The Best Leadership Advice?: Learn to be an Interpreter

A recent trip to Ukraine really highlighted to me just how important interpretation and translation are to effectiveness.  During a leadership session I was conducting, I was reminded of how many words or phrases I use that are clichés or cultural idioms that don’t translate to other cultures. It was also challenging to pace my comments and remain patient as the words were passed on by the interpreter. A typical training exercise, which normally requires only an hour, took twice as long to complete because of the interpretation delay. Not only did I have to modify the words I used to ensure the interpreter could effectively translate for the Ukrainian audience, but in order to fit the exercise into the time allotted, I had to reduce the amount of content by using fewer words.

Typically, when we think of interpretation we only think of language, but when I returned from the trip, I began thinking that this concept has an impact on how we look at organizations and leadership. Aren’t leaders required to be effective interpreters are well? They constantly evaluate situations and are asked to translate them into effective actions to benefit the organization. How important is this skill? Leaders with effective interpretation skills seem to see the unseen, understand what others don’t, get to the heart of a matter, and have a unique perspective on current conditions which influences their vision of the future. Applying their interpretation skills enables them to effectively translate their unique situational understanding into the right activities for productivity and performance. Although this concept of leadership interpretation goes beyond language interpretation, it has a similarly significant impact on outcomes in terms of both time and effectiveness.


So, what do leaders need to interpret? Here’s a short list of leadership advice for those looking to achieve a competitive advantage through the mastering of interpretation skills.

  • Data: In a recent global survey conducted by IBM, one CEO complained about being, “data rich and insight poor.”  Leaders need to interpret the deluge of information they receive, make sense of it all, and translate it to appropriate action to move forward and get results.

  • Interpersonal Conflict and Team Dynamics: Effective leaders need to understand what’s happening beyond what they personally experience. Often unable to directly observe all day-to-day activities firsthand, leaders must combine existing situational knowledge with new information to construct the full picture. If the boss doesn’t have an ability to read between the lines, he/she is often the last to know when things are going off track.

  • Customer Satisfaction: Leaders need to get inside the head of their collective customers and not only understand their wants, but anticipate their needs in order to help them effectively bridge the gap.

  • The Environment: No organization operates in a vacuum. The leader needs to keep his/her eyes and ears to the ground for the social, economic and political dynamics that potentially have an impact.
  • Employee Talent and Fit: The best leaders seem to be able to bring out the best in people. One critical factor is the ability to see that not all employees fit into the role they’ve been assigned. A simple but vital piece of leadership advice is to interpret this gap effectively to turn a poor performer into a star by making the talents of that individual fit into the appropriate role.
  • Communication: Although this actually is similar to language translation, in this case the leader needs to be able to see beyond the words to the true meaning of the messages they receive throughout their day. The interpreters in Ukraine gave me valuable leadership advice, teaching me that good interpreters translate word for word, but great translators go beyond the word to ensure that the meaning is equal to the intention of the message. Leaders evaluate and understand the underlying messages and motivations of all the varied communications they receive.

When you look at leadership characteristics, consider the power and importance of interpretation and translation as a key trait in measuring the ability of the leader to be an outstanding performer.

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