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‘Do not let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition’ ~ Steve Jobs
This article argues that military personnel need to take more care with the language they accept and consider the words they use more carefully. The example I use is; lizard. Leaders often don’t realise when they use or accept degrading language and it undermines our ability to lead. And yet, the fundamental problem here is not a misuse of words. It is the absence of a culture that embraces reasonable challenge and isn’t curious enough about the words in use or what they mean. This inadvertently permits sexism and other unacceptable behaviours.
The solution? Leaders must be more curious about the words they use, what they really mean, and the impact they have. Moving from lazy insults to only using, and accepting, professional language will make us more effective and increasingly inclusive. This change would create a cultural shift to one which encourages challenge and nurtures quality followership.
To demonstrate how followership is the missing link between language, inappropriate behaviour, and a challenge culture, this article explores the use of the word ‘lizard’. This is a term used to describe people who are perceived to be substandard and it is increasingly common in everyday military use. ‘Lizard’ is a metaphor for bad leadership and a culture of followership that doesn’t feel capable of calling it out. The words we use form the core of organisations we are part of; the use of lazy language is one thing, followers being unable to call it out is another. But make no mistake, this is not another ‘woke’ article. This is about getting the best from our people. This article makes the case for using professional language instead of lazy insults.
Let’s start with a common statement:
“I don’t mind being called a lizard, so you must be wrong!”
What does ‘lizard’ even mean? Language is organic, and the meaning of words evolve over time. Currently, and predominantly, military personnel use it when insulting colleagues as lazy or idle. It appears, for the most part, to be an Army colloquialism that is associated with low performance. That being so, for those of us who have served a while it has an entirely different connotation. It has previously been used as a derogatory reference to service women and in an oppressive, sexist, and degrading context. Accepting its use was a de facto acceptance of the behaviours it generated.
A deeper look at ‘lizard’ shows that the word is actually more damaging than many realise. For example, it is a grave insult in Thailand. The Thai name for a ‘monitor lizard’ is used as one of the worst insults and curse words in the Thai language and its use is often met with revulsion and anger. So much so that breaking this social taboo risks a 15-year prison sentence or heavy fines.
’Lizard’ has lots of other meanings:
- In Roman mythology, ‘lizards’ are associated with death and destruction.
- In Greece in 420 – 405 BCE coins were struck with Athena the goddess of war which include lizard iconography to represent her enemies.
- Urban Dictionary currently defines ‘lizard’ as truck stop whore.
- For Jewish people ‘lizard’ is a seriously insulting and disparaging remark.
‘Lizard’ is a hostile word
The key point is that ’lizard’ was, and remains, a hostile and aggressive word. It is not ‘banter’ it’s an insult. Making superfluous and degrading remarks, especially when we don’t know the audience, isn’t a good look for any military professional. Nor is it inspiring. Nor is it inclusive. Were you curious enough to understand the word before using it? ‘Lizard’ is the opposite of our values.
What happens if a service person shares any of these understandings? It’s not ok to simply insult them, nor should it be acceptable. Yet, the use of ‘lizard’, and similar language, is increasing across military cultures as leaders deem it acceptable. Followers who don’t call it out form part of the problem, but they cannot be held responsible.
It takes a curious leader to know their people, generate the right conversations, and lead through language. It might be that ‘lizard’ is just the fad word of the moment, yet, it appears to be persistent. It’s meaning is, paradoxically, unspoken. People interpret meanings based on context and how they perceive the speaker. Over time, cultures become used to hearing derogatory terminology and words become part of everyday language. But that does not make it right. You might remember the word ‘gay’ being widely used to describe something contemptible. Now, for the most part, ‘gay’ is a thing of the past and rightly so. If, after reading this far you still think ‘lizard’ is an acceptable word to use, you’re probably part of the problem.
“‘Lizard’ isn’t sexist though, is it!”
‘Lizard’ is particularly offensive to our sisters in arms and reinforces stereotypes of women in uniform. It’s use demonstrates a culture which normalises misogynistic ideology.
The acceptance of any derogatory term pushes social values in the wrong direction, it changes attitudes, and reinforces prejudices. Service women of today already face a wealth of oppressive issues such as gender bias and perceived incongruity between the female gender role and leadership roles. Leaders shouldn’t allow language to become another one.
‘Lizard’ may be considered by some as a gender neutral term yet this hides the intent behind its use which is to degrade the subject. I’d wager you wouldn’t want someone to call your daughter/sister/mother a ‘lizard’. Men referring to women in this way is unhelpful at best. This isn’t about patriarchy, it is about respecting others, especially so when women’s voices are already systematically dampened in male dominated organisations. Our words and our language reflect who has power and how that power is perceived. It’s always been about power, and without a challenge culture we will not see a meaningful change any time soon.
“Chill out! My friend is female, she doesn’t care and says you’re wrong”
This is an important observation. Banter can be a cover for aggression that reinforces division within a group and leads to bullying. Any term that dehumanises, disregards, and disrespects women is not the way forward in the battle for inclusivity. Female misogyny, of which there is plenty around, is a thing. And this kind of misogyny can be more toxic than when men do it. As an organisation we will not be able to remove sexism in the workplace if people become complacent over ‘minor’ things such as using ‘lizard’. Using ‘lizard’ to reference women, while being defended as ‘okay’ by women, fosters cultural acceptance and hinders progress.
Sometimes women tolerate or fail to acknowledge abuse, even minor examples, as a way of dissociating themselves from the perception of ‘victim’ or ‘weakness’. In some cases, women do their utmost to separate themselves from other women, claiming a special status or male identification. Defence does not want women to act like men, it wants women to be themselves; cognitive diversity depends on it. Words like ‘lizard’ reinforce this trend and create cultural norms which stop people from challenging our culture.
In the absence of a reasonable challenge culture, groups of people feel they are unable to dismantle or change something which contradicts their moral code and are left with few options. They can try to confront behaviours informally but risk being socially disenfranchised. They can take to social media anonymously, with limited likelihood of individual success. And they can try to report their grievances in a more formal manner. You probably have your own view on how effective this might be. For the most part people simply disengage from the organisation and issues remain unreported leading many to argue there isn’t a problem. In agreement with the image below, poor cultural language is the first step to contributing to sexual violence and other inappropriate behaviours. If you’re still not convinced that language doesn’t lead to cultural issues the Wigston Report on inappropriate behaviours is full of evidence to the contrary.
What’s the solution?
The language of an organisation is moderated by its leaders and supported through institutional discourses. Leaders choose how to use language to perform the action of leadership. And every time a leader speaks they are being judged by their listeners. The language we use, and the language we accept, is vital to establish the level of influence we can have over others and how well teams perform. Changing our language requires leaders to be more curious about the words they use. It also requires curious followers to assess language critically and not to mirror poor behaviour. Switching to professional language solves this problem.
Importance of followership
In an organisation where followership is fully embraced everybody progressively wins. Leaders and followers want to boost morale, support our ethos, and deeply contribute to an emotional wellbeing that recognises people as humans so that they can perform at their best. Leaders contribute to this with professional and inclusive language.
Yet, this is not the exclusive responsibility of a leader. We all need to remain curious about the world around us, and more so about the people around us, if we want to nurture trust and reap the plentiful rewards of true mutual understanding. Everyone needs to understand our language while demanding professional and appropriate use of it. And followers must hold leaders accountable for it.
The military’s rigid obedience and strict conformity culture means that reasonable challenge is far from widely embraced. But calling for more appropriate language is not a challenge. If we expect a shift in culture to make room for changes needed to overcome the issues mentioned in this article, including ‘lizard’ culture, leaders need to fully embrace dissenting discourse. They need to let go of power so that they’re able to accept truths and be appropriately supportive.
Our people need to be able to follow in a meaningful way and they cannot do this without feeling that they can speak the truth to authority figures. People cannot wholeheartedly support the goals of the organisation, or the decisions agreed with their leaders, unless said leaders give them the freedom to follow in an impactful and meaningful way. Maintaining professional language is a critical part of enabling this by building a sense of trust and comradeship.
This article started with a single word; ‘lizards’. It ended with an argument for accountability and empowering followers to create cultural change. The language we use and the actions or behaviours we embody permeates into others. Yes, quality leaders do create more leaders. But, they create leaders who know how to follow truthfully, courageously, purposefully, and meaningfully. They encourage thinking, rather than just claiming they do in their email signature block. Too many followers fear telling unfiltered truths and too many leaders don’t want to hear it. Being truly inclusive as a leader is a force-multiplier. Accepting words like ‘lizard’ is the opposite of what we need to be.
Language evolves but it is the cornerstone of who we are. ‘Lizard’ is the opposite of our values yet it exists in our organisation. When leaders are eager to learn more and explore the accepted use of this term worrying questions begin to surface. This isn’t about being woke. It’s about knowing that language matters if we want our teams to flourish. The use of ‘lizard’ is a metaphor for this. It is a degrading word that has become common across the military. Using it degrades your people and stops them from following you optimally.
Leaders need to stop talking about ‘empowerment’ and start letting go of power. All leaders need to fully understand followership, and how difficult it is to be a truly committed follower, so that they can allow this to take place. If our followers don’t feel confident in calling out inappropriate language it indicates a deeper cultural problem. This isn’t about soldiers asking their commanders ‘why?’ on the battlefield, and it’s not about being troublemakers or cynics. To fix this, we need curious leaders to allow a reasonable challenge culture to exist and help to create it by ditching words like ‘lizard’. Our followers cannot perform optimally unless we let them make us uncomfortable.
And above all, dear reader, I implore you to seek the truth from your followers. All of it. Because if you don’t, you will not get the whole truth or subsequently address embedded or emerging issues, and that will continue to cause organisational harm. It’s time to drop lazy insults and use professional language.
Phil Mitten is a serving SNCO with operational experience in Afghanistan. A Centre for Army Leadership Activist with a keen interest in the lived experience of personnel, much of his focus is on ground level leadership, followership, retention, and personnel development. During his service he self-studied a Masters in Education with a leadership and management specialisation, and an Honours Degree in History.