“Speak clearly, if you speak at all; carve every word before you let it fall”
Oliver Wendell Holmes
Since the political season has kicked off across our country, these three simple words have been in the forefront of my brain. Each day the news is bombarding us with words spoken by the political candidates who are trying to convince us that they are the right person to lead our country.
Words are powerful and leaders must always remember that once the spoken word is uttered, it has been heard and perhaps a decision is made, an opinion adjusted, feelings increased or hurt, or trust is damaged or lost. I recall learning very early in my leadership journey the maxims, “a leader’s word is his bond” and “I give you my word.”
Sadly, it seems that the value and strength of the words that come out of our mouths are not what they once were. Perhaps it is because we have reworked our use of words into symbols, abbreviations, and shortened snippets that flow well across the electronic superhighway but somehow lose their real value.
I believe it is because we have forgotten the importance and value of the intent and personal character that is supposed to be behind the words. For me, words have always been a valuable tool in my leadership roles. They allowed me to build trust, deliver effective messages, and articulate elements of my character to others regardless of their location or the time of day.
Recently I was facilitating a leadership development program for new and emerging leaders. As I searched for experiences to relate that would assist their development, those nuggets that would reduce their chances of failure, I was captured by a misstep from many years ago that greatly impacted my trust, standing, and perceived care for my followers.
“Speak in such a way that others love to listen to you” — Anonymous
I was leading a professional military education program and had a staff of around 30. There had been a lengthy and resonating whine about the amount of time needed to plan for each day’s lessons. The staff felt we did not provide enough time for this. The basic lesson plan was created by another organization and the staff member’s piece of the preparation was to “personalize” the lesson by adding video clips, artwork, and other items that help with the delivery and also cement the topic in the student’s mind. I believed we were more than fair with the time we gave them for this task. At the weekly staff meeting this topic came up again, and I intended to put the matter to rest once and for all. I told my staff, “that a trained ape could do those lesson plans.” An immediate hush fell across the room and I immediately recognize the damage I had done with my ill-chosen and hurtful words. I can still see the faces in my mind as I write this today. With that singular negative comparison, I damaged the trust I had established, I diminished their feelings of self-worth, and I showed a weakness in my character to my team who I needed for our organization to be successful.
I lead that organization for an additional two years and we were highly successful and celebrated many wonderful accomplishments together. When I departed for my next location, numerous staff members commented at the send-off party about that singular situation; my damaging words had become their strongest memory of our time together. I learned and so had they about the power and value of a leader’s word.
I used this example on these new and emerging leaders as I wanted them to understand that some things cannot be undone when you are a leader and that speaking wisely is critical at all times. I believe they received my message loud and clear.
“If a leader can’t get a message across clearly and motivate others to act on it, then having a message doesn’t even matter”
Words are very powerful and they clearly carry the values and character of the person who speaks them. In a leadership environment, they also are clearly connected to the trust that is so crucial to the success of the leader and the organization and its people.
Do you recognize and value how important your words are as a leader?