In today’s tough and opportunistic world, we need leaders who are agile. Leaders who are comfortable with ambiguity and not knowing the answers. Leaders who can craft solutions by collaborating and cutting through the complexity. We need resilient leaders who are fit enough to thrive in today’s volatile times. We need leaders who are courageous enough to unlearn old habits and learn news ways of working, develop new habits and use new skills. We need leaders who can operate from a higher purpose and inspire action. We need leaders who can unleash innovation and drive real customer value.
We need leaders who can create a high performance environment where success is inevitable and awaken possibility in people to deliver extraordinary results.
So, how can an interest in – and ability to speak – foreign languages help to give leaders the tools, mindset and mental agility needed to achieve this, both for their own individual success and that of their organisations?
One of the classic myths of learning foreign languages is that if you don’t do it when you’re young, with all that available time and brain space, you’ve got little or no chance in later life especially if you’re a busy professional with a bulging schedule and a multitude of plates to keep spinning.
Another similar truism is that with English being the ‘international language’, there’s just no commercial reason or benefit for a senior executive to even consider it as an option for them when there are so many other priorities to focus on.
Let’s bust the first myth. Aside from the fact that adults are equally capable of learning a language as children (they just go about it in a different way), business leaders are, generally speaking, more capable than most of learning a new language. This is because the skills required to lead successfully are similar to those required to learn a new language successfully.
Effective leaders possess the curiosity and broad horizons to want to immerse themselves in something completely new and alien to them, like learning a whole new system of communication from zero.
They have a strong sense of purpose as to know exactly why they’re setting off on such an ambitious new challenge, and exactly what they want to achieve through learning that language.
They are personally courageous enough to step out of their comfort zone and accept some level of vulnerability and risk as they take those first uncertain steps into the learning process.
They know how to set tough but achievable goals in their learning programme, and they regularly and objectively assess themselves against those goals in order to ensure that they continue to progress and improve.
They have the mental capacity to cut through the complexity inherent in a new language to find a learning technique amongst the plethora of available options that work for them and gets them to where they want to be as quickly as possible.
And, they possess the enormous amounts of resilience and positivity needed to stay motivated and get through the inevitable frustrations and difficult moments, where others may just give up.
We can bust the second myth by exploring some of the hard-and-fast reasons why leaders should view language speaking abilities as a professional differentiator on a number of levels, and look at their own abilities (or lack thereof) as a priority focus and area of improvement for them.
Connect instantly, build better relationships faster
❝If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his own language, that goes to his heart.❞
First impressions matter, and they last. The ability to connect with another person quickly and deeply – whether it is a potential or actual customer, business partner, colleague, employee or a prospective new recruit – is often crucial to differentiating yourself and achieving the desired outcome from that connection.
Put another way, the difference between your company winning a contract or JV in Spain or South America and your competitor winning it could be who builds an instant connection with the decision-maker simply by being able to have those critical initial discussions in Spanish (or Portuguese in the case of Brazil). If you’re looking to recruit a market-leading local team into your company for a new operation in, for instance, Shanghai, the ability to start the interviews with a few words in Chinese could be the deciding factor in them joining or not.
Communicate with greater impact (including in your own language!)
❝Those who know nothing of foreign languages know nothing of their own.❞
‒Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
❝You can never understand one language until you understand at least two.❞
It almost goes without saying that your ability to communicate with greater impact, to a greater number of people, in a greater range of situations, improves with the addition of a new language to your arsenal. However, it might be less obvious that it can also help you understand and utilise your first language better. Learning a foreign language involves laser focus on the mechanics of language: grammar, conjugations, sentence structure, all things that you do instinctively (and sometimes lazily) in your own language. This makes you more aware of the ways language per se can be structured and manipulated, helping you to be a more effective communicator and a sharper editor and writer, in any language including your native one. Given effective listening is an essential skill for outstanding communicators (and leaders), it is useful to note that it is believed that multiple language speakers also develop a better ‘ear’ through all that active listening in their language learning experience.
Improve your own mental skillset
There have been hundreds of studies into the benefits to the brain of knowing a new language, unanimously agreeing that it improves cerebral functionality due to the challenge of recognising, deciphering and communicating in a different language system – something that transfers into many other areas of your life.
By being able to juggle between two more language systems, your ability to juggle multiple priorities and generally multitask improves. Similarly, learning a new language involves memorising rules and vocabulary, strengthening your mental “muscle”, so much so that linguists retain other types of information better. Multilingual people might be more perceptive, due to being better at observing their surroundings, focusing on relevant information and editing out the irrelevant. You may even make better decisions – linguists can strip away the nuance and subtle implications in their native vocabulary which can subconsciously bias judgment by thinking it over more logically in their second language. Finally, on a basic level, it’s a big boost to the self-confidence to have that feeling of personal success in achieving the ability to communicate in another language.
Career enhancement – mobility, promotion and new role identification
❝One language sets you in a corridor for life. Two languages open every door along the way.❞
❝The limits of my language are the limits of my world.❞
The ability to speak a second language opens up a world of possibilities for people at all stages and all levels of their careers. This is especially true in the modern ‘connected’ global business world where companies of all shapes and sizes have interests, offices or operations in multiple countries. For leaders of businesses, linguistic abilities can definitely provide an edge in both increasing and realising the choices open to you, whether you want to expand or change your current role, consider where in the world you are capable of living and working, and enhance the skill-set you can demonstrate in these situations.
These are some compelling arguments. However, don’t just take our word for it. Take the word of Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook (English and Chinese), or of Michael Bloomberg of Bloomberg LP (English and Spanish), or of Leo Apotheker of Hewlett Packard and formerly SAP (English, Dutch, French, German and Hebrew), or of Paul Bulcke of Nestle (Dutch, French, English, Spanish, Portuguese and German), or of Tidjane Thiam, of Credit Suisse (French, German and English). All of these CEOs understand the importance of their other language(s) in helping them to get where they are now, and in shaping their future success.
Maybe you should too?