How to be the best leader you can? Focus on Language.

winning culture_language
“Language is Leadership,” David Marquet

By Jeanette Sjoberg, February 2020

The language of leaders has the power to change lives. You could say that every leader is obligated to understand their role in transforming lives. Leaders that choose not to have a focus on language may change culture in ways that have unexpected consequences, and, may change lives in ways they did not originally intend to.

David Marquet recently released a very important book on leadership, challenging the incumbent and very present industrial age leadership playbook that continues to infuse itself into organisations, defining the culture and ultimately the results of the company.

The key takeaway from Marquet’s book is that a culture, without a thought-through approach on the language of leadership, is most likely to continue an industrial era leadership playbook that is unacceptable in this modern age. Organizational restructures, leadership , diversity and inclusion programs and other change management or transformation approaches, with the backdrop of management principles from the industrial era, will most likely be a waste of money. Marquet’s book is therefore a good use of your time to understand why. One thing is for sure, when the language plays out an industrial era leadership playbook, you can guarantee you are not going to be in control of the culture you are striving for.

What is an industrial age leadership playbook?

Marquet sets out a very good context for understanding the industrial era leadership playbook and carefully illustrates why leadership is language and the consequences when language is not core to leadership in your organization.

To explain his point of view, Marquet features a true and tragic event which happened on Thursday, October 1, 2015. In Marquet’s example, leadership changes lives and, in this case, people lost their lives.

The event features the American merchant captain, Michael Davidson, tasked with sailing a 800 foot US cargo ship, El Faro,  on its weekly run from Jacksonville, Florida, to San Juan, Puerto Rico. The hurricane was one of the heaviest ever to hit the Bahamas. It overwhelmed and sank the ship, drowning the captain and his 32 crew members after the Captain sailed the ship directly into the eye wall of a Category 3 hurricane on the exposed windward side of the Bahama Islands.  Key questions were around how such an esteemed Captain could lead the ship into such a disaster – it was the worst US maritime disaster in three decades.

The search lasted for seven days and covered more than 180,000 square miles of ocean.ILLUSTRATION BY YUKO SHIMIZU.

In December 2016, the National Transportation Safety Board, (2016) released more than 500 pages of the El Faro audio transcript from the recovered data recorder. Anyone reading the transcript from start to finish knows it ends with the death of all the crew. Clearly, throughout the transcript, there are moments of hesitation and indecision with the majority of the crew not knowing or acknowledging their fate until the last moments before it sank.

El Faro is the perfect case study for Marquet’s book and can be applied to any organization that adopts a similar leadership language. Marquet’s book makes the case for why leadership is language and why it matters. To do this, he outlines the different kinds of work that typically take place in an organisation and then uses the El Faro tragic event to highlight how these types of work play out in context of the various decision points and actions taken during the course of the 25 hours onboard the El Faro.

It is therefore important to understand the kinds of work that are driven from the language of leaders. Marquet defines the kinds of work as “bluework” and “redwork.” Anyone familiar with Kahneman’s book on Thinking Fast and Slow can connect quickly to the idea of System 1 (redwork) – intuitive and automatic and System 2 (bluework) – effortful thinking. A comprehensive explanation (without reading Kahneman’s book, is his Google talk:

Marquet further explains the two different kinds of work which need two different kinds of language:

Decision-making (thinking) and execution (doing) – taking two opposite approaches to variability, therefore requiring two distinctly different mental processes and two different kinds of language.

Marquet labels the thinking, decision-making, embrace-variability work, “bluework” and doing, execution, reduce-variability work, “red-work.”

Chapter 1 of Marquet’s book is about the power of programmed leadership language and how it is rooted in the Industrial Era leadership playbook. It requires your careful attention and reflection in your own environment. In the El Faro scenario, Marquet highlights how each decision is being made that leads to certain death. He highlights one of the first “decisions” in the recorded transcript. Prior to the start of the journey, there is already an assumption that the “usual default route” will apply. There is no apparent discussion as to whether or not this decision (as a given input) should be challenged given the unfavourable conditions being reported on the hurricane – the leader / captain simply states the direction is to CONTINUE as planned. CONTINUE – is straight out of the industrial era playbook. No discussion required – simply EXECUTE the plan (in your company – that would be execute the strategy as planned, no discussion).

Marquet points out there was no discussion on whether the originally planned route should be taken, given the new information. The only discussion was how to take the planned route. This is redwork – no thinking required and 100% ACTION-ORIENTED. The Captain’s role is to ensure his crew remain “on-task.”  Marquet elaborates – when the Captain starts to determine the decision was a bad one, he sticks with the failing course (the plan) because the decision was already made. This is another industrial era playbook trait. You have probably heard this before in your organization – stick to the plan, stick to the decision once it is made, do not challenge – simply execute.

Why was the particular route chosen you might ask? Under normal conditions, the route was the fastest and the Captain had set out to OBEY THE CLOCK. Can I say – another industrial era playbook moment. It’s more important to achieve the deadline than make activate sense making (otherwise known as bluework) as to whether the current course is the right one.

The one that resonates with me personally is the industrial era playbook that does not invite vulnerability, In fact, this industrial era playbook trait deliberately sets out to remove feelings. During the El Faro trip, the Captain’s language and message is consistent. “Getting it done” at all costs, is the language of INVULNERABILITY, invincibility and the language that discourages any expression of concern. You must simply COMPLY and no emotions or feelings apply.

It sends the message that these decisions must not be questioned, our path is set, do not challenge me or make me explain this again.

What was the captain’s motivation in saying these kinds of things? Inspire confidence? Focus people on task. Get them to COMPLY.

In the redwork zone, you must PROVE yourself and you must CONFORM.

Why should this matter to you?

I have just completed two days of the adidas Director’s Development Experience – a leadership program aimed at developing adidas leaders to shape the company we want, build the culture we want and understand what it takes to create the conditions to develop high performing teams. Over the two days, we covered a lot of ground on diversity and inclusion, different types of biases and balanced leadership, It struck me that the language we used was interesting. I had been observing it for a long time in the various environments I have worked over the years. It goes hand in hand with my obsession to understand how to develop better conditions for business and digital transformation, together with consumer-obsession and human-centred design. Luckily, my curiosity is something that results in a number of partial points of view stuck in my working memory. It’s often luck that smashes different perspectives together and it was thanks to this week’s newsletter, Coaching for Leaders, by Dave Stachowiak. His last newsletter had an interview with David Marquet – unbelievably, the subject of his latest book being, “Language is Leadership.” Fate!

I want you to know that language is the key when we truly want to change lives. You may not know its importance until you ready this book. I do hope it will be a personal awakening and somehow help you to be a better leader – for me, leadership is work-in-progress and I value all feedback. Think about it – Your language is setting out the gameplan and the culture. You have choices in how you execute the gameplan, how you stay ahead in the game, how you change the rules of the game. It determines whether you as a leader will change peoples’ lives and even save lives. It’s a significant responsibility!

There are two different languages and they matter, together: Marquet helps to make sense of the difference between doing (REDWORK) and thinking (BLUEWORK).

Our interaction with the world is doing.

Improving our interaction with the world is thinking.

Proving and performing is doing.

Growing and improving is thinking.

What can you do?  As always, Marquet is good at offering practical ways to execute the new leadership playbook and how to leave behind the industrial era playbook (the one that might not drive the culture you want and you may even lose lives)…..

Here are a few suggestions…………..

#1 Recognise when you are doing bluework and your leaders are using redwork language e.g. compelling versus collaborating. “Building consensus” or “get everyone on board” are code words for coercion. See Chapter 4 Into the Bluework: Collaborate and for a really good list of questions (outlining the Industrial era contrasting questions as well). Make a tangible change!

#2 Understand how to move from thinking into action – this is Chapter 5 Leave Bluework behind: Commit.

If we collaborate effectively, the result is commitment. If we coerce, the result is compliance.

In the transition to commit, Marquet suggests a careful framing of commitment. Collaboration as outlined in Chapter 4 transitions to develop hypotheses to test rather than decisions to execute.

Frame commitment or redwork as a process of learning and improving.

The typical approach for the industrial era playbook is the need to PROVE that we know what we are doing and prove our product works. However, if we want to create agile, resilient, adaptive organizations, then it is the IMPROVE playbook that we really want and this is at odds with the PROVE play. Marquet suggests setting your sights on BLUE-RED-BLUE (THINK-ACT-THINK) cycles if you want to be more effective.

One of my personal favourites is to frame commitments as learning goals.

Focusing on a learning goal lowers the barrier to transition out of bluework to redwork. It is ironic, but having a performance goal actually makes it harder to get into production.

The reason it is easier to commit to action when we put ourselves in a learning mode, and the reason we are more resilient in action when facing setbacks, is that it taps the ways our brains are wired…we like to discover, explore and learn new things.

#3 Challenge management beliefs and principles.

According to the HBR article by Hamel, (2006):

A tradition-bound management team, unwilling to surrender yesterday’s certainties, can hold hostage an entire organization’s capacity to embrace the future.

As a management innovator, you must subject every management belief to two questions.

First, is the belief toxic to the ultimate goal you’re trying to achieve?

Second, can you imagine an alternative to the reality the belief reflects?

Take the typical assumption that the CEO is responsible for setting strategy. While this seems a reasonable point of view, it may lull employees into believing that they can do little to influence their company’s strategic direction or to reshape its business model—that they are the implementers, rather than the creators, of strategy. Yet, if the goal is to accelerate the pace of strategic renewal or to fully engage the imagination and passion of every employee, a CEO-centric view of strategy formulation is unhelpful at best and dangerous at worst.

Hamel’s advice really highlights what Marquet is putting forward in his book. In what way do the organization’s beliefs, values and resulting leadership behaviours evidence a balance between red and bluework?

Are you hearing the industrial era leadership playbook play out in spite of what is presented before you?

Leadership is language, language is culture, culture is the organisation -> values for individuals and teams may no longer align to the intended culture.

#4 I urge you to read Marquet’s book. It changed me in a weekend! Leadership is language and each of you has an opportunity to make real change. It doesn’t matter what role you play – your language choices will make a difference in your personal and work life.

Observe the environment you are in. What leadership playbook is being used. Listen carefully. Will the language being used change lives and enable you, your team and your organisation to be successful? Can you recognize when an industrial era leadership playbook is in play? What will your role be in changing it?

Think about how can you “discover” the culture of your organization and even the culture of an individual or team? Just by reading Linkedin posts, scanning job profiles, company analyst transcripts and listening to your own daily work environment will give you many clues.

As David Marquet says

Listen to the language you are hearing in your work environment. What is the language optimised for? Redwork or bluework? What language sounds “natural” to you – whichever it is says a lot about the way the culture is defined – if the language is highly optimized for redwork then Marquet emphasizes that you will be unable to enable bluework plays -> you will be trapped in the industrial age leadership playbook, uable to activate or engage in bluework when you most need to.

In conclusion, language is a double-edged sword that can imprison or set us free.

Language is without question, a tool in our hands or we in its hands.

As leaders, your own future, your teams’ future, your ability to make a difference and change lives, is with you.

Redwork and bluework, together with the choice of language is the point at which you, as a leader, are at an inflection point.

You may decide leadership is about having the “upper hand” or the right to “command and control,” the right to decide and change your mind, the right to choose when feedback is welcome, the right to simply demand execution and drive pure action-orientation of your people.

This of course leaves no power, voice or agency for your people. Your language is the agency that drives the culture of yourself, your team and your organisation. You, as the leader are the result of the language you choose to use.

Changing the way we communicate, changes the culture.
Changing the culture transforms our results.
Changing our words changes the world.
David Marquet

Three ways language can be changed:

  1. Replace a reactive language of convince, coerce, comply and conform with a proactive language of intent and commitment to action.
  2. Replace a language of “prove and perform” with a language of “improve and learn.”
  3. Replace a language of invulnerability and certainty with a language of vulnerability and curiosity.

Finally, consider your own personal values? How do they play out in the organisation you are in. You will have to dig deep on that. Listen to people and you will hear what their values are when asking them what they like, what they dislike, what’s important to them. Then reflect and check back with the company values – see if you can match what you are hearing back to their values.

Having just read Marquet’s book, I look forward to practicing new playbooks and making others aware of the outdated playbooks. Nobody wants to be part of a playbook that ends lives. We want to change lives in a way that  is sustainable for ourselves and our planet.


Marquet, L. D. (2020). Leadership Is Language: The Hidden Power of What You Say and What You Don’t. Portfolio/Penguin.

Hamel, G. (2006). The why, what, and how of management innovation. Harvard business review, 84(2), 72. Link:

National Transportation Safety Board, (2016). Group Chairman’s Factual Report of Investigation, Voyager Data Recorder – Audio Transcript SS El Faro DCA16MM001. Board. Link:





All views are my own.

This is a reflection from the adidas Director Development Experience (DDE). A leadership program for directors and senior directors. The relevant module for reflection is:

BIG Deal Training & Mindset Workshop – participants explore the importance of diversity, inclusion and gender balance in our culture – and explore their own mindset and how they influence the mindset of their team.

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