Leading by Thesaurus

The man is not wholly evil – he has a thesaurus in his cabin.

This quote is from J.M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan,” referring to Captain Hook. It is also the opening quote in Jen Bryant and Melissa Sweet’s multi-award winning book, “The Right Word: Roget and His Thesaurus.” Peter Mark Roget (pronounced “Roh-Zhay”), best known for publishing, “Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases” in 1852, is the subject of Bryant and Sweet’s book.

On the first page of “The Right Word,” where Roget is introduced, Bryant really gives flight to the breadth of Peter’s life by providing a listing of words to describe the path from his year of birth, 1779, to the year he died, 1869. They include; Born, Beginning, Baby, Infant, Tadpole, Child, Youth, Lad, Youngster, Whippersnapper, Student, Adolescent, Teen, Scholar, Grown-up, Manhood, Middle-age, Prime of life, Maturity, To wind up, Draw to an end, Close, Died.

Roget grew up loving list making. He lost his father at a young age and list making seemed to provide a sense of comfort, control over the world around him. But there were moments when young Peter seemed unsatisfied when he would heaSweet5r words that didn’t quite capture the thoughts trying to be conveyed. The book shows Peter telling his mother not to “worry” when he came home late one time, but Peter didn’t think worry really captured what his mother was trying to say, so he made a list: Worry, Fret, Grieve, Despair, Intrude, Badger, Annoy, Plague, Provoke, Harass, Enough to drive one mad. It was this type of list-making Peter wanted to share with others.

Peter went on to become a tutor, doctor, husband, and father, all the while continuing to make lists of words. He grouped words, and phrases, by their ideas, not just their meanings, and he wanted his lists to be accessible to all people, including cobblers and factory workers. In 1852 he published his Thesaurus, a word that means “treasure house” in Greek. Roget’s original thesaurus was organized by a plan of classification based on ideas but then later organized alphabetically.

In her author’s note, Jen Bryant shares the following quote:

The use of language is not confined to its being the medium through which we communicate our ideas to one another;…[it functions] as an instrument of thought; not being merely its vehicle, but giving it wings for flight.

–Peter Mark Roget

I really like the last part of this quote, “Instruments of thought, not merely its vehicle, but giving it wings for flight.” While I use a thesaurus on occasion, I have never purposefully used it at moments when I was searching to ground my own leadership thoughts and ideas. I wonder, could using Roget’s Thesaurus help clarify, expand…give flight to my ideas in a new way?

Using an online, modernized version of Roget’s Thesaurus, www.roget.org, I searched on the root word, “lead.” This search brought me to a long list of synonyms, classified and referenced to the original Roget classification system. For example, synonyms for “lead” when using it to express the idea of “accompaniment” included:

 Accompaniment: Escort, Conduct, Marshal, Usher, Shepherd, and Guide

I think this grouping is a great reminder about the essence of leadership talent. At every social gathering you can identify leaders by looking to see, who is being accompanied by others? Whether at a BBQ gathering for your block or a senior executive meeting at the United Nations, leaders emerge at gatherings. The leaders will be the ones who are able to escort, conduct, marshal, usher, shepherd and guide others towards a vision or goals within the context at hand.

All of the “accompaniment” words allowed my mind to take flight with concepts of leading others toward a vision. Because Roget’s classification system is based on alternative ways to express ideas, it can inspire reflection within particular elements of leadership. For example, ask yourself, “When I lead, are others accompanying me, willingly, toward a vision and goals, or just because I hold a box on an organizational chart?”

In the introduction to Roget’s original work, he wrote, “I have accordingly adopted such principles of arrangement as appeared to me to be the simplest and most natural, and which would not require, either for their comprehension or application, any disciplined acumen, or depth of metaphysical or antiquarian lore. Eschewing all needless refinements and subtleties, I have taken as my guide the more obvious characters of the ideas for which expressions were to be tabulated, arranging them under such classes and categories as reflection and experience had taught me would conduct the inquirer most readily and quickly to the object of his search.” I do think having a resource readily at hand that classifies words by the “character of the ideas” they express remains valuable.

Another list of verb synonyms I really liked was grouped by “Cause”:

Cause: Bring, Bring on, Draw on, Call forth, Elicit, Evoke, Draw down, Open the door to, Induce, Procure, Get, Obtain, Contrive, and Effect.

Cause, as a character of leadership action, prompted me to ask questions such as, “When I lead does my language elicit, evoke, draw on, call forth the vision and goals I’m working toward?” “Do I open the door to others so that they can be a part?”

There are 17 unique verb classes for the word “lead”, not to mention the other noun classes. When you see so many synonyms for one word, it becomes clear why leadership is a difficult subject to discuss – it arrives dressed as many different characters.

The next time you are looking for ways to expand your leadership character, visit www.roget.org and do a quick query.   Also make sure to place a copy of “The Right Word” on your shelf as a reminder that words are not just about expressing the meaning of your ideas, but the character of your ideas, giving them wings to take flight.

Do you have a thesaurus in your cabin?