Every organization – from your family of origin to the United Nations – has a particular communications landscape that can tell you how they define a good leader. While many organizations will point to a mission statement, a vision statement or clever copy on their website to tell you what is important to them in terms of leadership, you’ll find a more authentic picture with a little intentional observation of the language landscape. Whether you’re an aspiring leader, a current executive or just trying to determine whether a company might be a good fit, you can use a basic assessment to better understand the culture.

A basic language landscape assessment will look at three areas: values, lexicon and heroes. Together, these elements paint a picture of what behaviors and actions are lauded and encouraged within an organization. Take a few minutes and briefly assess these three primary areas for the organizations to which you belong (or would like to belong). The results will help guide your next steps.


Many companies have a list of values that they share wide and far. The actual culture may or may not be in alignment with those carefully crafted public messages. Assess the values of a company by watching how questions are answered, conflict is managed and what really happens when people find themselves in high stress situations. You may not want to work with a group that seeks shortcuts, prioritizes flash over substance or works hard to ingratiate themselves to those in charge. If, however, you find yourself in that situation, your observation has given you the information you need to make good decisions about how to move forward.


Word choices show what we value most on a personal level and the same is true of organizations. Take a look at how often employees are praised for their personal daring, driving or ambition (agentic language) versus how often kudos go out to those who exhibit collaboration, team building and thoughtfulness (communal language). Listen for the way leaders talk about clients, competitors and staff. Do they speak with respect and work to build bridges or are they more interested in one-upping others to maintain their superiority?


Finally, observe who a company sets up as heroes. Who gets the praise, wins the bonus or takes the trip to the game with the boss? What similarities can you see in these people? Do they always make the executive team look great? Are they charismatic? Do they consistently deliver on sales goals? The heroes we choose show what we value and also reflect on who we are as leaders. A leader who celebrates a cut-throat, win at all costs employee contributes to a culture very differently than one who shines a light on a staffer who has consistently worked to build a collaboration or develop a new, more efficient system.

Whether you want to better understand your own company culture or decide if an organization has a culture that you want to be a part of, using this basic framework for assessment can get you started!

Talk to you next week,

Amber D. Nelson



P.S. Today and tomorrow I’m at the Idaho Women’s Leadership Conference speaking on the Language of Leadership.  In October we’ll begin registration for an in-depth, six-week online course by the same name. If you’re interested in learning more about our online class, simply go to our website and put yourself on the list!

Cover of Amber Nelson's book, "Talk to Me"

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