One of the surest signs that change leaders don’t know what they are doing is the excessive use of jargon. It’s easy to spot. Just listen for words like strategic, alignment, partnering, values, sustained, vision, execution, branding, methodology, governance, scalable, global, integrated, empowerment, enablement, or any other intelligent-sounding, yet empty clichés that assume speakers have the right answers and listeners should feel assured.
Jargon epitomizes the use of karaoke leadership1. Dreary leaders without a shred of inspiration can have the false security of instant, plug-and-play success. Here you go, pick up a microphone and read this script. It’s safe and well produced and gets heads nodding and crowds whooping with lighters in the air. You are a business genius. You are a rock star.
Business leaders are not the only ones who are susceptible to the empty-headedness of jargon. Listen to politicians talk about unemployment, for example. The policy discussion on both sides of the Atlantic is filled with the rhetorical jargon of the policy extremes. The conservatives talk of “fiscal responsibility,” “tax cuts,” and “deregulation.” They say that the long-term unemployed “don’t want to work” or they “lack the necessary skills.” The liberals, who have been noticeably silent of late, talk of “job creation,” “retraining,” and the need for “compassionate leadership.” Meanwhile, 14 million Americans are jobless, and millions more are staying afloat with part-time work that fails to use their skills. The situation is even worse in Europe where countries like Spain are experiencing 21% unemployment.2
The jargon on both ends of this debate gives the appearance of strong leaders taking proud, principled stands. But that’s the problem. They just keep standing. And standing. And there is never any action. There is never any real change.
Jargon is a tool of dominance. It creates distance. It marginalizes. It forms a barrier that blocks open communication. It limits innovation and thwarts authentic, grass roots problem solving.
Worst of all it fools change leaders into thinking they can hide their ignorance, their uncertainty and their fear. They can’t. Listeners are smarter than that. Whether employees, customers or citizens, they eventually see through the gibberish. They know that complex, large scale change is imperfect and messy, and that’s okay. That’s part of the deal.
Include others by speaking directly and in plain language. Truth helps people get beyond the guesswork and confusion and on with the business of managing reality.
- Karaoke leadership. I borrowed this concept from Malcolm McLaren’s presentation “His Life, Authenticity vs. Karaoke Culture.” McLaren was the designer, producer, and founder of the Sex Pistols who died in April 2010.
- From “Against Learned Helplessness,” by Paul Krugman, The New York Times, May 29, 2011.