[September 15, 2014] When I was a Battalion Commander and not elegant in the use of the English language, I learned a few things. Yes, it’s true my grandmother told me that I should learn quickly so “other people don’t pay a price for your ignorance.” I once mistakenly called a Platoon Leader the name Commander. The former is usually a Lieutenant and the latter a Captain in rank. By calling him a commander I was communicating that he was to be promoted to the rank of Captain. Lesson – the names we use as leaders makes a difference.
In my example, while it did provide a bit of shock value to the Platoon Leader, it was easily corrected and later we were able to laugh about it. To him initially it was no joke and neither was it meant as a joke. I simply used the wrong name; I was sloppy and it caused the Lieutenant a bit of grief. No harm ultimately came of it and we both learn something valuable.
At the most senior level, names take on an even more important role. The use of names can be part of a major propaganda effort. A few days ago, I noted that the U.S. Whitehouse uses the term Islamic State of the Levant (ISIL) while most others use Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). The terrorist organization simply uses the term Islamic State. And here is the problem! There is a fight going on about the propaganda use of the name. When the terrorist organization uses IS, they mean that they stand for all those in the world who are Islamic. When the Whitehouse uses the term ISIL, they refer to a Sunni Islamic group geographically bound by the Levant1 (the eastern Mediterranean area). When others use ISIS, they mean the same Sunni group bound by Iraq and Syria2. The terms used in the West are vastly more limiting and give notice that we don’t respect the terror group’s broader definition.
The names we use matters and for senior leaders we must use extreme caution in what we say. While this is self-evident to a degree, the symbolic reference can mean a big difference in communications. Not understanding the nature of the “name” can cause us to give the wrong impression and, in the ISIS example, we could have unknowingly given a terror group a propaganda victory.
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