The Language of Leadership

leadership, leadership development, storytelling, messaging, language, communicationYesterday, I spent the afternoon with the brave and audacious participants of the University of Washington’s Nonprofit Executive Leadership Institute (NELI). As one who believe that word nerdery will change the world, I invited the group to explore the language of leadership, a.k.a. “leaderly language”. (No, leaderly is not officially a word. Roll with it.)

We spent a chunk of time looking at how to use language to create messages that create stories that inspire action from both internal and external stakeholders. No small task, for sure. Yet one made much easier with a good S.U.N. Story in hand.

If you’ve never heard of a leader’s S.U.N. story, you’re not alone. It’s an acronym I made up to make it easier to remember  Marshall Ganz’s recommendation that leaders always think of telling three stories in one:

  1. Story of Self: why you have been called
  2. Story of Us: why we have been called
  3. Story of Now: the urgent challenge on which we are called to act

See? A SUNny story.

Ganz outlined this idea in his 2008 article, “What is public narrative?”  It’s based on Hillel’s famous quote:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Leaders who use language effectively have answered Hillel’s three questions and know how to calibrate their answers to the setting and their audience. The ‘us’ changes based on context and therefore the ‘self’ and ‘now’ must always be adjusted accordingly. For instance, the ‘us’ of you and a new donor is different than the ‘us’ that is you and your staff. Being able to share why you were drawn to your work and how that relates to the task–or moment–at hand creates a sense of intimacy and purpose.

A leader will have  many S.U.N. Stories in their story arsenal. The art is knowing when to use which one.

If you want to see a great S.U.N. Story in action, check out the Harmony Project’s Margaret Martin’s Social Innovation Fast Pitch. That’s a whole lot of SUNny awesomeness, right?

[Hat tip to Andy Goodman for bringing the idea three stories of one back on my radar.]

Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?