The Language of Followership

Another of my lockdown reads has been Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. I found his case studies very entertaining and his observations intriguing. But from a followership perspective, I found his seventh chapter, “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes,” to be the most significant.

Through recounting a variety of historical air tragedies, Gladwell highlights the surprising proportion of Asian pilots involved in what seemed to be avoidable accidents. There were so many incidents in a particular period, that it led to one carrier changing its name, apparently hoping to get a fresh start (Gladwell, p.180, note).

outlierscoverWhat Outliers surfaces in this chapter is that the impact of one’s culture on communication and relationship is so profound that even in the face of impending doom, overcoming these cultural norms (and dictates) is nearly impossible. Unfortunately, some cultural norms—which value traits such as indirect communication (“mitigated speech”) and a high degree of deference to authority (“large power distance”)—are ill-suited to the standard dialogues of air traffic controllers, and resulted (unintentionally) in unshared information, lack of urgency, and delayed decisiveness…ingredients that mixed together to create disaster.

As we consider the quality of our followership and the path to be excellent followers, Gladwell’s statement that, “Our ability to succeed at what we do is powerfully bound up with where we’re from,” (p.209) is worth taking note of.

While it might initially strike us as unfair—“I’m doomed to failure because of my origin”—we’re given a follow-up sentiment to explore.

The prescription was this: “to give…pilots an alternate identity. Their problem was that they were trapped in roles dictated by the heavy weight of their country’s cultural legacy. They needed an opportunity to step outside those roles when they sat in the cockpit…” (p.219).

The way that the incident rate among Asian pilots was reduced was by giving them “an opportunity to transform their relationship to their work” (ibid.)—taking them out of their cultural norms and bringing them into a posture and practice of communication more suited to the interactions that they would have worldwide with air traffic controllers.

Amazingly, “language was the key to that transformation.”

EmbracingFollowership_CoverTextureAs I explore in Chapter 10, “Cultural Challenges to Following Well,” words matter: they can be inhibitors to dialogue or cooperation, or they can support such engagements, opening doors and providing platforms for effective and helpful exchanges.

Where we’re from dictates much of our perception and norms, and as Gladwell uncovers, much of that is both produced and enforced (carried out) through language. For these pilots, enhancing their mastery of English (the international language of commercial aviation) unlocked a new set of perceptions and norms, very different from their homegrown values, but perfectly aligned with the global commercial air industry.

A good American friend of mine from our time living in Asia was always amused to reflect upon her “Chinese persona.” When she spoke Chinese, she found herself outgoing and emotional in ways that did not exist when speaking her native English. She hadn’t just learned a language; she had indeed taken on a new identity, new perspectives of herself, others, and her situation when she immersed herself in and expressed a different culture through these different words.

Culture is both revealed and established through language.

Two specific examples from my own engagement with Chinese. It may be broadly known that China has a respect for the past and an appreciation for community that differs significantly from most Western, individualist, future-oriented cultures. These traits are readily apparent in Chinese language.

When one addresses an envelope in the US, the components follow this pattern: house number, street, city, state. The progression is from narrow to broad, specific to general, individual/local than expanding outward.

In China, it’s the opposite: you begin with the province, then city, then the district, then the neighborhood, then the building, then the building section, then the floor, and finally the flat number. Can you see the difference? The progression is from broad to narrow, working down and down to get more specific. Here, you start with the community and proceed (through many layers) to finally get to the individual.

Similarly, the respect for the past is evident in language: the phrase for “the year before last” (i.e. two years ago) is “the year to the front/ahead.” The image is though you are standing facing the past. This again is exactly opposite to Western postures which face toward the future.

How does this knowledge/phenomenon impact our followership?

When we join an organization, we affiliate ourselves with a culture, one that will have its own distinctives in perspective, norms…and language. If we are to follow well, we will need to engage some energy in adopting these ways, aligning (dare I say ‘conforming’?) ourselves with the values and methods that define the ins and outs of this particular collective endeavor.

There may be personal challenges that we face in making this adjustment depending upon how our personal, national, ethnic culture (or sub-culture) differs from this organizational culture, and also how we differ from the dominant national and ethnic cultures represented by the other members, both those in the majority and those in leadership.

“To navigate organizational structures is to navigate relationships” (Embracing Followership, p. 101), and navigating relationships requires language. Building a common vocabulary not only allows us to be understood in our speech, but also helps to establish and enforce a common culture, a shared perspective, a set of norms. This is why statements of vision, mission, and values are so important to many groups: they define who we are and how we engage. (See my Chapter 12.)

It’s also why job titles, role descriptions, and other such documents are important, and worth spending time digesting, asking about, and (where possible) refining.

I serve in a relatively ‘flat’ non-profit organization, and yet even here, I noticed a significantly different platform for engagement that was opened to me once I gained a middle-management title. My words mattered and my access was increased because of the language used to describe my organizational function, even though many of the details of what I was doing wasn’t all that different from before I had the title.

It’s worth considering in what ways the language that you use, and the language that you’re subjected to, creates barriers for your engagement with other individuals and your organization as a whole. How do the labels, and the hierarchy/structure that they reveal (and create), facilitate or hinder your ability to be an excellent follower?

Certain titles may enforce distance between organizational members, removing approachability (who am I to go talk to the Senior Vice President of Organizational Operations), or they may disempower us (what can I do, I’m only the 2nd 2nd Assistant Director?–watch movie credits closely sometime for this one!). On the other hand, even when such titles exist, knowing that we’re all a part of the same “working group” or “project team” may grant a freedom or sense of equality that helps me to voice my contributions confidently.

We want to be “well-intentioned, well-executed, and well-received” in our followership (Embracing Followershp, p.108). Language can dictate for us where, how, and if we’re successful in that endeavor: because language is the forum for relationship, which is the platform upon which the leader-follower dynamic is lived out.

As Gladwell points out, our language, our identity, is key to our ability to succeed—and is so powerful that it can help us to overcome other limitations that may exist in us as a result of our cultural heritage and even our personal proclivities. To be excellent followers, we must be effective communicators, speaking the language appropriate to our group context, our peers, and superiors, and engaging within the structures and norms that language helps us to define and participate in.

To help your exploration of culture, perspectives, language, expectations, and self-awareness, see the following free downloads (cross-referenced to material from the Discussion Guide):

dloadCulture Combination Considerations (accompanies Study 3 & Chapters 5, 10, 15, & 17; printable download; intro post)

dloadEnneagram Profile Worksheet (accompanies Study 6 & Chapter 11; printable download; intro post)

dloadAchieving Satisfying Group Communication (accompanies Study 10 & Chapters 9, 10, & 15; printable download; intro post)

dloadSurfacing Team Expectations (accompanies Study 11 & Chapters 9 & 16; printable download; intro post)

(As a fun note, Gladwell’s next chapter, “Rice Paddies and Math Tests” gives another language-based exploration of why Asians seem to be better with numbers than many Westerners, a context where their language & culture fits much better than English.)


For encouragement and guidance in understanding and applying yourself to following and leading with excellence and helping others to do the same, see:


Followership Guide coverEmbracing Followership: How to Thrive in a Leader-Centric Culture (by Allen Hamlin Jr; Feb 2016), and  A Discussion Guide for Teams & Small Groups (Dec 2017) —

along with our variety of free downloadable resources and the index of other posts on this site.


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