Every Name is Not the Same

Names matter.

You need look no further than the controversy raging around yesterday’s decision by President Obama to change the name of Mount McKinley, the tallest mountain in North America.

Obama’s signed an order to rename it Denali, which the mountain has been called by the native peoples of Alaska who have lived in its shadow for generations.

For these native people, the name resonates with deep cultural significance.  The change to McKinley has been seen and felt as an example of cultural imperialism at work.

So why Mount McKinley in the first place?

It was originally chosen in 1896 by William Dickey, a gold prospector from New Hampshire. The name was politically and economically motivated: William McKinley was the Republican nominee for the presidency, who advocated for the gold standard.  (The Democratic nominee, William Jennings Bryan, lobbied for a silver standard.)  The name found its way on to the official US Geological Survey map starting in 1900.The U.S. Government made the name Mt. McKinley official in 1917, as a way to commemorate the slain former President who had been assassinated 16 years earlier.

Native peoples have long seen the name McKinley as inappropriate and out of touch. They’re the ones who have lived off the land and made Alaska their home for centuries.In fact, there’s been a movement to change the name back to Denali since 1975. These attempts were blocked due to crafty legislative maneuvering by Ohio Congressman Ralph Regula until he retired in 2009.  (Ohio is the birthplace of McKinley.)

Yet even Ohioans have recognized the need to restore the original name.  In an July 16th editorial called “Give Mountain Back to Alaskans”, the Columbus Dispatch described the attempt to keep the name McKinley as “a rather unseemly effort on behalf of a politician who never set foot near the mountain and had no known interest in it”.

Obama’s announcement has raised some feathers with Ohio lawmakers.  It’s been seen as a political stunt.  Rep. Tim Ryan, who’s district includes McKinley’s hometown of Niles, in eastern Ohio, said “We must retain this national landmark’s name in order to honor the legacy of this great American president and patriot.”

Names matter: to the namer and the named.

Names are not just arbitrary placeholders.  They shape our identity.  They help us to understand ourselves and the world we work and live in.

For example, I was working with a group of finance executives last week.  One of them kept referring to his direct reports as his “underlings”.

Subordinates is bad enough.  But underlings?

What does using “underlings” say about the person who uses that name?

What is implied in the relationship?

Compare that to a group of IT executives I was with earlier this month who are committed to becoming “servant-leaders”.

A very different name.

A very different relationship.

A very different energy.

What do you think the likelihood is that “servant leadership” is  practiced by the leader who has “underlings”?

Who would you prefer to report to?

Watch what names you use.

They make a huge difference.

Where have you intentionally chosen to use a new name?  What was the result? Join the conversation by leaving a comment below.

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