Everybody’s talking about … Leverage
For many defenders of the English language this poor, unsuspecting word is the grandfather of nouns converted into verbs for the convenience of business. But should we allow it to continue to be pimped out to the dim and lazy or at least try to rehabilitate it as a noun?
Where did it come from?
It was Archimedes who said, ‘Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.’ Archimedes was an ancient Greek mathematician, physicist, engineer and inventor credited with the explanation of the lever and the invention of a screw pump still used today – the Archimedes screw.
Clearly, he was a smart guy and he’d probably be spinning in his grave like a ceiling fan if he knew his wise observation had been corrupted by mediocre business executives intent on looking more competent than they really are.
When it made its way into business speak is unknown, and who we should blame for it is equally obscure.
But what does it mean?
Leverage is used to imply an assisted or additional advantage. In the same way that Archimedes could move something immovable with the help of a strategically positioned lever, business believes it can move profit upward by a strategically positioned ‘leveraged’ advantage. Or at least the executives in question believe a rousing speech on leveraging assets might help.
In many ways it’s a tautology like ‘added bonus’ or ‘free gift’. A bonus is by definition added or extra so the addition of added is meaningless. A gift is by definition free so the addition of free is unnecessary. Using leverage to explain the exploitation of a strategic or tactical advantage in business is also meaningless and unnecessary because by definition that’s what business is supposed to be doing in the first place. If a business has a nifty IT system, a patented design or particularly smart engineers surely it would be plain stupid not to take advantage of those things.
That said, leverage is also used as a specific finance term for any technique to multiply gains. Also known as gearing, it usually involves borrowing money to buy additional assets in the hope those assets will yield more profit than the cost of borrowing the money. Obviously this doesn’t always pan out so the losses rather than gains are often multiplied.
This dichotomy of meaning leads to the utterly ridiculous possibility of leveraging the leverage!
Where will I find leverage used?
This particular gem of business jargon is extremely versatile and can be found in meetings, reports and presentations across business, from finance (where it may actually be a meaningful term) to marketing, strategy and even shareholder meetings. It needs to be stamped out.
For example, when a CEO addresses a shareholder meeting and expresses his intention to, ‘leverage our significant investment in IT infrastructure across all the business units to drive profits and increase market share’, rather than nodding enthusiastically at this gibberish the shareholders should throw a few eggs and respond, ‘well I should hope so, otherwise why make the significant investment in the first place!’
How can I leverage my advantage?
The ‘beauty’ of the word leverage and the reason it is so popular in business is that it sounds good but means very little. It can be used to replace just about any activity verb. And, like so much of the worst business jargon it’s passive. It’s therefore easy to see why it’s wheeled out so often.
So if you have a report to write but you’ve not really done what you were supposed to do by the time you were supposed to have done it then ‘leverage’ is a fantastic little word that can get you off the hook. If you are ‘leveraging a project’, the reader has no way of knowing whether you’ve barely started it, almost finished it or palmed it off to someone else who is ignoring it! It’s particularly useful for speculative documents such as business plans and project proposals because it’s so vague. Plus it’s almost always accompanied by the unspecified ‘we’ not the specified ‘I’, thus enabling its user to abdicate all responsibility or accountability for the actual leveraging.
As a result of these special obfuscatory qualities the word leverage is incredibly useful for corporate minions eager to look good but do as little as humanly possible. It allows for non specific, passive inference of action occurring without saying what that action is, who is taking that action or when said action will be completed, and therefore implied value realised. In practical terms it allows subordinates to report on progress while still allowing the realities of a project to actually run the project. So much so that if you see a report, update or article that contains the word leverage you can pretty much guarantee that nothing is happening or that whatever is happening is happening a great deal slower than anyone could have thought possible.
Unless you are specifically talking about financial leverage or borrowing money to capitalise on an opportunity that could increase value then avoid the term. At the very least ‘leverage’ should remain a noun (as in ‘to apply leverage’) and not be pimped out as a passive pseudo-verb (as in ‘we are leveraging our infrastructure’). And whatever you do don’t do what one company did in 2001 when it made people redundant and told them the business was ‘leveraging their synergies’.