Three years and four days ago, Australia woke to discover there had been a political coup overnight. The Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, had been replaced by his deputy, Julia Gillard, and we had Australia’s first female Prime Minister.
Last night, the coup was reversed. Julia Gillard is out, and her predecessor is back in the position of Prime Minister.
I want to make some notes on Ms Gillard’s performance in the area of communication which may be of interest to readers in Australia and elsewhere too.
I’m not commenting on the rightness, wrongness or fairness of her time in office, how she came to office or how the period of office ended. I’m also not commenting on the role of her gender or how her performance compares to another’s performance.
I’m commenting because her performance in the area of communication illustrates some points which interest me personally and professionally.
Context for my comments
This is the context for my comments:
- a country, an organisation, a family, is a network of conversations; the quality of those conversations determines who the country, the organisation, the family is. Said another way, it is a serious error to think of communication as a kind of “add-on”. The world literally arises in language
- when I’m speaking about “what’s missing”, I’m not speaking about right or wrong. I’m speaking about what would provide a higher level of performance. I’m speaking about “what’s missing” in the same way an elite athlete might look for what was missing in their last game so they can work on raising their performance in the next game
- it is performance that gives results; change performance and you change results
- I’m working with a couple of executive coaching firms and providing leadership coaching myself to a corporate client, and the following comments are what I would offer if she were my client.
This is what occurs to me as missing from the conversations Ms Gillard has been creating with the Australian people.
The collective pronoun
Ms Gillard uses the “I” pronoun as her default. When she does use the collective pronoun “we”, she uses it to refer to the Australian Labor Party or “my Government”. When she attempted an alternate collective formulation such as “working families”, it wasn’t collective enough.
Tough, tough, tough, tough, tough, tough, tough, tough …
So often we were told, by Ms Gillard herself and those around her, that she is “tough”. This was held up as if it were her strongest claim to leading Australia. It never seems to have occurred that the only response one could make to this is
Yes … and?
She failed to create what being tough makes available in the world. She was like a novice copywriter listing all the features of a new product instead of the benefits one could enjoy if one bought it.
She did something similar with the word “opportunity” which, when she was discussing education reforms, was the closest she ever got to creating, in language, a future for our country. Again, “Why opportunity?” I wanted to ask her.
What does “opportunity” make available?
More about “tough”
Back to this word “tough”. It doesn’t work as an advantage. Here’s why:
- it is not an unequivocally positive attribute; some people hear “tough” and squirm recalling a school bully
- people can clearly hear that such a word arises from an absence, a scarcity, a wrongness; one only offers the word tough if one is defending oneself against an imagined charge. It’s a preemptive strike designed to try and cover up a perceived deficit of some kind
- it is exponentially different to the big words such as generosity, courage, integrity, love, joy, responsibility and so on. These type of words are what can be called “generative” language.
Generative language is the most serious aspect missing from Ms Gillard’s performance in the area of communication.
Generative language is language the very uttering of which generates or brings forth something into the world. It presences the realm of generosity, the realm of courage, the realm of integrity and so on. Generative language differs from descriptive language. Adjectives such as “tough” merely describe; they do not presence, do not generate.
Generative language doesn’t arise from an absence, from a perceived deficit of some kind. It arises out of the void. It is created, declared into being. Like the marriage declaration. Someone speaks, “I now declare you man and wife …” and thus the union is declared into being.
Generative language is “future-based language” and has
the power to create new futures, to craft vision and to eliminate the blinders that are preventing people from seeing possibilities. It doesn’t describe how a situation occurs; it transforms how it occurs. It does this by rewriting the future.
It is essential for a leader to use generative language so people are called into a future that excites, moves and inspires them. This, alas, is what Ms Gillard has been missing in her conversations with the Australian people.
* The Three Laws of Performance: Rewriting the Future of Your Organisation and Your Life by Steve Zaffron and Dave Logan
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