Sat. Feb 24th, 2024

Angle down icon An icon in the shape of an angle pointing down. There are certain damaging words and phrases great leaders would never say. University of Exeter/flickr

The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter — ’tis the difference between the lightning-bug and the lightning. —Mark Twain

Whether you like it or not, the words you use can seriously affect your ability to achieve success. And that’s especially true for leaders.

“The most successful leaders can articulate their organization’s mission and express it in ways that inspire others to achieve it,” says Darlene Price, president of Well Said, Inc., and author of “Well Said! Presentations and Conversations That Get Results.” “Though other traits, behaviors, and skills are required for leadership, this one is at the top of the list.” 

She says great leaders embrace the power of speech. “They understand the impact of the spoken word, and how it affects the hearts and minds of people.” For this reason, they regularly use positive and effective phrases when speaking with their team, such as: “Here’s our mission,” “Your role is critically important because…,” “I’d like to know what you think,” “How can I help?” “Together we can…” “Congratulations,” and “Thank you.” 

“Conversely, there are certain damaging words and phrases great leaders would never say,” Price explains.

Here are 10 of them:

“I’m the boss.”

“By announcing this fact, you negate it,” says Price.As Former Prime Minister of the UK Margaret Thatcher once said, ‘Power is like being a lady. If you have to tell people you are, you aren’t.'”

Declaring your title implies an attitude that says, “No questions. No arguments. We’ll do things my way.” “Great leaders are followed and admired, whereas dictators are feared and despised,” Price says. “Of course you’re the boss, but saying so doesn’t make it so. Instead, use your power to empower others. Ask, ‘What do you need to succeed?’ or, ‘What can I do to help?'”

“That’s not my fault.”

The best leaders take responsibility for their actions. They don’t point fingers, make excuses, or throw others under the bus. “While no one likes to feel blame, a great leader absorbs the hit, demonstrates accountability, and rallies the team toward a solution,” she says. “Instead of blaming previous management, the former administration, other departments, or the economy, say, ‘Let’s talk about what we’re going to do next to ensure success.'”

As Henry Ford advised, “Don’t find fault, find a remedy.” 

“I’ll do it myself.”   

Leadership is not a solo act, Price explains. “This attitude is notoriously referred to as the ‘Do It Yourself (DIY) habit,’ which may be good for home improvement but not leadership improvement. The higher you rise up the corporate ladder, the less you do personally as an individual contributor — the more you do through and for others.” 

The goal is to put the right people in the right places and enable them to succeed, she says.

“I know that — I’ve thought of everything.” 

As legendary basketball coach John Wooden once said, “It’s what you learn after you know it all that counts.”

“Avoid dismissing or discounting others’ input with a self-important know-it-all attitude,” Price says. “Even if you do know, remain teachable. When you welcome and value your employees’ intelligence and contributions, you make them look good and feel smart.”

“Failure is not an option.”

“This motto may work as the creed of NASA’s Mission Control Center and title of Gene Kranz’s autobiography,” says Price. “However, when a leader utters this phrase in business, it is often interpreted as, ‘mistakes are not allowed.'”

This attitude inflicts fear into followers, curbs creativity, and inhibits innovation. Great leaders allow — even encourage — their people to fail forward; to turn blunders into building blocks, mishaps into stepping stones. “That’s why Thomas J. Watson, founder of IBM, advised, ‘The way to succeed is to double your failure rate.’ Or as Arianna Huffington says, ‘Failure is not the opposite of success; it’s part of success.'”

“That’s not the way we do it here.” 

Successful leaders are passionate about innovation — finding a better way of doing something. “In fact, Steve Jobs said, ‘Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.’ For this reason, the best leaders value employees who demonstrate creative thinking, flexibility, and problem-solving skills,” Price explains. “These phrases, in one fell swoop, reveal you are the opposite: stuck in the past with old-school thinking, inflexible, and closed-minded.”

Even if you disagree with someone’s idea, say instead, “Wow, that’s an interesting idea. How would that work?” Or, “That’s a different approach. Let’s discuss the pros and cons.”

“I want results, not relationships.”

Great leaders know that results are produced through people, which require building strong relationships with employees, fellow leaders, customers, business partners, vendors, and other key stakeholders. “Just as it appears in the dictionary, relationships come before results,” Price says.

“I don’t care if it’s unethical. If it’s not illegal, do it.”

Great leaders neither encourage nor condone corrupt and unethical behavior for the sake of accomplishing financial or organizational goals. “The ‘ends justify the means’ is no excuse for deliberate deception, disregard of company policy, noncompliance, and unlawful acts,” says Price. “Instead say, ‘Do the right thing.'”

As Abraham Lincoln observed, “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”  

“Don’t bring me any bad news or surprises.” 

Saying this doesn’t make the bad news and surprises go away; it just means people sweep a time bomb under the rug. “Great leaders want to know about the issues that need immediate attention; therefore, they say, ‘If there’s bad news or surprises, I want to be the first to know,'” Price says. “They create an environment where people are expected to raise issues as soon as they appear, rather than hiding them. As Former US Secretary of State Colin Powell told his staff, ‘Bad news isn’t wine. It doesn’t improve with age.'”

“You’re lucky to have a job here.”

This statement destroys drive and kills morale. It implies you’re doing people a favor by employing them, and they’re indebted for the privilege of working for you. “It’s up to the employee to decide if that’s true,” she says. Instead try something like, “We’re lucky to have you on our team.”

Price says one common denominator of great leaders is that their words and actions inspire others to “dream more, learn more, do more, and become more,” as John Quincy Adams said. “That’s why they’re seen as leaders — the combination of their communication and character compel people to follow. The best leaders deliberately choose specific words to say, and not say, in order to maximize their ability to achieve results through people.”

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