The Language of Leadership: What Do Leaders Say?


Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.

This adage first appeared in print as part of the March 1862 issue of The Christian Recorder. I first heard it as a child, and you probably did too. It’s a simple admonition to ignore insults, name-calling, and other negative talk. The implication is that we should ignore hurtful language as it really has no power over us.


I didn’t buy it as a kid and I don’t buy it know. I doubt anyone bought it back in 1862. The truth is that words can hurt.  And I’m not just talking about childhood bullying. As adults, we’re just as likely to be hurt by what someone says as any child. Of course, words can have very positive effects as well. The right words, said at the right time, can motivate and inspire.

Leaders understand the power of words. They know that the language they choose matters. So effective leaders are very careful to choose words that have the best possible impact on the people around them. Here are five types of language leaders use.

1. Leaders use visionary language. Leaders have a vision of the future and take advantage of any opportunity to talk about that vision. They are excited about what the future holds and can’t help but share that excitement. So they use words that paint a picture of the future – with all of its promise and potential. When leaders talk, people are inspired.

2. Leaders use action language. Leaders know that the future they envision won’t come to pass without deliberate action. They regularly speak to each member of the team about the role they play in achieving the vision. Those who work for effective leaders understand the specific behaviors and outcomes they need to demonstrate in order to be successful. When leaders talk, people are motivated.

3. Leaders use honest language. Leaders don’t mince words. They know that the only way to move forward is to be honest about where you are. Whether talking about the state of the business, your performance, or their own abilities; leaders speak the truth. An honest assessment of the present provides the basis for developing a set of effective strategies for improvement. When leaders talk, people are educated.

4. Leaders use uplifting language. Leaders want people to feel good about the future. And when people feel good about themselves, they are better able to develop an optimistic outlook. So leaders focus on the progress that’s being made as opposed to the setbacks. They focus on successes rather than failures. The goal of the leader is to keep things moving forward, so their language points you in that direction. When leaders talk, people are encouraged.

5. Leaders use inclusive language. Leaders need a team to move forward. They require a diverse set of skills to address the complexities of business. But because teams are made of people, they breed conflict. So effective leaders speak to the team’s abilities rather than their differences. They bring coworkers together – they don’t drive them apart. When leaders talk, people are unified.

A lot of people are confused about what make a leader. One easy way to spot a real leader is by listening to the language they use. What kind of words make up your vocabulary?

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