A friend recently shared an idea with us to begin creating a new vocabulary for business, one based on the principles of our work of integrating indigenous values into business as a force of culture shift. This idea struck us as both timely and important.

Culture is Within Language

While Latin and Germanic based languages are largely based on nouns and categorizations, indigenous languages are universally based on metaphor and verb. The difference is important, as much of culture is contained within language. Indeed my indigenous relations have certain things they just can’t say in English, not that they don’t know the language, but rather that English lacks the words and metaphors to express things that are so close to their heart.

In fact, if I attempt to illustrate the difference in languages by translating certain phrases from indigenous languages to English, without a person having had a certain amount of immersion in indigenous culture there would be no way to convey the importance of the distinctions.

Reinvent Vocabulary

A much better way to illustrate the difference is to reinvent standard vocabulary we are all familiar with into metaphors that frame a story around those things we would ordinarily relegate to an assumed meaning.

For example, the word “leadership” evokes the following notions for many people: being in charge of other people, having status, being well known, authoritative and responsible. It may also evoke such notions as integrity, wisdom, creativity, communication and vision. Each person has his or her own nuanced definition of leadership, along with a presumption of how the broader culture defines it—most commonly, “being in charge.”

Redefining Leadership

What if we redefined “leadership” as a metaphor? What if we called it, “Walking in the light?”

Walking in the light can mean walking in a state of being very visible. It can mean walking with the illumination of knowing. It can mean wisdom and vision. It can also mean shining the headlights to pierce the dark of night and guide our direction. It can mean all these things at the very same time, and then there is the word, “walking.”

The “walking” part of the metaphor is most important, as it is more similar to an indigenous way of communicating. If we say instead, “The one in the light” we are referring to how a person is at a particular point in time. When we say, “walking” we are giving life to the act of leadership. We’re not saying that it’s about getting from point A to point B, but rather it’s the journey itself that counts.

“When we redefine the standard nouns of business … we begin to take the reins of culture and guide it intentionally in the direction we truly want to go.”

Defining leadership as “walking in the light” is like birthing the act of leadership into a state of being that is in continuous motion: ever evolving, dynamic, constricting and expanding, breathing, acting, moving and shifting. It is embracing a form of leadership that shies away from linear process and bureaucratic constraints to move us into the intangible realm of how people feel about the work they do.

This may seem esoteric, but there is a distinction in the metaphor that is vital for culture and continuous improvement. The metaphor is subtle and heartfelt. It is as life is—it is in motion.

Most importantly, when we redefine the standard nouns of business—those terms which keep us boxed in to a way of thinking that brings more of the same—we begin to take the reins of culture and guide it intentionally in the direction we truly want to go.

May those who “walk in the light” shine your light on and on and on.

Tip of the Week

Without consulting a dictionary write two definitions of leadership. One version is the one you think is the way the mass would define it; the other is the way you would wish it to be. Once you have the two definitions create your own metaphor for your aspirational version of leadership and then ask yourself if this is an ideal that you have been able to or are able to uphold. If you’re not there yet, consider how you may come to embody the metaphor.