My life was unalterably changed by a few words. I was, at the time, an average student. I did what was necessary to get by but my academic ambitions and motivation were limited.
None of my family had attended college and some had not graduated from high school. I never recall hearing the word college in my home. In fact, education was so undervalued in my home that I recall a time when my mother scolded me for using “big words” when I returned home during a college break.
Something remarkable had happened several years before this sad episode with my mother. As I recall, I was a ninth grade student standing in the lunch line when a student tapped me on the shoulder and pronounced, “You would make a great attorney.” The unexpected compliment arose from my performance in English class as the defense attorney defending Brutus’s participation in the assassination of Julius Caesar. Was Brutus a patriot or traitor? I argued that his actions were noble, animated by his desire to protect the Roman Republic from dictatorship. A jury of ninth grade English students acquitted him.
Those few words, “You would make a great attorney,” caused me to think about college for the first time in my life. From that point forward I applied myself to my studies and went on to earn a doctorate. My life would have been dramatically different but for those few words of encouragement.
The moral of this story is that words are powerful—they can change a life or a school for good or bad. The start of a new school year is a good time to consider the words we use as leaders. It is a good time to unsheathe your most powerful leadership tool—your words.
These words or communication traits will make you a wiser person and more effective leader.
Strive to put yourself in the other person’s shoes no matter how obnoxious their words or actions may be. This will give you a better perspective. As Becky Gaylord points out: “empathy leads to rational, thoughtful solutions.” Empathy has a calming and a rational impact on any conversation and is consistent with these two biblical principles:
So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets. Mat. 7:12
Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Phil. 2:4
Employ the Wise Use of Humor
Appropriate humor reduces tension and can put all parties at ease in a difficult situation. Humor also makes for a more enjoyable workplace and is a great way to start a presentation. Interlacing appropriate and well timed humor into any conversation or presentation will increase effectiveness and help you connect with others.
No one likes to hear “no.” Although sometimes “no” is necessary, it is probably less necessary than you think. Sometimes we say “no” not because it is necessary but because it is easier. “Yes,” can create more work or complications for us. While saying yes may produce more work in the short-term, remember that a history of wise “yes” responses makes the necessary “nos” more palatable and leads to long-term positive relationships and school culture.
No matter how exalted your position, “please” is almost always appropriate. Hopefully you learned this as a young child. Saying please is not only polite, it has the benefit of making it easier for people to accept a directive. While compliance may not be optional, saying please demonstrates courtesy and humility. Saying please makes it easier for others to comply willingly.
Thankfulness is a constant theme in the Bible. We are admonished to be thankful and to express thankfulness. Never miss an opportunity to thank students, parents, employees, or vendors.
Listen, Really Listen
Our natural tendency is to talk. It is far wiser to follow the biblical command to “be quick to hear, slow to speak” (James 1:19), which was paraphrased by Steven Covey who said, “seek first to understand and then to be understood.” Listening leads to understanding, empathy, and better decisions and relationships. Click here for tips on how to actively listen.
While a leader must avoid being uniformed or naive, start with trust. This is the position that great leaders start from when dealing with others. Assume the best, give the judgment of charity, for Paul writes:
Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. 1 Cor. 13:4–7
I am Sorry
Saying I'm sorry is the handmaiden of humility. If we are humble we will quickly acknowledge our mistakes and sins and readily apologize. Pride does not say I am sorry. Becky Gaylord is correct when she asserts, “This word has prevented lawsuits, mended friendships and almost surely avoided wars. Too many bosses don’t use it — or know the magic it can create. Great leaders know it, and use it.”
Your words are the most powerful leadership tool you have. Use them wisely.