When I watched the inauguration of President Biden and Vice President Harris recently, I was struck not by what I saw but what I heard. 

President Biden assured the nation that his "whole soul" is focused on "uniting our people." The young poet Amanda Gorman captivated and inspired with her words: "A new dawn looms as we free it, for there is always light, if only we are brave enough to see it, if only we are brave enough to be it."

I was reminded of what I observe of great leaders: Words, when selected and delivered with courage and integrity, are the foundation of true leadership. 

Too often, leaders place their focus on actions instead of words, while ignoring that words lead to actions. Leaders don't need to employ professional speech writers or poets. They just need to focus their words on clarity, empathy, courage, and integrity. The following tips can help.

Think before you speak 

There's a saying I heard frequently growing up in Taiwan: "Spilled water is hard to regain." When words harm or cause someone to lose face, they cannot be unsaid. This is true even if the intentions behind our words are neutral or even positive.

For example, a client of mine--let's call him Joe--was recently promoted to a VP role in a global telecommunications company. He communicates at a fast pace and wasn't considering his words before reacting. When disagreeing with his team members, his tone often became short and abrupt, reacting with phrases such as "Are you kidding?" and "What are you talking about?" His team members felt put down and disrespected. After a short time, some even requested to be transferred to different teams. 

Although Joe's intent was not to demean his team members, the impact of his words did not align with his intent. 

I encouraged Joe to pause before reacting and be mindful and intentional about his responses. While you think before you speak, ask: 

  • How will my message be received or interpreted? 
  • What impact will it have on the other person? 
  • Is it useful? 
  • Is it kind? 

Label your statements 

Joe faced another communication challenge in his new role. He discovered that whatever he said, even if simply thinking out loud or making a casual comment, was interpreted as orders. His team would quickly execute Joe's off-the-cuff thoughts. This soon became a problem. Some of Joe's spontaneous ideas were not thought through or ready to be acted on. This also created confusion and stress among his team. 

I encouraged Joe to empathize with his team members. People tend to not question their boss so as to not to offend them. They assume their boss knows what they are doing. They want to impress their boss with quick action, even if, from Joe's perspective, he was just thinking out loud.

Joe didn't stop thinking out loud--instead, he started labeling his statements before making them. He let his team know he was just brainstorming, so they understood they were not expected to take action. By labeling his statements, Joe created space for his team members to feel invited into the discussion too.

Avoid safe talk 

Leaders often use "safe talk" to avoid tough conversations. When we use safe talk, we think we're protecting the feelings of the receiver by dropping hints, beating around the bush, or avoiding the truth entirely. It can seem "nice," but by lacking clarity, safe talk confuses and misleads the receiver.

As author Brené Brown explains in Dare to Lead, we tell ourselves we are being kind, but we are actually being unkind and unfair. Safe talk is about making ourselves comfortable, not the other party. "Not getting clear with a colleague about your expectations because it feels too hard, yet holding them accountable or blaming them for not delivering is unkind," Brown writes.

Instead of engaging in safe talk, have the courage -- and vulnerability -- to speak the truth. This doesn't mean you neglect the feelings of the other party. Be deliberate and mindful with your word choice and make sure your message is clear and delivered with kindness and respect.

When leaders speak with clarity, courage, and respect for the receiver, mindful of the impact of their words, they are, as Amanda Gorman expressed in her poem, "Benevolent, but bold. Fierce and free."