While great leadership is primarily based on what you do, great leadership is also based on what you say.
And what you don't say.
So I asked an expert for some words and phrases great leaders never use.
Drew Dudley is the founder of Day One Leadership, has spoken to over 250,000 people (his is the "lollipop moment" TED Talk), and the author of the excellent new book This is Day One: A Practical Guide to Leadership That Matters.
According to Drew, personal development insights often focus on what you don't do -- and then offering tips for adopting new behaviors and habits designed to take your leadership skills to the next level.
It's just as important, though, to look at the things you currently do that undermine your leadership and make you less effective as a leader of other people -- and of yourself.
Like language, since the words you use can have a powerful unconscious impact on your leadership impact.
Here's Drew's list of five overused words and phrases that can diminish your effectiveness and impact as a leader:
"Just" is one of the most dangerously overused words in a leader's vocabulary, especially when used in its most common form: As a minimizer.
- "I just have to go to finish up my emails."
- "I just have to get through this meeting."
- "I just have to run and pick up my kids."
We use "just" to make tasks seem small and minimize how much time they will take so you can get to "real work." Some actually use it so often it ends up being applied to almost every task they undertake.
There is a psychic cost (to yourself and colleagues) to continuously minimizing the importance of the tasks to which the majority of each day is dedicated. We often unconsciously employ "just" as a softener to the requests we're making of others.
Like, "I just need you to take care of a couple of things for me."
The rationale seems to make sense: The goal is to make the request seem like less of an imposition, which implies our respect for the other person's time. Yet, the message gets perceived in the opposite way: "This isn't important, so I'm using you to do it."
Use a more effective way of conveying a message of respect while assigning a task: "This isn't big, but it's essential."
2. "We need to..."
Usually intended to convey a sense of urgency and importance, this phrase often creates a feeling of false and unhealthy desperation leading to hasty and poorly-considered decisions.
- "We need to get this done today."
- "We need to knock this presentation out of the park."
- "We need that funding to come through or we're screwed."
Ultimately, each of these statements means, "We are far more likely to realize our long-term goals if this happens."
However, instead of acting as a reminder of those larger, collective goals, saying, "We need to..." pulls a situation out of the larger context in which it sits and shifts the focus to simply getting "X" done rather than on what "X" will help accomplish.
The effective utilization of the word "essential" can convey urgency and importance while keeping the focus on larger collective goals:
- "It's essential we get this done if we're going to be successful with our plan to..."
- "Making this happen is an essential part of (this goal)."
Also keep in mind that "you need to" or "we need to" is a directive and focuses attention only on accomplishing a task. "It's essential so that..." reminds people that "X" is an essential part of "Y" -- a bigger goal everyone understands and may already have bought into.
This keeps the focus on actions that serve the larger goal, rather than those made for the sake of expediency or a small victory.
"Maybe" is lazy.
When people hear "maybe," they don't hear, "There is a possibility this will go either way." They don't hear, "This is likely."
Instead they hear, "I can't (or won't) make this decision now... and I may never make a decision."
In short, "maybe" projects uncertainty and indecisiveness. "Maybe" offers no specific course of action for those awaiting an answer -- it doesn't clearly indicate what needs to be accomplished to move from "maybe" to "yes" or "no."
It's fine to acknowledge you are not yet certain about a course of action, but it's important in those moments to show clarity on how you will make a decision and what you need to do so... which gives employees or colleagues direction on how to move on from "maybe."
Instead of "maybe," be specific on what needs to be known, completed, or delivered for a decision to be made:
- "We'll do that if..."
- "We'll make that call when..."
- "Before we make that decision, let's see if we can get greater clarity on..."
This approach makes clear you are not uncertain, waffling, or non-committal.
You are committed to making the best decision and moving forward -- and specific on what will make you reach the level of comfort necessary to do so.
4. "It is what it is."
This phrase, and its more well-established cousin, "everything happens for a reason," strips individuals and organization of their agency.
Good leaders don't resign themselves to what they cannot change. They accept what they cannot change.
Acceptance is an act -- it requires strength and consciousness. You have agency in acceptance. You make a choice. Resignation is a form of surrender -- and brings with it a feeling of powerlessness.
There is nothing wrong with recognizing when continued effort will not yield results, but the bar for using this phrase should be extremely high. Overuse creates acceptance in your organization of the idea that if something proves extremely difficult to change or accomplish, the status quo can be accepted as an inevitability.
You can just throw your hands up and say, "It is what it is."
And you should never just throw up your hands and say, "It is what it is."
5. "I'll stay up late and get that done."
For one thing, leadership is not martyrdom. Plus, failing to get adequate sleep kills you.
Don't take my word for it. Dr. Mathew Walker's book Why We Sleep, Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams should be required for anyone seeking optimal performance.
Sleep is the most commonly squandered resource among professionals. You may be increasing the amount of work you complete by sleeping less, but you are dramatically reducing its quality, your capacity to do your best work, and your ability to determine when your work is less than your best.
Failing to consistently get 7 to 8 hours per sleep per night for an extended period of time has the same health impact as smoking or drinking heavily.
Sadly, the health argument rarely sways driven, type-A personalities, so here's an economic one: The highest earning years in your career will likely be the final 10. Failing to get consistent, adequate sleep makes it less likely you will be at your best in those years -- if you have them at all.
The "burning the candle at both ends" lifestyle is often accompanied by caffeine consumption, the most commonly consumed drug on the planet. Used in moderation, caffeine can be a helpful (some research indicates even potentially healthy) addition to your workflow.
However, I always like to keep in mind the graphic below. Ask yourself if you enjoy coffee... or if you need coffee to function.
If it's the latter, try the healthier, less expensive path to better attention, focus, and performance: Sleep.