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The Language of Leadership

We believe that we human beings are suspended in webs of significance that we ourselves have spun. (Bennis and Nanus, 1985, 112)

One of the most powerful tools a transformational leader has at her disposal is language. Our use of language shapes to a large extent the way people see us, how much they trust us, and how willing they are to commit themselves to the work we share. As Michael Jones, amazing pianist and organizational consultant, notes, “The visionary is the teacher and purveyor of language who transforms our reality through the power of story and voices.”(Jones, 75)

Language can transform reality, ignite the human desire to create, and inspire personal courage in the face of great adversity. Throughout history we see leaders in the darkest hours who have done just that. In the midst of the depression of the thirties, it was Franklin Roosevelt who summoned the American people to rise above their fears of pressing poverty when he spoke, “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” (Roosevelt, 15) And Martin Luther King, Jr. forced the American public to face the darkness of ubiquitous racism as he urged us to our better selves: “I refuse to accept the view that mankind is so tragically bound to the starless midnight of racism and war that the bright daybreak of peace and brotherhood can never become a reality… I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”(King)

Malala Yousafzai, shot and wounded in Pakistan for being an advocate of education for young women when she was 15, issued the clarion call to all of the world: “Today we all know education is our basic right. Not just in the West; Islam, too, has given us that right. Islam says every girl and every boy should go to school. In the Quran it is written. God wants us to have knowledge. He wants us to know why the sky is blue and about oceans and stars.”(Yousafzai, 165)

At the Santa Fe Center, we have identified four categories of language that can support leaders in creating transformative school cultures. Each of these categories contain specific genre that require study and most importantly, practice. Leaders who are serious about effective language use must create practice fields for themselves and for their leadership teams. Reading about scenario building, the sentence stems that support inquiry, or how to frame an issue is a wonderful introduction, but honing language skills requires experience and feedback. We wouldn’t go onto a stage or a field without rehearsal; we should give the same attention to the language we are using to shape our organization’s present situation and its future.

 The language of vision

  • Framing
  • Metaphor
  • Narrative

The language of exploration

  • Design
  • Scenario-building
  • Improvisation

The language of collaboration

  • Dialogue/Discussion
  • Consensus-building
  • Coaching
  • Invitation

The language of self-knowing

  • Personal narrative
  • Reflection
  • Self talk

This entry will explore the language of framing.

  •           What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine
  •            our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do
  •            something. If we remember those times and places—and there are
  •            many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the
  •            energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top
  •            of a world in a different direction.
  •            (Zinn, 276)

The Language of Vision: Framing

In the mid 1990’s, Margaret Wheatley, in a conversation about crisis leadership, suggested that one of the most critical things a leader can provide in such a setting is an “unanxious” presence. (Wheatley) That stayed with me—in part because on occasion it felt as though that was all I could provide when I waded into some of the wicked problems we faced at MRH. Providing an “unanxious” presence is a kind of framing—a message we send to others with our language and behavior about the context of current or future work. While we cannot control everything that comes at us in our schools, we can help our colleagues focus and understand events in the context of our purpose and vision. We can support them in remaining generative and positive about the work, even in difficult times. We can inspire them to rise to the challenges facing us, adhering to our values and principles.

Fairhurst and Sarr, authors of The Art of Framing, note, “At its most basic level, framing reality means defining ‘the situation here and now’ in ways that connect with others.  ‘Reality’ is often contested. Framing a subject is an act of persuasion by leaders and requires us to risk managing meaning.” (Fairhurst and Sarr, 3)

Framing does involve us risking by stepping forward and offering our interpretation of events and context. We could be wrong. We could be leading people down the wrong path with our frame. And if our frame lacks honesty, then we risk loss of our colleagues’ view of us as a moral leader. In a class on leadership, one of my graduate students challenged me that framing sounded a great deal like manipulating people. It’s important to understand the difference. Framing is not hiding information or lying…but it does involve making conscious decisions about our language and behavior with the idea of exerting influence on the organization. As such, it certainly has an ethical dimension.

Framing in leadership is not so much different from framing done by painters and photographers as they consider how their subjects will appear on paper. It involves making important decisions about perspective, focus, and point of view.

Deborah Meier, former principal of Central Park East and a pioneer in transformational school leadership, describes the impact of framing to focus her team, “If we focused not on something arbitrary called ‘eighth grade’ reading but on engaged readers we might have a better chance at turning nonreaders into voracious readers.”(Meier) The language of transactional leadership seldom engages the heart. Transformational leaders, however, know that their language must move beyond metrics to touch the human spirit. Thoughtful framing can assist us in doing that.

Fairhurst and Sarr caution that in order to frame effectively for those in our organization, we need to frame internally…and that means getting clear about our own mental models.(Fairhurst and Sarr, 67) Mental models are those deeply held constructs and values that shape our interactions with the world. We MUST take time to surface what we believe, to get clear about our role as leaders and what we hope to accomplish in our work. The authors suggest leaders must learn to prime their unconscious through reflection and conversation if they are going to be successful with framing.They note, “Priming is a conscious act that imprints the unconscious with a path for the brain to follow.If a particular thought process was a part of one’s recent conscious experience, then that thought process remains accessible and used by the unconscious mind to filter information we later taken in.”(Fairhurst and Sarr, 66) What we are creating then, is a path for our mind to follow as we talk about the work with others. Priming is a critical readiness tool as we prepare to interact with our stakeholders.

Equally important, to our success is an awareness of the mental models of those for whom we are framing. Part of the effectiveness of the frames we create depends upon others’ ability to see themselves in the images. If we are not accomplishing that, framing is of little use. Thus, listening intently to a broad range of constituents is a critical aspect of our capacity to frame effectively.

James Krile of the Blandin Foundation has been training community members in leadership skills for over two decades. He sums up framing with three critical statements:

  1. How an issue is framed influences what gets done.
  2. Framing is complex, linking factual analysis, values and motivation, vision, and strategy.
  3. Framing creates focus. (Krile,14)

Helping our schools and community get clear on the goals, understand the context of the work we are doing, build on the values they have articulated, and focus on positive action requires skillful leadership and skillful framing. Arbitrary and spontaneous communication seldom provides the leverage necessary. And one more note, no amount of framing can fix a disconnect between what we say and what we do. If we communicate our commitment to collaboration, for example, but don’t offer structures and processes to support that, attempts at framing just make us look silly.

A final comment on the power of framing—our actions offer frames as well as our oral language. We show people what we value by what we give time and attention to. Our buildings and grounds communicate more clearly than a giant billboard on a freeway what we think of the community, its children, and our staff. If a school is not sparkling clean, we are articulating our lack of concern for community property, a disinterest in the environment where children spend a big part of their day, and low standards for what is in our care. If our grounds are not well kept and filled with interesting places for children and adults to explore and enjoy, we suggest we are disconnected from nature and its impact on our lives and learning. If teachers don’t have attractive places to gather to learn and collaborate with easy access to necessary tools and materials, we are conveying that adult learning really isn’t important. If the first thing someone sees as they enter a building is not a welcoming invitation to our learning spaces but a direction to go directly to the office to register, we have framed our view of parents and visitors. Our decisions send nonverbal messages everyday. What a shame not to use every one of them to reinforce a culture of invitation, warmth, passion for learning for adults and children, and a commitment to making our schools the beating hearts of our communities.

 Framing at MRH

As my assistant superintendent and I began our experience at MRH, a district on the cusp of being taken over by the state of Missouri because of poor performance, we realized that framing our work was critical to our success. I was to be the fourth superintendent in five years. Each of my predecessors left in the dust of a scandal. The little community had given up on its school, and perhaps on itself, as the downtown was filled with boarded up buildings and many houses stood in disrepair. They mayor of Maplewood explained as she toured us around the town one June afternoon that people bought a little house in the town as a starter home, and then when their children became school age, they moved west to a better district. ”This,” she pointed out, “keeps property values low. Buying a house here, you can’t expect it to increase in value.”

MRH, bordering the city of St Louis, seemed to represent everything that could go wrong with an urban school. All around us were successful suburban schools; and there we sat in dilapidated buildings, with nonexistent curriculum, and over half of the community’s children choosing to attend private schools or go into the city where they found education better than in our little district on the boundary.

In discussion with our Board of Education, early on, we had suggested a summit for administrators and teacher leaders in the district soon after we arrived. We felt we needed to begin real conversation with our colleagues as soon as we could. We also wanted to begin some of our own framing before others began to frame us. The Board agreed, and we organized two weeks in July with a group including all the administrators who wished to come and selected teacher leaders who were identified as leaders by their colleagues.

I had gotten the keys to the schools in June, before I even had a contract; and every weekend Catherine, my assistant superintendent, and I wandered around the schools in the district looking at the dismal dirty classrooms. One afternoon we stumbled on a storeroom on the second floor of the high school. The room was piled to the ceiling with broken desks, rolls of used carpet, and boxes of old books. It smelled awful, but we could see around the edge of the room what looked like a beautiful herringbone wood floor. As I squeezed around the corner, I found a spectacular fireplace and the room was flooded with light from huge windows. These were amazing remnants of what this old school must have been at one time. I turned to Catherine and said, “This is it. This is where we will have the institute and it will be the professional development room here at the high school.” In an intense month, the buildings crew emptied the room, painted it, refinished the floors and filled it with book cases, comfortable chairs and tables that were purchased with a special grant I had gotten from an old friend at the Kauffman Foundation. Our colleagues at our former school donated over $2000.00 of professional books to begin our professional library. On the first day of the institute we were able to introduce the participants to a beautiful new space tailored for adult learning.

During the two weeks of the Institute, we discussed our school district honestly and openly, and we explored two fundamental questions: How do we want to be together? What do we want to create together?   We read articles about school districts that had transformed themselves; we examined curriculum models that might give structure to our instructional work; we practiced daily a new leadership skill from the Adaptive Schools repertoire; (Garmston and Wellman) and perhaps most importantly, every afternoon we wrote about our lives and our work and shared our stories with one another.

This institute was designed to set a different course for the school. The two questions that shaped much of our conversation were generative, focusing on possibilities, not deficits. These two weeks were our first and perhaps our most important framing. We wanted to create a sense of abundant potential in an organization that was deeply focused on scarcity. We wanted to demonstrate work that was imaginative, collaborative, intellectually challenging, and deeply respectful of the experiences and stories of everyone who was a part of our learning community.

We structured our work for those two weeks with great precision. This group of twenty-five people would forge a leadership unit that helped us shape our work in the coming year. During the two weeks, every board member individually visited the “Institute for Learning and Leading” as we called it, and thanked the participants for their service and leadership. Each board member sat quietly and listened to the conversation. This in itself was a kind of nonverbal framing. There had been very public arguments between the board and the teachers union, and the administrative team felt the Board did not respect them. To see board members demonstrate their support and listen to the conversation sent a clear message: Things really were going to be different around here.

During the two weeks, we spent many hours discussing our visions for an ideal school serving this little community. We identified the following characteristics:

  • A school that was viewed as part of the community, one that was respected for the work it did. (Not surprising that this was listed, as two weeks earlier the city manager had been quoted as saying the school district was an albatross around the city’s neck.)
  • A school with a clear curriculum and much higher expectations for students. (We were not introducing Algebra until grade 10 and English 11 was based on a simple career education workbook.)
  • A school that was unique—capitalizing on our location that made us part urban, part suburban and offering proximity to many of St. Louis’ community treasures.
  • A school committed to social justice that supported students (almost 50% African American) in helping to shape their school, influence their community, and influence the world.
  • A school that focused on active learning. (Much different from the workbook driven culture that was in place.)
  • A school where teachers’ learning and professionalism was respected and where educators wanted to build careers. (Dramatically different from the current situation where turnover was near 30% as new teachers got a year or two of experience and left for better schools.)
  • A school that was committed to personalized service akin to top private schools in the area. (Selected in part, I think, because class sizes were so small with the widespread disenchantment with the school.)
  • A school where we examined student success based on a broad array of factors, not just test scores. (This was going to be difficult because we were only one point from unaccreditation by the Missouri Department of Education as defined by test score metrics.)
  • A school that was so valued by the other county schools that people came to see how we were doing the work.

These descriptions framed our thinking about MRH as a school; and at the end of the two weeks, we had twenty-five leaders eager not only to talk about the work but to dig into the creation of this school. In August the Institute’s work was the heart of a Board of Education retreat. The Board used the Institute’s description to expand their own thinking about the ideal school. Then they worked with us to develop what they called “a plan for planning.” This document outlined how we might broaden and deepen our initial conversations with community members. We needed the community to know we were committed to a new agenda and we wanted community members to be part of the visioning process.

Interestingly, in these first months we spent no time trying to form a vision or mission statement during our conversations—we were much more interested in honest and straightforward communication about how we would be together and what we would create. There would be time enough for vision statements later—we wanted robust exploration of possibilities, not refined wording. The images that were created out of these thoughtful and sometimes difficult conversations were fundamental to the framing that was part of the leadership work those first years. The Leadership and Learning Institute and the work that flowed from it offered us transformative possibilities—language, images, and dreams to build upon.

 Give It A Go

Sharpen your language with rehearsal; prepare your unconscious for the conversations to come.

1. Role-playing is a great way to practice priming. With your leadership team take turns playing a city council member, an angry parent, a member of the Chamber of Commerce. Then one of you prime your mental models by practicing a conversation about the school’s vision or the plan you are implementing, or a bond issue you are taking to the tax payers. The rest of the team can critique.

2. Try the Talk Times Three Activity. Whether it is a vision statement, an important project, or a new idea, give yourself and your colleagues time to talk about it, expand your thinking, and sharpen your language. Divide the group into dyads and give them the topic. The dyads will have 12 minutes to do the following:

Partner 1 explains his thinking about the topic for three minutes;

Partner 2 has three minutes to ask questions about that thinking;

Partner 2 explains her thinking about the topic for three minutes;

Partner 1 has three minutes to ask questions about that thinking.

The group then has three minutes to jot notes individually about how their thinking and language was influenced by this activity.

Ask the dyads to break apart and find new partners. The new dyads will follow the same protocol and conclude with three minutes of reflection.

Complete this with new dyads one final time.

Conclude the activity with a large group discussion.

3. Visit the website http://www.leadershipframing.com/dft.php for additional tools and an assessment you can take to help you understand how you might approach framing.

4. Identify in the MRH story examples of framing. Think about your own school. What might be some initial frames that could move you forward?


Bennis W., and Nanus, B. Leaders: The Strategies for Taking Charge. New York: Harper and Row, 1985.

Fairhurst, G. and Sarr, R. The Art of Framing. San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 1996.

Garmston, R. and Wellman, B. The Adaptive School: A Sourcebook for Developing Collaborative Groups. Norwood, MA: Christopher-Gordon Publishers, 2009. (This is the most current edition.)

Jones, M. “Transforming Leadership through the Power of the Imagination.” In J. Barbour and G. Hickman (eds.), Leadership for Transformation. San Francisco, 2011.

King, Jr. M. “The Nobel Peace Prize 1964.” On http://www.nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1964/ Jan. 18, 2015.

Krile, J. The Community Leadership Handbook: Framing Ideas, Building Relationships and Mobilizing Resources. St Paul, MN: Fieldstone Alliance Publishers, 2006.

Meier, D., “Problem Versus Solution.” On http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/Bridging-Differences/2013/05/dear_mike_let_me_begin.html?cmp=ENL-EU-VIEWS2 Jan. 18, 2015.

Roosevelt, F. “Inaugural Address, March 4, 1933.” In S Rosenman (ed.),The Public Papers of Franklin D. Roosevelt, Volume Two: The Year of Crisis, 1933. New York: Random House, 1938.

Wheatley, Margaret. Cape Cod Institute presentation, Eastham, Mass: 1986.

Yousafzai, MI Am Malala. London: Orion Books, 2013.

Zinn, H. A Power Government Cannot Suppress. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2007.

So, I’m especially excited about our most recent publication, The Community Leadership Handbook: Framing Ideas, Building Relationships, and Mobilizing Resourcesby James F. Krile of the Blandin Foundation. For the past 20 years Blandin Foundation of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, has been training community members in leadership skills. The book is refreshing in its can-do spirit and faith in the positive outcomes when people join together to address common challenges. Politically, it is not of the left, of the right, or even of the center. It is, rather, “of the people.”

This issue of Tools You Can Use is excerpted and adapted from part one of the book, pages 1-171. If your nonprofit work does not directly involve some aspect of community leadership, please keep reading. The leadership principles described here are useful whether you are galvanizing your staff, your organization, a collaborative, or an interstate coalition.