Abstract nouns are rarely the solution in organisations. But they could be.

By Martin Vogel

Some years ago, I was happy to make the acquaintance of Valerie Iles, a leadership consultant whose domain is healthcare. Like me, she brings an interest in mindfulness. But she has a great ability to draw on a diverse range of other ideas. This year, she held a seminar to hand over her body of thinking. I was already running with it. But, in the months since, I’ve enjoyed re-reading some of her articles.

One that stands out is Valerie’s admonishment against reaching for abstract nouns. This is not the usual tirade against meaningless management coinages but a philosophical challenge to how leaders conceive their strategies.

Consider, for example, leadership itself (a noun) and the verb to lead:

“Leading feels active and fleetfooted, leadership somehow feels heavy and more pedestrian. And this seems to happen whatever example you choose – its quite fun to try it with any verb and its associated noun.   Nouns seem to beget nouns, and verbs more verbs. Nouns give us more things to think about, more nouns – like vision, strategy, and performance – and indeed they can keep our brains happily occupied for hours. Verbs give us a sense of action and energy, of fluidity, contingency, flexibility, of possibility. Verbs keep us interacting with others, having to draw on our courage, judgement, integrity and discretion as we do so. Nouns rely on brainpower alone.”

Valerie argues that abstract nouns encourage organisations to opt for easy ways to end the search for a way forward by conjuring up logical solutions that on the face of it make sense but in fact are very difficult to realise. “We need a digital strategy.” Or, “Brexit means Brexit.” Often, what is needed are simple, relational strategies (like having an honest conversation) that are hard only because they draw on qualities – such as courage or judgment – that are difficult to manifest in politicised organisational environments.

Valerie’s maxim that the solution is rarely an abstract noun is a useful rule of thumb. But I think it applies only to the abstract nouns that are so frequently bandied around in business: innovation, programme, initiative and so on.

But there’s a whole group of abstract nouns that can barely be mentioned in polite organisational company. These are the words that describe the values of real life outside the workplace: love, beauty, justice, care. Imagine how it could invigorate management conversation to think seriously about bringing these abstract nouns into the game. When was the last time you heard anyone say: “What we need is more honour in this organisation”?

I was reminded of Valerie’s maxim when I nearly coined a new abstract noun on seeing this Tweet of the Yiddish Word of the Day from the Jewish Museum.


Let’s coin it anyway. Menschism seems a bit thin on the ground at the moment and is something I’d like to see practised a lot more in 2018.

Image courtesy nevermindtheend.