Choose Your Words Carefully

As you inventory the arrows you have in your proverbial leadership quiver, your words are the most powerful.

The easiest to shoot and likely have the greatest impact. For good and bad.

The words we choose to deploy are what lifts and builds others. Or diminishes them and reinforces a fear or mindset they may have about their talents and capabilities. Some of the most viscerally memorable times in my career are best recalled not by the experiences per se, but who said what to me.

I recall my mother, standing at the kitchen sink with me after Thanksgiving dinner more than thirty years ago, saying, “I can’t imagine you ever pursuing that until you’ve completed your college degree and have all your debts paid off.”

I recall my first leader in a corporate job say to me (and I recall the name of the restaurant and which booth we were sitting in) twenty-three years ago, “You just don’t get it. I need someone who gets it.”

I recall the chief people officer of FranklinCovey recently telling me, “Scott, you’re the most courageous person I know.”

I took that last one as a compliment for the record…

I bet if you did the same quick exercise, you’d recall equally memorable moments in your life. And perhaps horrifyingly, things you’ve said to others that they remember as well, for good and bad. I’ll understand if you check out now on this blog and start your own apology tour.

Like many, perhaps too many, I am what’s called an “outward processor.” I tend to say what I think…in real-time…then listen and judge how well it lands with others.

And it lands well about 50 percent of the time.

Really well about 30 percent.

Horribly wrong about 15 percent.

And near relationship-ending or career/brand-damaging about 5 percent of the time.

I too often say what I’m thinking because when I hear it out loud, I can better tell if it makes sense, if it’s the right way to express verbally what I’m envisioning. I speak frequently in metaphors. Some are amazingly inspiring. They perfectly communicate what I want to happen and paint an unmistakable mental picture, so others can execute on, or even improve, my vision for a project. However, sometimes (increasingly often, my wife tells me), my metaphors not only go off the rails but take the passengers with it, screaming in horror and plunging to their… (see what I mean?!)

In our On Leadership podcast interview with Ursula Burns, she speaks to the fact that in nearly every introduction of her, she’s referenced as the first Black, female CEO of a Fortune 500 company. She’s honored to hold that moniker, but obviously she’s so much more. She didn’t receive that title because of her race or gender, but because of her competence and character, which she demonstrated repeatedly during her multi-decade career as an educated and skilled engineer and leader inside Xerox. But like every other interview, I repeated the boilerplate mindlessly and without thinking about her more broadly.

How often do we find ourselves just repeating other stuff we’ve heard without vetting it for accuracy? Without researching it ourselves and understanding the facts, or sometimes more importantly, the subtle nuances of a story that is, in reality, the real story. There is so much more to Ursula Burns than her race and gender. Study her career and it’s remarkable, history making really, even before she became the CEO.

I recall our On Leadership interview with Emmanuel Acho, the social influencer, former NFL player, and bestselling author of Uncomfortable Conversations with a Black Man. He said something in the podcast conversation that I will never forget (and I paraphrase here): “We never hear ‘the first White president; the first White billionaire; the first White, male senator. It’s always the first Black. The first female. The first Latino.’”

I am trying diligently to be more careful with the words I use to set people up. To create conversations. To build context.

I do it fairly subconsciously, and I need to be more, much more, conscious of the words I choose to use to describe others. And myself. And my sons. And those who report to me professionally and depend on me to ambassador for them. And my podcast guests. And my co-authors. The list is enormous when I think about those in my life, professionally and personally, who I can either build or diminish with the simple words I use. I need and want to be more careful when I describe them and their projects, goals, and even dreams.

As I would want them to do for me.

Principles of effective leadership have not changed, but when some team members are co-located, some work from home, and even more follow a hybrid model, leaders must apply those principles differently. 

About the Author

Scott Miller

Scott Miller is a 25-year associate of FranklinCovey and serves as Senior Advisor, Thought Leadership. Scott hosts the world’s largest and fastest-growing podcast/newsletter devoted to leadership development, On Leadership. Additionally, Scott is the author of the multi-week Amazon #1 New Releases, Master Mentors: 30 Transformative Insights From Our Greatest Minds, Management Mess to Leadership Success: 30 Challenges to Become the Leader You Would Follow, and the Wall Street Journal bestseller, Everyone Deserves a Great Manager: The 6 Critical Practices for Leading a Team. He lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, with his wife and three sons.

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