The Words of a Leader

This post, in a collaborative act between Art Petty and myself, is being published jointly today, both here and on the Management Excellence site.

A note from Mary Jo: Art Petty and I met through the social networking realm recently and found that we were kindred souls, of sorts. Through a Twitter conversation, and subsequent telephone discussion about the importance of the words a leader speaks, we came to this place of deciding to collaborate on a post about the topic. Though different views from different aspects of a leader`s words, we found that the collaboration worked to produce a blog post that scans the realm of The Words of a Leader.

I hope that you will spend some time on Art`s site and subscribe to his blog, Management Excellence . You`ll learn a lot from a guy who has much wisdom to impart.

A note from Art: What great fortune it is to have met someone as passionate and thoughtful and pragmatic about the topic of leadership and relationships as Mary Jo. Another wonderful example of the power of social networking!

We discovered in a casual exchange of tweets that we both shared a passion for the impact that a leader`s words have on the individuals and teams that he/she manages. The idea to collaborate on this topic was born and here in our own bit of blogging innovation is our post, complete with two very complementary and very different perspectives on The Words of a Leader. Enjoy!


Mary Jo:

We are what we think. All that we are arises with our thoughts. With our thoughts, we make the world.” ?€“ Buddha

“Thoughts become words. Words become actions. Actions become character. Character is everything.” ?€“ Unknown

“Think before you speak.” Mom

The Buddha, Unknown, and Mom were all very smart. They knew that all words arise from thoughts, and the words we speak are words that are capable of the power to build, inspire, create or destroy.

Before a leader`s words actually get formed within the mouth, there is the place of thought. The thought that creates the words might be but a nanosecond. This little bit of time can`t prevent a leader from saying something that was unintended or taken out of context. And because followers tend to be “hyper vigilant” about their leaders ?€“ anything you say has a greater impact than you may be willing to believe.

So this is the connection that a leader needs to be aware of. Thoughts become words that become action. For us to say the right things in order to take the right actions, we may need to begin with our thoughts.

Change your thoughts, change your words.

In our speed-of-light world, we must slow down in order to become aware of our thoughts, to speak and take action in a way that is congruent with our values. You can bet that Tiger Woods and other successful athletes imagine and rehearse successful outcomes before following through on them. Why wouldn`t this apply to you and the words you use as a leader? What successful outcomes do you want your words to speak of?

Imagine using words that will build, inspire and create. What are they? Imagine your words being accepted and used in the way you intend them to be. Consider the values you hold most dear. What are your values, and how will your words describe them? How will they be incorporated into the language you use every day?

Take a mental break from the anxiety, worry and judging that go on in your thoughts. Consider a reflective practice or a meditative practice that will allow you to do so. Just as an athlete must rest his muscles, it also makes sense for us to rest our minds and thoughts. Such a practice has the effect of slowing you down, allowing you to renew yourself at the level of thought. Notice your thoughts as they arise in your practice, and you have begun a process of observing that will start you on a path to improving the words you speak as you go about your everyday life. A reflective or meditative practice has arms that reach far beyond the minimal time you spend doing them.

Where your thoughts don`t serve you, change them. Negative self-talk around guilt, anger, or hatred will not serve to help you say the words that your followers need to hear. When those thoughts arise, ask yourself if they are serving to help you in your leadership. If they aren`t, what would you prefer to change them to?

Your thoughts come through in your words, even if you don`t realize it. Others do. Become aware of your thoughts and your words can be intentional, purposeful and life-giving. You will then find it easier to accept the wise suggestions of my colleague, Art, below.


I`ve often marveled at the speed that an off-handed comment from the boss can fly through an organization, quickly evolving into policy or direction. “Mary said?€¦,” or, “I just heard that?€¦ .”

Have you had the unfortunate experience of seeing or hearing a manager publicly chastise a subordinate? This abuser seems to take strength from the assertion of power while the receiver visibly shrinks in stature. Observers feel pity for one and anger at the other.

Have you had the good fortune to work for someone that seemed to draw the best out of you through constructive coaching and encouragement? This type of an impact can last a lifetime.

Have you wondered what it is about that manager that everyone wants to work for? The comments usually go something like this: “She`s demanding and holds us accountable, but we`re accomplishing things and having fun in the process.”

A License To Talk:

While the communication process comprises much more than just the words that we string together, the words truly serve to build-up people, teams and organizations. Words inspire, motivate, challenge, teach and encourage.

Or, they serve as the blunt force weapons of personal and professional trauma and destruction.

Good leaders are builders and they form and shape their words into phrases and questions that encourage learning and improvement and risk-taking and more learning. Good leaders are master craftsmen in many ways, and words are some of their most important tools.

Less effective leaders use words like tools as well, but in this case they crassly apply the words of brute force in settings where precision is called for. They use the end of a wrench to pound in a nail, and seem to disregard the damage to the surrounding area. Of course, they should have used a finishing hammer and a nail set.

Other leaders use words to shape agendas. Good politicians broker understanding and alliances through their words. Less well-intentioned leaders use words to sew the seeds of doubt and mistrust and to shape alliances that benefit one person or one team.

Words are powerful tools. Perhaps leaders should be trained and certified on their use. Hmmm., perhaps leaders should be trained in general, much as a master craftsperson would train an apprentice.

Sticks and Stones:

I doubt that many of us have spent a lot of time considering our approach to word-choice much since our playground days, where the use of words as weapons by some is first mastered. The defense of, “Sticks and stones will break my bones but names will never hurt me,” was never really a good defense, was it?

While many of us intuitively understand how powerful our words are, in my own experience
, we do a less than effective job teaching this to our apprentice leaders. Consider how many “coaching opportunities” are created as we deal with teams and individuals that push back based on the “approach” used by these early leaders. Peel away the issues and at the bottom, you`ll almost always find an issue with words.

There`s no manual for this topic, but perhaps a few well-intended “words” will help. Consider sharing this with your apprentice leaders and perhaps you`ll avoid the “he said/she said” coaching calls in favor of something more constructive.

Words of Advice for The Words of a Leader

  • Listen more than you talk. Use your words sparingly. Leading doesn`t mean that you are required to talk more than anyone else. Quite the opposite.
  • Think before you talk. Choose your words deliberately.
  • A well-turned question is often more effective to get people thinking than a dozen statements. Manage your questions to comments ratio.
  • All of your words must include respect as a foundation. As soon as respect is left out of your words, you`ve lost.
  • Make certain that your words and your body language match. Given a choice between the two, studies indicate that people believe the body language over the words.
  • Tough conversations on performance are part of your job. Embrace this reality and don`t sugarcoat your words. Do keep them focused on behaviors and keep the behaviors linked to business.
  • Genuine words of encouragement and well-deserved words of praise are rocket fuel for individuals and teams.
  • “The do must match the tell.” The words of leaders not backed by actions and support are just so much hot air.
  • Be aware that your words as a leader will be amplified and distorted. Manage your words carefully.

The Bottom-Line on The Words of a Leader:

The choice is yours to lead like a master craftsman or a common hack. Choose and use your words carefully and you`ll be amazed at what those around you create.

I am a former executive in a Fortune 100 company. I have owned and operated an executive coaching firm since 2003 called Aspire Collaborative Services LLC. We partner with great leaders to help them become even greater at developing, improving, and sustaining relationships with the people who are essential to their success. This blog is for leaders and those who help them to be more intentional about relationships at work. My top personal values include respect for others, kindness, compassion, collaboration and gratitude. I work very hard at practicing my values daily and when I don’t succeed, I practice some more. I am married with two wonderful daughters and two spoiled pugs.

10 comments on “The Words of a Leader

  1. Very much enjoyed the posting…especially the idea of slowing down when it comes to communication. We seem to be obsessed to speed at work but to what end? We get more done but with less substance.

  2. Over the weekend, I had a conversation with a now-retired manager. He talked about his first job as a plant manager.

    "The first day, they took me on a tour of the plant. Along the way I made little comments, like, 'We probably should clean that up' and 'Maybe we should move that machine over there.'

    The next day, when I walked through the plant, all those things had been done. I never expected that. I didn't mean to give commands. But when you're the boss, people listen to you and they pay attention to what you say. I was a lot more careful after that."

    That's interesting enough. But there were several other people there who had exactly the same experience. We started trading stories.

    The most outrageous was a fellow who made a short speech on his first day as a new Division Manager. The next day, when he came in, he found the building plastered with posters bearing key phrases from his speech. The marketing department had worked through the night to create, print, frame and hang them.

    He asked why. "They said that I said we needed to keep these things in front of us at all times. I don't even remember saying that."

  3. As I was reading I was thinking about all that transpired around the President's speech to Congress last night.

    Where can we see implementation of the recommendations in "The Words of a Leader" and where not?

  4. Dorothy, thanks for stopping over. Art and I enjoyed working together on this!

    P, I agree – lots of speed, but what about quality of the work?

    Wally, loved the stories, thanks. Actually repeated the one about the posters to a new VP who said that she needs to be careful about what she says – and that with her new promotion, she's noticed that people "listen differently" to her.

    Paul, I think we'll have to watch and see if the President's words create effective action!

  5. This was perfect timing for me. I'm preparing to train a group of facilitators who in turn are running leadership development programmes. My theme is chairing with intent. I'm trying to help others identify their intent and have it shine through in their preparation, words and action. So many of our staff are keen for quick wins and fixes in this field, yet I become more convinced that the answers lie in hard work, self-reflection and detail. More like an apprenticeship where there is no avoiding the hard yet obvious lessons. That maybe your room setup, or your introduction, or eye contact, or first words just aren't in line with your intention, and it's this that is causing problems within a group and not something more esoteric. Thanks for your post I'll share your thoughts with my group next week.

  6. Oliver,

    One of the best things for me – and I'll bet for Art, too – is to have someone like you read a post and find a way to put it to work. Congrats on the good work you are doing, and thanks for sharing your insight. Although I rarely state it as directly as you have, I also believe and continue to spread the word that there are no quick fixes in leadership-land.

  7. Mary Jo,

    Excellent discussion about the words that leaders use. As I have stated previously, this is where my introversion story will be very helpful.

    As to your points, I know that there are many times where I have had to postpone speech due to negative (usually angry) thoughts, with mixed results. Someone doing something that irritates me may bring about anger. Even though I do wait a while before speaking, I understand how hard it is to avoid appearing angry, because my words sometimes betray my anger even after deliberation.

    Art gave an example that hit home for me about a manager publicly chastising an employee. I knew a supervisor that would do that to anyone who made a mistake, even those who admitted the mistakes to her before she caught the mistake herself. This fostered an atmosphere of employees covering up mistakes rather than learning from them.


  8. Mary Jo and Art, thought-provoking post and the subject was enhanced by including both your points-of-view. Really great approach. The bottom line for me is personal responsibility – taking responsibility for the words we say and the impact those words have on others. Using language effectively and intentionally is critical for leaders.

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