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Leadership Is Language

The Hidden Power of What You Say – and What You Don’t

By David Marquet
  • Read in 18 minutes
  • Audio & text available
  • Contains 11 key ideas
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Leadership Is Language by David Marquet

Leadership is Language (2020) is a playbook for successful team management. Written by a former US Navy captain, it teaches leaders how they can change their language and mindsets in order to improve decision-making, empower workers, and achieve better results.

Key idea 1 of 11

In the traditional approach to management, people are divided into two categories – deciders and doers.

Imagine you’re at work. The day’s over, and you’re getting ready to head out. Some friends are meeting at a nearby bar; maybe you’ll join them. Or maybe it’s better to hit the gym – you could really use the workout. On the other hand, you’re exhausted. Going home for some rest sounds pretty appealing. You pause a minute to weigh each option before making your final decision. Then you pack your bag, walk out the door, and put your plan into action.


You’ve just engaged in the two primary modes of human activity: thinking and doing. You thought about where you wanted to go, and then you went. In your private life, you switch between these modes several times a day. Everybody does. But in the working world, most of us are categorized as either thinkers or doers. That’s because most companies are still run according to models developed in the Industrial Age.

The key message here is: In the traditional approach to management, people are divided into two categories – deciders and doers. 

Over the years, different descriptors and signals have evolved to describe each group: leaders and followers, salaried and hourly, white-collar and blue-collar. The primary – and totally arbitrary – difference between them? One group is charged with making the decisions, and the other with executing them.


This approach is exemplified in Frederick Winslow Taylor’s 1911 book The Principles of Scientific Management. In it, Taylor specifies the single most efficient way for steel mill workers to perform a variety of tasks. The typical worker, for example, was most efficient when shoveling 21 pounds of material at a time. Not 20, not 22 – 21. Exactly 21. The way to improve efficiency, Taylor found, was to reduce variability.


That made sense at the time. In traditional manufacturing industries, after all, standardization was key. Even today, it often makes sense for companies to reduce variability. To mass-produce cars, for example, factories have to build millions of identical parts in rapid succession. To keep customers happy, McDonald’s has to ensure that its burgers come out the same every time. 

But humans, unlike burgers or car parts, are variable. We can’t be divided neatly into the doers and the thinkers. Taylor’s Principles of Scientific Management needs a revamp. 

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