Your Alaka‘i Language of Leadership

I read this at Terry Starbucker’s blog recently:

Lesson 7:
Understand that words alone don’t make the leader – proper presentation, attitude, inflection, cadence and structure are musts to inspire to action.
—Terry Starbucker, My 10 Favorite Leadership Lessons

Reading it, I cheered and did my hula dance of joy at Terry’s why: “to inspire to action.” Leaders create energy.

I also got to thinking about the assumptions that all of you might have about what I refer to as the ‘language of leadership,’ a phrase I am apt to use quite often in my speaking, my coaching, and my writing here at the blog. An awareness of our Alaka‘i language of leadership is a great talk story for us to have.

In my mind, your Alaka‘i language of leadership is as unique to you as your fingerprint, for it starts within your Aloha spirit, that authenticity of self-being that others will commonly call your self esteem.

Self-esteem is values affirmation you feel good about.

Public Secrets

Your words are the tip of the iceberg

Terry is absolutely right, and very wise to refer to this as a leadership lesson. A leader will find he must choose his words carefully nearly every single time he opens his mouth to speak, yet that is but the tip of the iceberg.

What else is involved in the language of leadership others recognize as coming from you?

Make no mistake about it, your persona as leader is recognized by others through your language of leadership. The people you will lead need not see you or even hear you to know you are definitely the one who is leading.

Terry mentions “proper presentation, attitude, inflection, cadence and structure,” and those are all things that we human beings will develop defaults for over time: We get into automatic pilot with them in much the same way we develop other habits [You Are Your Habits, so Make ‘em Good!].

However we are more disciplined and intentional about our habits. Unless they get to a place of fame and fortune where they’ll hire a voice coach or a publicity handler, most leaders assume that they way they speak and present themselves is just the way it is, and they reconcile themselves to “living with the cards I’ve been dealt.”

Fact is, there is a lot you can do with those cards (even without hired help), and you can draw new ones.

I think it helps to first consider where your defaults may be coming from.

You learned how to Listen before you learned how to Speak

And you know what? Listening still works better.

Mothers of young children will tell you that one of the most frustrating times of their children’s lives —both for mother and for child —is before that child gets better command of language. Young children must totally depend on their behavior to both act for them, and explain for them, and we adults miss an awful lot in our “listening” to their behaviors.

So what approach will mothers (and fathers) take at the same time they are teaching their children to speak? They immediately begin to teach values, with “no” and disapproval communicated to their children when they misbehave. Much praise, smiles and hugs follow when behaviors have been good, and good means those behaviors are well aligned with family values.

It doesn’t really matter what is going on in the rest of the world, and what anyone else thinks: “We are honest in this family, we don’t hide the evidence when we’ve messed up or made a mistake. When we start to speak, we don’t lie about it.” And so on.

When you think about it, you learned how to behave well before you learned how to actually explain how you were behaving and why. You learned how to listen before you learned how to speak.

Sometimes we forget this, but think about it: Listening well works much more magic for us than speaking well does. Still does, even as adults, and especially in the workplace.

You learned a Language of Values

The dialect we first learned may have been composed of words in English, Hawaiian, Japanese or something else, but the language we all learned from our family first and then others, was the language of our values.

Mahalo: “This is when we should be appreciative, grateful, and thankful””
Kuleana: “This is when we are responsible””
Ho‘omau: “This is when we keep trying” This is when we let it go””
Mālama: “This is when others know we care” This is when others feel we don’t care””

We didn’t just learn words as we started to speak: We associated them with good beliefs and not so good ones, and we were given that opinion before we figured out we could form an opinion of our own. In other words, we were taught values.

And what do the values we hold do for us? They serve us exceptionally well: Values drive our default behavior.

Therefore, within your language of leadership, your personal values speak loud and clear, even when a single word has not been spoken. Your leadership values are doing the talking for you.

This is a subject we will continue to talk story about here at Say “Alaka‘i” for it is a rich one! Any initial thoughts? Let’s talk story!

Coming up on Thursday:

How to Stop Micro-Managing
Every manager does it to a certain degree, and there is a way to stop, developing a new management style that both you and your staff will be much happier with. Not only can you stop, you can gain some great fringe benefits in the process.

Photo credit: Public Secrets by Rosa Say.

For those who prefer them, here are the Talking Story copies of the links embedded in this posting:

~ Originally published on Say “Alaka‘i”
July 2009 ~
Your Alaka‘i Language of Leadership

For more articles similar to this one, subscribe to Talking Story, and join the discussions held by the Ho‘ohana Community of the Managing with Aloha ‘Ohana in Business.
If you are already receiving this via email alert, do click in and comment directly on the blog so everyone can meet you!
Read more at this page About the Site.

Talking Story with Say Leadership Coaching

Subscribe to Talking Story with Say Leadership Coaching by Email


  1. says

    Hi Rosa – I loved how you linked my leadership lesson and this post together, and then ultimately linked it to personal values. I couldn’t agree with you more on how they drive our default behavior.
    Thanks for making my learning on my lesson #7 even better!
    All the best,

  2. says

    And you Terry, have made this an even better true statement for me: “Self-esteem is values affirmation you feel good about.” I have always believed that, and will now think about you every single time I say it!
    Your post was a gem, and I hope more in our Ho‘ohana Community click through to read your other 9 leadership lessons: Snippets only folks… visit Terry!
    Leaders must:
    1. Practice “Full Spectrum” management, where high performers get the recognition they deserve, AND underperformers either get coached or let go.
    2. Teach instead of just tell, by using repetition, consistency, plain English, common sense, and best of all, rolling up the sleeves and showing them how it’s done.
    3. Be an Enabler, not a Disabler, because if we can’t entrust someone with proper responsibilities commensurate with the job description, we simply shouldn’t hire them.
    4. Develop a Zen-like mantra of goals that permeate the minds of all your teammates, and watch great stuff happen.
    5. Avoid inertia at all costs – or risk heading in the wrong direction. Provide the needed acceleration to propel a business forward, always.
    6. Trust the facts, for if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it. As John Adams said, they are indeed “stubborn things”
    7. Understand that words alone don’t make the leader- proper presentation, attitude, inflection, cadence and structure are musts to inspire to action.
    8. Exhibit a blend of will and humility – we push hard knowing we don’t have all the answers, with a sense of decency, fairness and mindfulness.
    9. Know “the secret of work” for their team – the passion, the cause, and the fun that results.
    10. Be able to mix it up and do the unexpected, like break out in song at a staff meeting. Put in a memorable hook to go with your message.