[Notes From Harvard] Leadership English

By Jason Lim

Cambridge, Mass. _ Bertrand Russell, in his Outline of Philosophy, wrote, “What is distinctively human at the most fundamental is the capacity to persuade and be persuaded.” And what do we use as the tool of persuasion, which is, as defined by Russell, what actually makes us human beings? Language. More specifically, the English language. In today’s globalized world-held together by instantaneous communication that connects partners, decision-makers, and statesmen from countless ethnic and cultural backgrounds-we use English as our common medium of persuasion. Not just to persuade, but also to be persuaded by others.

What is persuasion, then? Persuasion, in short, is getting someone else to change their mind and realign their thoughts to your argument. There is no force involved. You have to convince others to change their minds through the sheer power of persuasion. Unfortunately, we already know how difficult it is for people to change their minds. As John Kenneth Galbraith put it nicely, “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”

This is why persuasion is almost synonymous with leadership. It’s such a large part of the leadership equation. It is easy for a manager in a strict hierarchy to order his underling to do something specific. However, we know that energy and creativity are key factors driving any successful organization. Energy and creativity are only possible in influencial incarnations in a leadership environment which is not arbitrarily enforced. This system encourages passionate commitment of individual free will.

In this vein, Dwight D. Eisenhower stated, ‘’Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.’’ This definition of leadership is more insightful because it is coming from one of the most celebrated military commanders of the 20th century, and as a key part of his job, could literally order hundreds of thousands of people to their deaths. Even for Eisenhower, leadership is about persuasion, not order.

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How does this relate to English? Let me first ask another question.

As a Korean, why do you learn English? Perhaps you want to watch movies without subtitles, or understand rap lyrics from 50 Cent, or enhance your personal skills as an executive, manager, and academic in today’s global economy? My guess is it’s probably the latter. If so, your purpose is to increase your leadership potential by improving your skills at persuasion.

Your study of English is not merely enabling you to say, “What’s up?” to an American, or speak with the easy, everyday fluency of native English speakers. Not only is that not realistic, it’s not even salient. Fluency does not automatically translate into persuasiveness. The English you should be studying should be to influence others. As such, English study should be specifically focused on persuasion. In short, you need to study Leadership English.

We all know that we work more efficiently and improve results when we have a vision for our plans. Without such a vision, how can you expect to generate enough lasting enthusiasm to make it all worthwhile? For a moment, forget about yourself. What about the children? With all the money that we are spending on English education to help them get a ‘leg up’ on global competition, are we sure that they are learning to be leaders as well as English speakers? With all the time and effort we expect our children to sacrifice in the name of English, are we sure that they will be that much ahead when everything is said and done? Have your children understood the vision of studying English? Have you, or are you, forcing your children to study English because everyone else is doing so? Is it fear, or vision, that’s driving you and your childrens’ education?

I believe that Kant said that we invariably forget what we set out to do. We have all experienced the frustration of losing our way because we were so caught up in the specific details of the process itself. Then we look up and realize that we are in a different place from where we wanted to be in the first place. This happened because we lost our vision.

This is why we need to remind ourselves the original purpose of learning English, as well as learning any other foreign language. We study English not just to be skilled in the language, but to enhance our position in the world. Let’s keep reminding ourselves of that.

Jason Lim is a graduate student at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government.

David Hng

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