Jul 25, 2022

The words leaders use

Do you remember the intimidating Emperor in Hans Christian Anderson’s The Emperor’s New Clothes who became a leader with no substance or awareness? What about the young Future King Arthur in Disney’s The Sword in the Stone? His humbleness, curiosity and endless stream of questions are positively infectious. The words leaders use impact both themselves and their followers. 

Stories and metaphors use words to sway people

Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book and The Man Who Would Be King,  stated that words “are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind” in a speech he gave in 1923. He goes on to say that the words leaders use have the power to “infect and ergotise.” 

All great leaders are storytellers and they know that stories and metaphors sway people. Today, at keynotes you may recognize CEO’s use stories or metaphors to get the audience pumped and excited. In fact, personal anecdotes further draw people into the common cause by showing them a shared humanity. This unites people around a cause where the words leaders use are linked to a vision and emotions. With this backdrop, people will want to go the extra mile and such motivation further motivates others around them. 

When leaders leverage the language of leadership they connect to emotions. That’s why stories and metaphors are so powerful. Andrea B. Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman explained in their book “Words Can Change Your Brain,” that such words boost our cognitive processes and stimulate the motivational part of our brains.    

When the words leaders use have the power to impact our motivational levels, it’s no wonder people want to follow great speakers. Of course, that’s not to say that if there’s no substance behind the words, people won’t keep following blindly. Leaders still need these critical leadership skills that enable them to use words wisely and with emotional intelligence. Only then will they create motivated teams. 

Why do the words leaders use in stories and metaphors shift mindsets and cause changes in the brain? 

Essentially, they conjure up values and emotions all of which are compelling connectors to people. Such words contain:

  • Authenticity. A good leader knows themselves and understands their internal world including their thoughts, beliefs, values, emotions and feelings. All this knowledge naturally leads to authenticity along with positive and wise language.
  • Humility. Those in a leadership position who create strong bonds with their followers know that they are there to serve people, not the other way round. They ask questions, they share their mistakes and they ask for help. 
  • Vision. The words leaders use are passionate and they clearly convey the strategy. They essentially paint a better and brighter future. Steve Jobs did this particularly well. He didn’t overuse positive adjectives, he was passionate and we were all drawn to his view of the future.  

What’s in a name? Words create value 

“That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.”Whilst Shakespeare was pointing out that family names shouldn’t matter when it comes to love, it seems that names do have an impact. As a psychologist explains in his article “Was Shakespeare Wrong”, studies show that smells with positive names appear more pleasant than those with negative-sounding names. 

Names are one thing but words come together into sentences to build wider meaning. The more leaders incorporate their values into everything they say, the more authentic they appear. Moreover, talking about values in a positive and engaging way promotes teamwork and collaboration because values unite communities. Rosabeth Moss Kanter, professor at Harvard Business School, lays this out in her article, on Getting Value from Values

The words leaders use can mobilize people to superior performance: 

  • Positive words to engender engagement. An effective leader knows how to praise when needed and how to encourage when people make mistakes. Their teams are motivated because they feel supported and understood. Such words are: show me, great work, imagine, because, what do you need. These words don’t just engage, they show humility and they promote ownership. Moreover, enabling others to imagine by showing them the how and by putting them at the center of achievements, is a powerful motivator. 
  • Compassion to boost collaboration. Compassion isn’t about being soft. It’s about saying the right thing to meet what people need at that moment so they keep going and keep achieving. An example to build long-term collaboration is for leaders to coach their people through problems rather than giving them the answers. Words that support this are: my mistake, thank you, I’m listening, help, please, where are your roadblocks. Great leaders know what they don’t know and aren’t afraid to be honest and ask for help. On the flipside, they are catalysts to remove the blockers to collaboration. 
  • Yes, to encourage learning. The words leaders use aren’t just positive but they also include the simple yet powerful word, yes. Of course, leaders can’t say yes to everything. Nevertheless, for them to at least consider ideas goes a long way toward making people feel valued. Such words are: yes, thank you, well done, believe, act, now, how can we all pitch in. Leaders need followers to make their vision happen. These words encourage people through praise and personal attention. They also bring urgency and excitement by reminding people that we can all act now to make it all happen. 

Top leaders read context before choosing their words

The words leaders use impact mindsets, including their own. Negative words are just as powerful and can activate cortisol and other stress chemicals in our brains. As this HBR study explains, top leaders know how to apply “oxytocin-producing behavior” rather than “cortisol-producing behavior” when speaking with people. 

We all know that we prefer leaders who show concern for us and who are capable of articulating a brighter future. What we might not know is that the words leaders use can trigger happy chemicals such as oxytocin. How they do that and the specific words they use will be different depending on cultures and context. Great leaders know how to adapt their words accordingly. Furthermore, the mind tends to flip into fight-or-flight mode when it feels it’s being accused or quite simply, given feedback. Again, top leaders read context before choosing their words. 

Some simple rules to keep the words leaders use positive and inclusive: 

  • I versus we. Team members instinctively know when leaders are chasing their own benefits or if they truly care about making a difference. Those who care about the community use the word we disproportionately more often than the word I. 
  • Should. Leaders’ words are most effective when they avoid distorted thinking such as we should be this or that, which often implies blame. Instead, top leaders accept the world as it is, with all its foibles, and they spearhead action with positivity and openness. Should isn’t part of that vocabulary.
  • Either / or. An effective leader operates in the world of grey and focuses on the word ‘and’. They know that decisions can be integrative, even with seemingly opposing ideas, rather than limiting themselves to either / or choices. The word ‘and’ is a catalyst both for the mind and its attitude. 

The good news is that we now know that the brain can learn and adapt. That’s why leaders are increasingly turning to coaches to become more aware of their language and the impact it has. A critical aspect of the words leaders use is their mindset and whether they are speaking from a place of awareness and patience. On the other hand, a stressed leader tends to react and become overly demanding or short-sighted. 

To truly know language is to know yourself

More specifically, coaches support the words leaders use by providing them with an experiential space to explore: 

  • Practice vulnerability. When leaders are vulnerable, they understand their limitations and are less likely to take risks. They stay ethical by constantly checking factors outside their control while using honest language to keep others informed. 
  • Leverage mindful listening. Negotiation is a large part of any form of communication, especially because leaders require loyalty. The more they listen mindfully, the more leaders can be aware of the various viewpoints around them to bring people together. 
  • Establish balance. The words leaders use can give them away if leaders aren’t internally balanced. It’s easy for others to spot stress which creates uncertainty. Instead, leaders can learn grounding techniques and resilience with the right support. 

Avoid the troubles of misunderstandings

To reference Kipling again, “we’re all islands shouting lies to each other across seas of misunderstanding.” What a great metaphor to explain how much our suffering lies in how little we understand ourselves and each other. You owe it to your people to develop your leaders with the right coaching programs

The words leaders use attempt to transcend those misunderstandings by uniting us around values. Only then are we willing to go the extra mile and treat our colleagues like family members with whom we want to change the world.  


Coaching, Company Culture, Leadership, People, Skills-Based Coaching

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