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Colourless green ideas sleep furiously

The somewhat bizarre title of this post is a quote from the influential linguistics professor, Noam Chomsky, in his 1957 book “Syntactic Structures”. In the book, he presented this sentence as an example of a grammatically well-formed but semantically nonsensical sentence. He used it to illustrate the distinction between syntax and semantics, two key components of linguistic theory.

Syntax is the study of how words are arranged to form sentences according to certain rules or patterns. Semantics is the study of the meaning of words and sentences and how they convey information and intentions. A sentence can be syntactically correct but semantically meaningless, as in Chomsky’s example, or vice versa, as in “I shot an elephant in my pyjamas” (which has two possible meanings depending on how it is parsed).

Much has been written on this topic, but it is beyond my brief – and competence – to dive deep into linguistic theories in this post. Rather this ‘nonsensical’ sentence served to stimulate some thoughts in the domain of leadership.

It is obvious that effective communication is an essential skill for any leader, but it is a non sequitur that senior leaders are effective communicators. ThIs is why Chomsky’s illustration is relevant in the leadership domain.

Communication is not fundamentally about the transmission of ‘content’, though that is often the focus we impose, but rather about the creation of shared understanding and meaning.

The tendency to focus on the content of communication is what I classify as ‘tactical’ communication where the intent is to convey detail. This contrasts with ‘strategic’ communication where the intent is firmly centred on the establishment of a shared understanding through the crafting of a clear and compelling narrative.

Narrative must be understood here in its fullest sense. Not as entertaining storytelling but as defined in Webster as “a way of presenting or understanding a situation or series of events that reflects and promotes a particular point of view.”

Narrative requires semantic elegance. As such, it is one of the most powerful tools available to leaders in their stakeholder engagement responsibilities, in managing-up, and in their critical role as influencers.

However, strategic communication is not a straightforward process. It is influenced by many factors, such as context, culture, values, assumptions, emotions, and expectations of both the sender and the receiver. Communication can be distorted, misunderstood, or misinterpreted by barriers, such as noise, ambiguity, bias, or conflict. Communication can also have unintended consequences, such as creating confusion, mistrust, resentment, or resistance. Therefore, a leader needs to be aware of the complexities and challenges of communication and how to overcome them.

Fundamentally it requires a mindset shift; a shift that posits questions about strategic intent at the very outset of crafting the communication rather than deep diving into Word or PowerPoint. [Other software packages are, of course, available.] Questions such as: what does good look like coming out of this communication; what other agendas are at play; what shared language/understanding exists; where are the synergies; what messages need to be landed to get to ‘good’? Only when that strategic framework is established should the effective communicator attend to the tactical details of content and form.

One of the frameworks that can help a leader to communicate more effectively is careful attention to systems thinking. Systems thinking is an approach that recognises the business/organisational environment as a complex and interconnected system of interdependent elements and relationships. Systems thinking helps a leader to discern the bigger picture and the root causes of problems, rather than focusing on the symptoms and the isolated events.

One interesting contrast between systems thinkers and linear thinkers is that the linear thinker tends to focus on the flow of information across the oversimplified ‘complex system’ and, therefore, places undue emphasis on the content of communication. The systems thinker, by contrast, acknowledges the complexity by looking for patterns within the flow of communications across the system. While not disregarding the content of the communication, the systems thinker pays appropriate regard to the meaning. In Chomsky’s framework, semantics are prioritised over syntax.

Chomsky’s absurd sentence may seem abstract and meaningless, but it is actually a powerful and provocative statement that reveals the complexity and richness of human language and cognition. By coining this sentence, Chomsky has not only challenged and inspired generations of researchers and thinkers to explore the mysteries and marvels of language, but also holds up a powerful reminder to leaders to prioritise the strategic impact of their communication above the tactical burden of, often too much, content.

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