In an age in which our nation’s attention span is barely more than 140 characters, effective leaders must think carefully about their word choice. Words have power on their own – and they truly come alive in context. 

The word “wall” has been in the news for months. President Trump made building a wall a central tenant of his campaign. Looking at one definition of wall, “a rampart used for defensive purposes,” the word on its own can be a bit innocuous. Yet, when we look deeper at many of the idioms that evoke wall imagery, we discern more about the true impact of the word. 

Climb the walls: become agitated, tense or frantic

Go over the wall: break out of prison

Go to the wall: to be defeated, fail, to be put aside or forgotten

Up against the wall: to be in a critical position where defeat or failure seem imminent

In various contexts, walls send a clear message: there is a barrier that prevents connection or success. Yet, when the wall appears the desire to get around it, or over, under, etc., becomes paramount.

The current discussion of “building a wall,” has profound leadership implications for our nation. For centuries, the United States has been associated with openness to those committed to our values. As the President moves forward with plans to build a wall the impact reverberates powerfully through our nation’s psyche and has leadership implications both at home and abroad. 

In more than 25 years of working to develop public leaders and leadership, I have yet to witness a wall as a pathway to a solution—they are by their definition opposites. Healthy boundaries are important, as is the valuing of those on both sides of an issue. For those who are interested in the pursuit of genuine and enduring solutions that build consensus instead of division, we must begin by seeking places of connection – and we must choose words that reflect that.