Speech Acts That Evoke the Future

Transformational leaders recognize that the future is won by those who invent it, and not by those that simply respond to its arrival. They understand the importance and power of initiative at a much deeper level than the average person.

Initiative is an act of strategy. Initiative literally means to open, cause, source, and lead. In fact, these four action words constitutes the work of transformational leadership:

  • to open a passage from the present to the future
  • to source breakthroughs in thinking, action and relationship
  • to cause change that overcomes the status quo and builds positive momentum
  • and to lead others on a meaningful and exciting journey to accomplish collective goals

Initiative is the power that evokes the future. In order to perform this transformational act you must speak into being actions that bridge the present to the future. During a recent speaking engagement, General Romeo Dallaire, who led the U.N. peacekeeping troops in Rwanda, explained that military officers study action verbs for years to ensure that they can provide such articulation instantly, with precision, and under any condition.


Because leaders must be ready and equipped to initiate action to capture opportunities before they appear. There is not a moment to lose-we must be prepared to act at the drop of a hat if we are to be successful.

Commitments, questions, requests and gestures are four speech acts that evoke the future and initiate action.

Opening the future through commitment

commitment is a speech act that pledges our allegiance to an ideal, a cause, a course of action. When we make a commitment, we give our word that what we have pledged to do will happen. We are duty-bound to uphold that pledge even in the face of tremendous challenges. Commitments bind the heart, intellect and will together in a human combustion system powerful enough to overturn the status quo and generate massive changes.

Commitments are important vehicles for transformational leadership. They cause an opening for creative thinking and resourcefulness, the activities required to make significant advances towards objectives and goals. Commitments are also agents of accountability. They provide tangible measures to ensure that transformational leaders deliver on their word.

A powerful commitment made by Princess Margaret Hospital Foundation is to cancer research and treatment. The Princess Margaret is one of the top five cancer research centers in the world. They are committed to “conquering cancer in our lifetime.” That’s a bold and inspiring commitment that will require breakthroughs at all levels of the organization.

What commitment will you make that require you and your organization to change and grow?

Sourcing breakthroughs through Questions

 Question everything.

Breakthroughs in thinking, action and relationships, the three cornerstones of manifestation, are sourced primarily through questions. Questions uncover opportunities to see what is currently working, what is not working, and what must be strengthened and improved in pursuit of our commitments and goals. Through sustained inquiry, transformational leaders source breakthroughs.

A question is a probe that we send into the future. We follow that probe with a combination of continuous inquiry, imagination, creativity and learning to understand the new geography that our questions source.

This is not critical thinking, which often carries a bias to negative examination. Rather, it is an affirmative, disciplined, exploration of what is emerging. Albert Einstein reminds us that our questions are an important means of penetrating the unknown territory of the future:

“The important thing is not to stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing. One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery every day. Never lose a holy curiosity.”

Are we asking the right questions at work, at home, and in the community? This is the transformational leader’s mantra to ensure that the quality of inquiry is sustained over the long term and that the natural curiosity of people in the organization is encouraged and supported.

Causing change through Requests

    Asking the right questions produces significant insight and opportunity to align our organizations and teams with the preferred future. The third speech act –requests – is the driving force behind causing change.


    The word request comes from the same root as require which means to search for, or deem necessary. A request is the act of asking for something to be given or done. The more specific a request, the easier it is for others to respond with effective action. Author Kim Krisco identifies three requirements for a clear request:

    “Saying exactly what you want.

    Saying exactly when you want it.

    And saying exactly whom you want it from.”

    The ability to make a clear and timely request greatly increases the capacity of others to act with purpose and accelerates the journey forward. Too many organizations are driven by complaints. That is a remedial approach, not a proactive approach. Complaints are based in the past. Requests are the language of the future. Transformational leaders turn complaints into requests and empower action.

    What requests will you make to advance creative collaboration in your workplace or community?

    Leading through Gesture

    The words of leaders take on more meaning and impact when they are accompanied by gestures. It’s the difference between hearing a battle commander say “take that hill” - and “follow me!”

    Gestures by leaders announce that they have “skin in the game.” It is one thing to hear pronouncements about the way forward and something else to see someone actively engaged in trailblazing. The trailblazer leads through a combination of word and gesture, but it is the gesture that always convinces.

    gesture is a bold action that shatters the status quo through the force of commitment. A gesture allows a new possibility to emerge due to its courage, positive impact and ultimately, profound significance. Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on a bus is such a gesture. Pope John Paul 11 forgiving his assailant is another example. Nelson Mandela inviting his jailor to his presidential inauguration is a third example of the power of gestures.

    What gestures will you make to encourage the engagement and contributions of others?


    Commitments, questions, requests and gestures are the vocabulary of transformational leaders. These leaders recognize that active engagement in unfolding the future is required for success.

    It is not enough to dream.

    We must be prepared to do the necessary work to bridge the present to the future. That bridge unfolds through the manifest power of language.

    Posted on September 1, 2009 .