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Words Matter

Brian Willis

The words you use as a leader are important. It is easy to write this off as “just semantics”, but words have power. The words you use often reflect how you really think and feel and convey a very important message to those listening. Let’s examine some commonly heard phrases.

I often hear people in leadership positions refer to people on the front lines of their organizations as being at the “Bottom of the org chart.” The reality is that those people are the both the face of your organization and the foundation of your organization. If you remove the foundation from any structure, the structure will likely collapse. The reality then is that those people are at the Foundational Level of the organizational chart. When you think of their role in those terms it makes it easier to understand the importance of making them your #1 priority.

We have all heard people in formal leadership positions talk about the number of people “under me” or who “work for me” in the organization. The term “under me” implies they are beneath you and that you are somehow superior to them. As for the term “work for me”, great leaders understand that his or her position exists so they can serve the people they have the privilege and honour of leading. Bob Kuehl is currently the Chief of Police in Raytown, MO. A few years ago when he was the Deputy Chief of Operations for the Kansas City Police Department he used to say that he had 1000 people in his agency who he worked for. People would often correct him and say, “You mean that you have 1000 people who work for you.” He response was, “NO. I work for them. My job is to get them the resources and support they need to best do their job.” Bob was very clear that those 1000 people were not “under him” and did not “Work for him”. He was along side them and working for them.

I have heard Simon Sinek on a number of occasions talk about the fact that when you are in a formal leadership position you are not “in charge of people” rather there are people in the organization who are “in your charge”. While this may seem like a play on words “in charge of” conjures images of someone who is a boss, not a leader. If a person is “in your charge” you are responsible to take care of them. When you accept that the people you have the privilege to lead are “in your charge” you will be committed to helping develop them, supporting them and caring about them.

Another phrase I hear from leaders when they are preparing to address critical issues with the people at the foundational level of the organization is, “I am going to have to dumb things down for them” The inference here is that the people you will be speaking to are too stupid to understand your message. You do not need to dumb anything dow. You do need to convey the message in a way that is simple and practical for that audience to understand and apply. Albert Einstein is quoted as saying, “If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” So, if you cannot explain it simply, then get back to work and enhance your knowledge and understanding of the topic until you can.

Words have power. They invoke images and emotions in people. They can build someone up, or tear him or her down. Be mindful of the language you use. Your influence as a leader is too important to be lazy with your language.

Remember that leadership is a choice and a journey. Choose well and enjoy the journey.

Brian Willis