I recently attended a motivational event online led by a number of very successful business people. Important topics were discussed including motivation, achieving success, goal setting and people skills. I have tons of respect for these individuals – they’re passionate about what they do, they’re highly skilled, they help people and they make good money doing it.

One relatively small point that came up in that event got me thinking about how the nuances of language use can be very important in how we think, feel and behave in business. Sometimes what I find is due to societal and cultural reinforcement of ideas, the message that’s intended to be delivered is mixed up with an underlying context and feeling that may undermine the intended positive message. It’s something to think about, especially if you’re in a leadership position.

Shine or combust

The particular statement I’d like to unpack is: “Light yourself on fire and people will come watch you burn”. This was in a top 10 list of success principles. I’m sure most people understood the sentiment – get yourself fired up, excited, passionate and work hard and your success will attract others to follow you. I think there are better, more elegant ways to inspire and deliver this positive message as you’ll see below.

Language reflects a broader context and sentiment

If you take a step back and look at our society from a broader perspective, this statement reflects some less than positive human characteristics. For example, it reflects the tendency of being attracted to watching others endure pain or difficulty – the proverbial dumpster fire or train wreck. Should leaders inspire others to pay attention to them by making spectacles of themselves? Should we follow others only due to their own personal success or based on whether or not they’re visible? We all know this is not to be taken literally, however; subconsciously the connotation and context reflects negative emotions and aspects of human behaviour. We can change emotions and behaviour by changing the context.  

The other connotation of this phrase is linked with martyrdom. A measure of self-sacrifice for the good of others can be a positive thing, but not when the underlying feeling is being burned alive. Again, it’s not literal but language does have a way of provoking emotional responses in the subconscious. The subconscious feeling itself can emerge as a base level of fear, anxiety and stress and it’s usually not clear to us where this is coming from. We all feel it sometimes, don’t we?

Changing how we feel by changing language

We can affect positive change in the way we feel about work if we recognize and separate out some of this context and connotation that we are bombarded with daily in our lives. It’s a function of the society we live in, and creates this self-fulfilling prophecy where these behaviours and contexts are so familiar to us and constantly reflected back at us that we don’t even see or recognize them for what they are, or how they impact us. They just seem normal, but that doesn’t mean we should choose to accept them. We naturally and unknowingly incorporate them into our work, our conversations, our training, and our leadership meetings.

Substance and meaning over aesthetics

Now let’s compare two ways of saying something similar. Option 1 – “Light yourself on fire and people will come watch you burn”. Option 2 – “Be the wick that hosts the flame that lights the way for others”.

There are a lot of positive messages incorporated in option 2, even if it doesn’t have ‘shock value’. Do we want to be ‘good sounding’ or do we want to have ‘substance’?  As a leader, it’s important to be able to bear or manage burdens for others – to lead by example. A wick is enduring – not immediately consumed by the flame but rather it acts as a host for the flame. The wick bears the heat as it persists. The flame – your flame – lights the path ahead for others so they can see where they’re going. This does not imply people are watching you burn simply because it’s a spectacle. It implies you are elevating people by helping them find their way as you struggle to find yours.

Who are we fighting for, and for what purpose?

It’s not about fighting against the world, alone, to climb to the top and sit on a pedestal for everyone to eventually see and idolize. It’s about fighting for (not against) others – where your battle and journey has a greater purpose beyond your own success. This purpose will drive you. Help lead others by bearing the burden to illuminate the path to their success, and you will have lasting respect and admiration.

So let me ask you, what sorts of examples of language use do you notice in your workplace that could be changed to break out of this sort of cycle?

Credit to BasselsJ for the quote and inspiration – he’s a shining example of this sentiment

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