This is why words (still) mean something

Photo credit: Leeroy for

There is a reasonable chance that this post will offend some readers. It touches upon free speech, accountability, and the premise that words mean something. I thought it would be enough to write it and file it away. It wasn’t.

I believe we live in a world where actions still speak louder than words, but less frequently. Blogs, news stories, tweets, and Facebook posts provide a flat and imperfect image of actions taken and things done. Too often, the stories act as poor substitutes for actions not taken at all. And in some cases, the stories bear no resemblance to the physical events they describe.

For today’s examples, we turn to the escalating US political theater over the past few weeks, with a President focused on fixing blame, shuffling staff, and, incredibly, encouraging police to use more force. Simultaneously, a hedge fund manager implodes during a self-inflicted interview by belittling future peers two weeks before his employment starts as the chief communicator for the White House. Both men wave away their behavior as jokes.

The best leaders make mistakes, admit them, own them, apologize, mend relationships, and move on with the intent and expectation of being better in the future.

The worst ones make mistakes, double down on them, rationalize their behavior, continue disrespecting the people around them, and loudly complain that they are, in fact, not the perpetrators, but the victims of unfair standards and expectations.

From the First Amendment to the US Constitution: “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech.” Well, indeed.

As leaders, our words precede our actions. We discuss strategy with the team, create plans and tactics for tackling projects, and craft and deliver messages to our employees about where we want to take the company. And then we walk out the door and take multiple actions to deliver on our promises.

Words lie at the foundation of how we show up as people and leaders.

Words mean something to us and others. We consciously choose words to clarify our thoughts. Words help others align with our mission, values, and vision. Words are used to direct small or significant changes in direction — 10 degrees to port, 14 degrees starboard. President Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address is 272 words long, about one-half of this post. It moved a nation then and stirs our imaginations still.

Words are also used to dissemble, confuse, gaslight, and abuse. As with all leadership, motive matters. We can use words to unite or divide. We can use words to clarify or obfuscate. We can use words to make people feel more than or less than.

Each of us chooses the words we use, the tone with which we deliver them, and the message that we intend. Our audience decides what the words mean to them. As speakers, it’s our responsibility to make sure our intended message is heard and understood by our listeners.

The power and meaning of the message also flow from the speaker. The consistency between his words and behaviors helps us choose what the message means to us. If we deem the speaker trustworthy, the message lands with credible impact. If we don’t, the message falls flat.

If somebody behaves consistently over weeks, months, and years, it is foolish to expect a sudden transformation — in any direction. We become what we consistently say and do. It is possible for transformation to occur, but challenging and rare, especially without first recognizing when we need to change our approach.

As leaders, this is a reminder to check our own words and behaviors to make sure we are raising our standards, not lowering them. Our ability to lead and influence others rests on whether people believe we care about them and their problems, whether we are committed to making things better, and whether our words and deeds align.

If you look around and are having trouble finding role models right now, look in the mirror and become one instead. Today is an excellent day to step up and show our people what’s possible when we hold ourselves accountable to higher standards and choose our words thoughtfully.