thoughts as thoughts is mindfulness.  You can learn some about mindfulness here.  And, if you’re interested, there are some pretty cool online platforms where you can begin training yourself in mindfulness.  I use Headspace, but there are others you look around for.  However, if you take an honest assessment of your verbal environment, you’ll realize that a lot of the things you say aren’t personal to you.  Sure, you might say them, but the first time you said them yourself, it wasn’t the first time that they got said in your environment.  Someone else said them, it seemed to make sense that they would be saying them, and then you started saying them too.  Take a look at a job you didn’t like.  You might have been very excited to work there, and your first few weeks were pretty great.  And then a coworker said something about your boss.  And you might have thought, “Hmm… I hadn’t noticed that before.”  But then you started noticing it!  And noticing it more.  And noticing it more.  And then you and your coworker started talking about it, and reinforcing each other’s verbal behavior, and it wasn’t too long before this wonderful job became a drag.  And the, maybe your coworker left, and you began training his replacement in how miserable “this place” and “these people” are. 

Last month, I wrote about my uncle, and how he was a boring old man.  He wasn’t boring when I was a kid.  He was magical.  And he was pretty great through high school and as I went through college.  However, as I matured into an adult (or, at least, grew into an adult body), the other adult bodies in my life started including me in their adult conversations.  I think I was in my late 20’s when I was talking with my dad, and mentioned that I had just gotten off the phone with my uncle.  “Ugh…” my dad said, “How much did he repeat himself?”  As far I as I knew, he hadn’t.  I was really surprised by this.  The next time I talked to him, however, I was listening for it.  And it happened.  And it happened and it happened.  And then he was a boring old man.  I was fully enculturated. 

And that’s what I say culture is. Behavior analysts tend to apply the metaphor of selection to cultural practices (e.g., Glenn, 1988; Skinner, 1971), and maybe it fits, maybe it doesn’t.  If it does fit, we haven’t been able to make real use of it, as we have with operant selection.  I’m of the opinion that we could probably drop the selection metaphor at the level of culture and focus instead on making change from the inside out.  There’s nothing to say that the metaphors we apply at one level of analysis will scale up when we cross levels.  We don’t apply the metaphors of physics (e.g., particle “spin”) when moving to the level of biology.  And, though it seems to fit descriptively, I’m not convinced that the metaphor of environmental selection is really useful in predicting and controlling cultural practices.  Again, it seems to describe them well, but description isn’t our game. 

I think the place to start is with language.  You could just as easily argue that what drives culture is language.  When one starts a business, the first step is to speak it into existence by filling out and filing whatever documents there are to file.  When one builds a church, or a sports stadium, the first step is to design the buildings.  Those designs are a type of language.  And money!  Money is only an agreement between people, an agreement in language.  And sometimes, we all get together and agree that there’s lots of money, and we start all these new things, and buy lots of stuff, and the economy is great and we’re happy!  And then we change our minds, agree that there isn’t enough money, or that it got lost somewhere, and we get depressed and stop doing things and say how bad the economy is and that times are tough.  Then we get together with our friends and complain about the president and reinforce our miserable views of the world.  From this perspective, culture is a view of reality that is generally shared by its members.  And that view originates in language. 

Which brings me to the language of leaders.   Leaders are the people who disrupt the general view and introduce a new one.  And, it isn’t that they introduce it, but they introduce it in such a way that others begin saying those things as well until enough people are saying it that practices change.  And when those practices change, you find yourself living in a new reality.  The important thing to notice is that the language changes first, and practice follows.  Before people started treating the mentally ill as human beings, Dorothea Dix started saying that they should be treated as human beings.  Martin Luther King didn’t wait for civil rights to share his dream.  And a free and independent India wasn’t Ghandi’s afterthought once the British had peacefully left.  The conversations came first. 

The above examples, of course, are extreme examples and you might not be interested in being a national or global leader.  There are probably things you are interested in, however, and if those things involve other people, then bringing leadership might make a difference.  To do that, you’re going to have to say new things.  Not only that, but the people around you are going to have to start saying those things.  And not just say them, but relate to them as if they are true.  That is, the things you say are going to have to become the general reality in which people live, and the only access to that is for them to say those things themselves. 

And this brings us back to mindfulness and awareness training.  Mostly, I assert, we aren’t aware of things we’re saying as things we’re saying.  As I noted, we tend to relate to our words as things that are reflecting or describing instead of actively constructing our experience of the world.  One personal way of bringing awareness to this is mindfulness practice, but I don’t know that it would do any good at the group level.  I can imagine turning staff meetings into guided meditations, but people already complain that meetings aren’t productive.  I don’t think adding 20 minutes of quietly following your breath would go over well. 

Thankfully, when working in groups, you don’t have to get quiet and follow your breath to become aware of the things people are saying.  They’re actually already saying them!  What you need to do is listen.  Listen to the things you find coming out of your mouth and the mouths of others.  What are people saying about your boss?  What do they say about the work environment?  What do they say about themselves in relation to the company?  And look for those things that aren’t already quantified.  Saying my boss made a decision I didn’t like is very different than saying he’s incompetent.  One statement points to a real event (something happened that I didn’t like) and one points to an abstraction or, what I think behavior analysts like to call them, and explanatory fiction.  Look for the explanatory fictions. 

When you find an explanatory fiction, what you have to do next, and what is probably the hardest part, is to actually begin to treat it like a fiction.  That is, you need to take a step back and consider that, no matter, how much evidence you have for its truth, that it is only one possible way of looking at things out of an infinite number of ways of looking at things.  As valid as it may be, it ain’t necessarily so.  If you’re unwilling to consider that, then stop right here.  You’re stuck with it. 

If you are willing to consider that it is only a viewpoint, congratulations!  You’re on your way to making a difference.  The next thing to do is to do some investigating.  Look for the things that tend to get repeated the most.  Once you’ve found one, take a step back, and begin to look at it as though it’s a rule.  Just as calling something a chair directs action with respect to that thing in that you’re more likely to put your rear end on it and less likely to set a plate of food there, the things people say direct their behavior in groups.  You might notice a common complaint is that the boss never listens.  Okay, so what behaviors fit the rule?  Where you want to look here is at what people are already doing.  If “the boss never listens” is true for people (which is distinct from it being true), then you’ll probably notice that they don’t talk up in meetings, or they go in ready for a fight, or that they complain a lot when she’s not around and then quiet down when she is.  Look for the actions people take as well as the actions that people don’t take.  What you will discover is that people’s behavior is in a perfect dance with the way that they (and you) say things are. 

And then you have to be really willing to discover something new.  You may not like what you are about to uncover.  What you’ll find, if you look closely and honestly, is that the behavior that is in a perfect dance with the way things are is probably helping to hold those things in place.  You might discover that you and your cohorts are actually leading this dance.  If you say, “nothing ever changes around here,” you may notice that no one actually even tries.  Maybe people don’t speak up in meetings, or they don’t share their concerns, or when problems do arise they shrug and say, “It’s not my problem.”  And then nothing changes.  Or maybe you have a boss that just “goes on and on about nothing.”  You might find that the moment she opens her mouth people tune out, start checking their phones, and then rolling their eyes.  And she, interested in getting her message across, goes on and on, trying to get it across.   And the dance continues. 

It doesn’t have to though.  People can break their patterns.  They just have to see themselves as active participants, get responsible for their role in them, and then see some new way of viewing things.  The way to do that is to lay it out for them – the whole thing:  the rule, the actions that follow the rule, how those actions serve to hold things in place, the experience that its perpetuators are left with, and one new possible way of seeing things.  And of course, as a member of the group, it’s a good idea to include yourself in that group when laying it all out.  It’s also a good idea to validate the usual way of viewing things.  It is a valid view after all.  It’s just not the only valid one.  A conversation along those lines might go something like this:

I’ve been noticing that when we get together and talk, we tend to talk about how we don’t have any power.  And then we don’t speak up, and we don’t look for things we could do to make a difference.  And then work is a drag.  And if that’s true, why would we try to make a change?  If we don’t have any power, it makes perfect sense that we wouldn’t do those things.  I wonder, though, if us saying we don’t have power helps hold things in place.  We say we can’t change things, don’t ever really try, and then things don’t change.  I think we could take the case that we’re very powerful.  What would it be like if we all came in here every day fully committed to doing excellent work no matter the circumstances?  What would work be like if we said we’re responsible for what happens around here and then acted like it?  I think we can make this place amazing. 

One thing about that.  Should you try out conversations like this, you have to expect resistance.  Welcome it.  People who are resisting are engaged.  They’re in the conversation.  It’s the first step to coming around.  The worst thing you can do at this point is to get righteous about this new way of seeing things.  The first clue to you that you’ve gotten righteous is that you’re annoyed or offended that people aren’t immediately jumping on your bandwagon.  However, if you keep having the conversation, and begin acting consistent with your new view, people will begin to come around.  Some will take notice, and they’ll begin acting consistent with the new view, and they’ll start talking in terms of the new view.  And those who don’t may at least stop complaining. 

I’ve done this in organizations, I’ve coached people to do this in organizations, and I’m proud of the results.  What I really want to share, however, is more personal.  Earlier I was writing about my uncle and how he changed once I was welcomed into adult-bodyhood. At the time, when we’d get together as a family, he didn’t participate much.  If it was a barbecue, most of the family would gather out in the yard or on the deck, and he would invariably end up inside, reading a book or watching television.  Once I started listening to him, he opened up with me, if I came into where he was doing his own thing.  It took me three conversations to fundamentally alter the culture in which his and our behavior was stuck.  I talked with my mom and dad, my mom and my aunt, and my uncle’s daughter.  I said something along the lines of, “I noticed how we all talk about Uncle Kurt, and how he repeats himself.  I noticed that when he starts a conversation with me, I immediately start wondering how long it’s going to go on, and looking for ways out.  I wonder if he repeats himself because no one is really listening to him.  He’s led a pretty amazing life and done some wonderful things.  I wonder what would show up if people were really listening to him.”

That was three years ago.  Last labor day, we all got together at my parents for a barbecue.  He didn’t bring a book, and he didn’t watch television.  He sat with us out back on the patio, and we laughed, and he talked with everyone, and at some point he and I had a conversation about string theory that I’m sure would have had a physicist rolling her eyes but was thrilling to us.  It was a wonderful day, and everyone was included and everyone participated.  A few days later, I talked with my mom.  “Do you remember how Uncle Kurt used to repeat himself?” I asked. 

She paused for a moment, thinking.  “Hmm…” she said, “Truthfully I hadn’t thought about it in a long time.” 

That’s what it takes to change a culture.  Go.  Be a leader. 

How are you a leader?  Let us know in the comments below.  Also be sure to subscribe to bSci21 via email to receive the latest articles directly to your inbox!


Glenn, S. S. (1988). Contingencies and metacontingencies: Toward a synthesis of behavior analysis and cultural materialism. The Behavior Analyst, 11(2), 161-179.

Skinner, B. F. (1971). Beyond freedom and dignity. New York, NY, US: Knopf/Random House.

Woods, D. W., Miltenberger, R. G., & Lumley, V. A. (1996). Sequential application of major habit-reversal components to treat motor tics in children. Journal Of Applied Behavior Analysis, 29(4), 483-493. doi:10.1901/jaba.1996.29-483

About the Author:

Scott Herbst, PhD is the founder and Lead Trainer at SixFlex Training and Consulting.  After six years in academia, he left to pursue his passion of training leaders and managers to create, manage, and communicate in work environments where people are productive, excited, and vital.  As a course designer, he grounds his curricula in cutting edge research in language and thinking as well as decades of research in operant performance.  As a trainer, he is an engaging and powerful speaker who makes learning fun and exciting.   You can visit his company site at, or email at [email protected] for more information.

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6 Comments on "The Language of Leaders"

  1. Great! Well written and important reminder of the power of language to shape reality.
    I will share widely.

  2. Andrea Mascitelli | July 9, 2015 at 9:54 am | Reply

    This might be my favorite post so far – great piece to begin conversation with.

  3. Really inspiring stuff! I love the example you led with and the subsequent ones: smoking, the relationship with your uncle. It immediately conjured my sometimes belittled efforts to have my coworkers use person-centered language and not referring to a client/student/consumer as if they are an embodiment of his/her most frequent “problem” behavior (i.e. “Sally is a runner,” “Keep your eye on Bobby. He’s a pica kid”). Thanks for putting this together.

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