Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Leadership, Shared Meaning, and Semantics

Academic journal article ETC.: A Review of General Semantics

Leadership, Shared Meaning, and Semantics

Article excerpt

"We all will make inferences; one aspect of leadership concentrates on minimizing our tendency to drift apart in how we assign meaning."

"I am saying society is based on shared meanings, which constitute the culture. If we don't share coherent meaning, we do not make much of a society. ... I find that something like [dialogue] is necessary for society to function properly and for society to survive. Otherwise it will all fall apart. This shared meaning is really the cement that holds society together, and you could say that the present society has some very poor quality cement."

David Bohm

1) Background

I have invested the most recent half-dozen years of my working life engaged in leadership development in a variety of contexts. I've worked as an internal consultant in a Fortune 500 company. I've worked as an adjunct faculty member in a liberal arts university. I've served as the Board Chair for a regional nonprofit. It surprises some to hear that semantics has a role to play in leadership development. The only time most people seem to refer to semantics at all occurs during an exchange such as this:

Person A, plaintively: I think you've glossed over a key point -- that's not about leadership, that's management!

Person B, dismissively: Oh, you're just arguing semantics!

Well, yes, what we mean by the words we use does concern semantics. Furthermore, effective leadership requires a rich understanding of the role semantics plays in everyday communications. Effective leadership requires the creation of shared meanings because, as Bohm points Out in the above quote, these shared meanings constitute our collective culture.

The overall framework my colleagues and I created for leadership development used the graduate seminar as the basic model. We would work with adults experienced in the worlds of working and learning. We focused on their learning instead of our teaching. Each group met for a block of time (four-to-five hours) once each week for about twelve weeks. We would deliberately revisit the topic of communications and the particular importance of effective communications. In one particular session, we would bring semantics to the very center of focus. In that session (typically about the fourth) we would turn to two tools, suggesting that the learners consider the connections between them.

Note that although I prefer to include the following exercise within the larger context of our multi-session exploration ("Discovering Leadership"), I have also used it as a standalone exercise taking perhaps 50-60 minutes of elapsed time. I have used it with business people with varying backgrounds (ranging from information technology professionals in staff organizations to research-and-development specialists in line organizations) and varying positions in the hierarchy (from the directors to rank-and-file scientists and engineers). I've also used it with educators (teachers and principals/administrators). The groups have ranged in size from as few as eight to as many as twenty. The settings have included my appearance as onetime "guest speaker" at a routine monthly staff meeting and serving as light entertainment over boxed lunches at a divisional sales meeting.

In this paper, I will describe an exercise which highlights two separately valuable tools -- The Uncritical Inference Test and the Ladder of Inference. The exercise integrates them into a critical leadership concept: the central role of clear communications. Then I will add a third tool to enrich the utility of the first two -- Thinking Outside the Box.

2) The Uncritical Inference Test

According to the copyright information on The Uncritical Inference Test, we cannot call it a new invention. William V. Haney created it in 1955. I start this exercise with this tool because of its non-intimidating appearance. …

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