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Your Language Is Your Leadership

Leadership happens one conversation at a time, and you are responsible for the quality of that conversation.

Last week, along with 50 Vistage members, I heard that line repeatedly. After a full day with AmyK Hutchens' “Ignite Brilliance In Your Leadership and Innovation,” my brain was certainly ignited … and completely spent!

The idea of taking responsibility for the “quality” of conversations resonated deeply. For me, the quality of a conversation includes both the content and the context. 

The content is well illustrated by the following story. The context is a subject for another blog.

AmyK shared the story of a study that was done with two sets of fifty 4th graders. Each child was handed a vase filled with water.

With the first set, each child was told:

“Hold the vase tightly. Walk across the room holding it wrapped in your arms. When you get to the wall, carefully touch the wall with one hand. Then hold the vase tightly again and come back to where you started.”

How many dropped the vase? Only two.

With the second set, the instructions were slightly modified:

“Hold on to this vase and don’t drop it! Walk across the room holding it tightly so you don’t drop it. When you get to the wall, touch the wall with one hand while making sure you don’t drop the vase. Make sure to hold the vase tightly so you don’t drop it on the way back to where you started.”

How many in this group dropped the vase? Forty-eight!

Wow! The language used to frame the instructions had a dramatic impact on the outcome. The content created very different mental images for the two groups.

When language centers around avoiding a failure, the focus turns to movement away from an outcome. It actually places attention on the failure. Positive – even neutral – language, on the other hand, keeps attention on success, as the focus is on movement towards an outcome.

What’s important about this? If leadership is about setting people up for success, the language we use is essential.

I hold a fundamental belief that taking a leadership position in your own life is a prerequisite for leading others.

So, what is the quality of the conversations you have with yourself? Take some time to notice the language you choose, when it creates an image of success, and when it creates an image of failure. Where are you creating an image of your success, both personally and professionally? Are they different?

Here are 2 simple examples of where ‘away from’ vs ‘towards’ language might show up in our internal dialogue, ultimately influencing outcomes:

I’ve got to lose 20 pounds. I have to stop eating so much. I have to stop …

  Contrast that with: 

I am making healthy choices about what I eat. I am making healthy choices about sleep and exercise.


If I don’t do something about my weight I’m going to die young.


Creating a healthy lifestyle gives me the chance to …

Which approach has a better chance of bringing you success? Okay, that’s an easy one.

How about this: Where are you setting yourself up for success?

Reader Comments (2)

David, this is an excellent blog post - I am forwarding it to my friends at Green Mountain in Vermont - http://www.fitwoman.com/ - an amazing organization that has spent 40 years helping women channel their energy to support rather than fight their bodies. They help women focus on what really matters -- real health, for the whole self: body, mind, emotions, and spirit.

Thank you for sharing! ~ Rachel

Wed, 20 059 12 | Unregistered CommenterRachel

Great post, David. I agree that how we talk to ourselves is so important. I once read that the brain often omits the word "not" so it's always better to frame your statements in the positive. It's the same with children. For example, instead of saying. "Do not run!" say "Walk." Saying what you DO want is so much more powerful than saying want you do not want.

Fri, 29 024 12 | Unregistered CommenterTiffany deSilva

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