Three ways to develop leadership language that works globally

Over to the profs: For Dan Bullock and Raul Sanchez, there are three simple ways to make huge improvements to your leadership abilities.

Everyone can learn to become a leader. But the truth is that many of us overlook the power of the language we use. These linguistic considerations become even more important in the intercultural environment of global teams.

As global leaders, we learn to navigate between direct and indirect communication cultural style patterns, as well as using the language of empathy, starting with pronouns such as ‘we’ and ‘us’ to create shared goals and inclusion. What regularly goes unnoticed in leadership training is the central role of leadership language.

Once we recognise that language is the foundation for collectively structuring our thoughts and ideas, our high-stakes conference calls and business dealings become ripe opportunities for building cultural understanding with global partners.

Effective global leadership language is just as much about the counterpart in the conversation as it is about our own motivation.

Based on years of research and experience as professors, corporate trainers, and intercultural communication specialists at NYU and the United Nations, we’ve identified three key linguistic strategies for effectively framing our conversations for global audiences that not only allow us to lead but also empower others:

Tell stories around shared values and decisions

When using storytelling as a communications tool, as leaders, we must connect our stories to values that resonate with the global community. All of us listen to stories with our hearts more than our minds because we look for messages that align with our values.

Therefore, first identify a value that your audience shares related to your presentation, such as empathy, integrity, or resilience – and then build a compelling story around it. Successful trainers use sensory language to connect stories with the values shared among audiences and future partners.

Another way to tell stories that resonate globally is to think of powerful decision-making moments in your life that may motivate the audience to make a similar choice in their lives. Stories are how we learn to make choices.

Effective global leadership language is just as much about the counterpart in the conversation as it is about our own motivation. When we know how to connect our purpose through language with the values of others, we naturally create joint goals that lead to joint opportunities.

Across cultures, when we feel a story deeply and emotionally, we learn from that story as if we were learning from first-hand experience. Stories guide us to what we ‘ought to do’ in the future – we connect our values to actions through stories.

As a leader, expand your stories from personal to human experiences to forge deeper and lasting connections with your audience. 

Build cultural context with the right details

Every culture has preferences regarding how topics are presented. Contextually, some cultures favour more information and others prefer less. However, the responsibility doesn’t reside only with the speaker or write – in some cultures, the listener or reader has certain responsibilities too.

In leadership training, the culture, and how much of a shared context already exists with the reader, dictates how much information to provide based on preferences between Western and Eastern cultures.

When incorporating details in a presentation or meeting, think about how Western cultures tend toward a ‘writer-responsible’ approach where the writer explicitly conveys information in written formats so the reader can readily absorb the content.

Then, consider how on the other hand, Eastern societies tend to embrace a more ‘reader-responsible’ approach where content is written implicitly to respectfully convey that a shared understanding of background knowledge may already exist with the reader.

Make sure to avoid overcomplicating or oversimplifying messages while helping your readers retain key information. We must train ourselves to recognise that all cultures may alternate between these two style patterns depending on the situation at hand.

Connect a subject to the senses

Effective leaders put ideas into motion. One of the most powerful tools for doing this is metaphor, a literary device that forges comparisons between two topics. Metaphors are all around us and are very useful in business as a feature of human thought, communication, and understanding.

Consider the usefulness of the ‘journey’ metaphor in conversation: ‘Let’s go back to what you were saying’, ‘I’m not quite sure where you’re headed’, and ‘You’re on the right track.’ The language of leadership involves more than just a formulaic string of words.

Training ourselves to use metaphors more effectively frames information for global audiences when illustrating a point or underscoring a value proposition. 

Research shows that 95% of our decision-making happens unconsciously. Leaders that know how to leverage just the right metaphor for a campaign or business proposal effectively to engage the subconscious.

Just look at a concept like Blue Ocean Strategy, a marketing theory that used metaphor to bring this concept into the sensory world by illustrating the point of making competition irrelevant and referencing competitive red oceans in contrast to blue oceans of uncontested market spaces.

Describing our ideas in metaphors allows audiences to process information more easily and memorably. Leaders use visualisation to build greater understanding, create humor, and construct impactful analogies when leading a team with a shared vision.

In conclusion, the right leadership language allows us to build bridges with those around us in ways that ignite creativity, new perspectives, and global innovation. When we employ global leadership language, we not only supercharge our messages, we transform our connections with fellow colleagues and global partners.

Training ourselves to arrive at more, definitive global leadership language is what brings about the cultural adaptability necessary for global communication. We also learn to create a space, not just for communication, but for larger respect and empathy.

Becoming a global leader requires the ability to use leadership language effectively in the process of creating shared meanings, perspectives, and solutions in our expanding interactions with partners all around the globe. 


About the author

Raúl Sánchez is a clinical assistant professor/trainer of global communication and corporate program coordinator at New York University’s School of Professional Studies. Dan Bullock is a language and communications specialist/trainer at the United Nations Secretariat and professor at New York University’ School of Professional Studies. Raúl and Dan are the co-authors of “How to Communicate Effectively with Anyone, Anywhere” illustrated by Rod Sanchez (Career Press, March 2021).



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