Leadership and management as language games

I remember confiding to Ken Gergen that I could never be a scholar because I found complicated theories difficult to comprehend. With a glint in his eye, he told me that “the world needs more practitioners with something to say, rather than more acadamics”.  It is in this spirit that I tentatively offer the following thoughts.

I’ve been thinking about how Wittenstein’s concept of ‘language games’ may be relevant to leadership and management development. In particular, Lyotard’s development of this theory into the notion of metanarratives in the context of power, authority and legitimation.

Imbedded in any leadership or management thinking is a set of values, assumptions and logic – sometimes referred to as a ‘worldview’.

For me, it has been useful to think about various worldviews as different ‘stories’, each with its own ‘language game’. Stories have a moral logic that contain patterns of felt obligations for action – in other words, what is required, prohibited, or permitted.

Consider the statement “I do”.

In one context, saying this joins you in marriage for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, and so on.

In a legal context, if you say ‘I do’ and then tell a lie, you can be sent to prison for perjury.

In yet another context, to say “I do” means that you are the one who has the key to the house in your pocket, or that you know the answer to a teacher’s question, or that you know how to play the saxophone.

I was watching an episode of ‘Law and Order’ the other day. At the end of the episode the accused was sentenced to death. The defence attorney asked that the jury be polled. And the judge asked each of the jury if they had voted for the death penalty and each one of them said “I do”. In this case these two words can lead to the ending of a life.

So what is the meaning of the phrase, “I do?”

The phrase is not tied to some objective event or object in the world such that every time you use it, you point to that object; rather it is tied to the way it is used in particular instances.It also depends on the language game associated with the cultural/social context in which it is used.

In the same way, leadership and management words and phrases have different meanings depending on the worldview we are speaking out of. In each discourse they have different consequences which in turn reinforces our worldview, and legitimises the existing relational patterns, in particular, how power and authority is exercised within that social context.

I would like to suggest therefore that to change a social or relational pattern (eg, an organisational culture based on the values of capitalism, bureaucracy, imperialism, nationalism, colonialism, post-colonial guilt, etc), the change agent will have to develop skills for recognising, transcending and re-framing the ‘language game/s’ that informs the organisational culture you are working with. I’ll give examples pioneering work in this area in future blogs.

One thought on “Leadership and management as language games

  1. George Orwell in his 1984 brought to our attention the concept of Newspeak. The government of Orwell’s tyrant ruled state believed they could so manipulat language that it would be possible only to think in accordance with the way the state wanted its subjects to think. Dissent would be impossible.
    Post Modernism and modern elitism has imposed a sort of Newspeak on us. We no longer say ‘right ‘ or ‘wrong’ or ‘good’ of ‘evil’. Rather we talk of things being ‘unacceptable’ or ‘acceptable’. Of course what is acceptable today may be unacceptable tomorrow; at the behest and decree of government.
    We are thus entering, have already entered a situation of Fascism but largely we are unaware of it.
    Another example is the use of the word ‘faith’. That means for some merely superstition. It was used as such in a Christian website where they accused Evolution as a ‘faith’ or as evolutionists believing with ‘faith’. In other ways the word is used to mean a religion. Thus we talk of faith communities, meaning religions. Faith has fewer unpleasant connotations than relition so we use the word to generate a warm ‘interfaith’ cosiness when all over the world Christians are being marginalised or bitterly persecuted.
    Connotation words are especially dangerous. There are ‘community’ churches or ‘family churches. I guess the people who coined these phrases thought they would make their particular denomination more acceptable to the uncaring or even hostile folk round about.
    Politicians are particularly prone to the use of words which are really empty of meaning but which people fill up with their own definitions or their feelings. Skilled orators like Hitler are able to articulate for the unarticulate. Hitler’s speeches are full of this playing on the fears and prejudices of his hearers.
    Even Martin Luther’s ‘I have a Dream’ speech was made to the converted and moved them deeply though I doubt any of the violent rednecks of the KKK were convinced.
    When entering into discussion with our fellows we just have to be careful that we use words where the meanings are already agreed and decided on. After all “words are counters, with them we do but reason”.

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