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Authentic Leadership Means Eliminating Buzzwords and BS

List of BuzzwordsThe following is an excerpt from my book One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership (you can get your copy here).  This post focuses on the importance of eliminating buzzwords and instead simply speaking from your heart. 

If you have been in the professional world for more than a year, you have probably heard something like this a million times:

“My leadership philosophy is to optimally leverage the passions of my people such that at the end of the day we maximize employee engagement to get them to think outside the box and synergistically drive value-added activities in a profit-maximizing way that is a win-win for our people, our shareholders, and our customers.”

It sounds great.  It is polysyllabic.  It uses words with long definitions.  I have only one question: what the hell does it mean?

I want you to wipe away all those unproductive phrases and words that get in the way of you being an authentic leader.  Consider this a bit of a slap upside the head.  You may not realize how deeply ingrained some bad behaviors have become in your daily routine.  You have likely looked through the same lens on the world for a while and that lens colors the way you view leadership.  The color of that lens is determined largely by your organization’s culture.  Somewhere along the way that culture has shaped you more than you are shaping it.  We are going to reverse that dynamic.

Leaders should determine the culture of their organizations – not the other way around.  Sure, leaders have to operate within their given organizational culture but they do not have to succumb to its tendency to create drones and sacrifice their personality to it.  Some aspects of culture are good.  Others. . . well. . . not so much.  One thing I have noticed over the years is many organizations have cultures that lead people to articulate ideas in a less-than-genuine way.  In other words, we end up using buzzwords, which if left unchecked, turn into bullshit.

The worst part is that these buzzwords have migrated from corporate strategy and consultant presentations into how we talk about ourselves as leaders.  We are taught that all good leaders must have a leadership philosophy.  As we cave in to the pressure of “me too” we frantically assemble a philosophy of our own.  After days or weeks of effort, we end up with a lengthy manifesto that articulates our leadership philosophy in terms worthy of inclusion in a Ph.D. program syllabus.  We think to ourselves “Since I finally have a leadership philosophy of my own, I must be a leader in the organization now, right?”

Then it happens.  Our team members open the document.  They see “Page 1 of 13” and their eyes glaze over.  As leaders, we have succumbed to the pressure of business schools and their frameworks.  Sometimes we are simply emulating leaders at levels above us who have used fancy words to define their leadership philosophy and we choose to use fancy words too.  These pressures and weaknesses on our part are turning us into vapid clones.  When this happens, we are turning leadership into something disingenuous, ephemeral, and bland.

The only way I know to roll back the tide of all this meaningless jargon is to say what you really mean.  Words spoken from the heart and the gut are clear, concise, meaningful, and genuine.  They help ground you and your team.  They signal that you are willing to take a stand for something you believe in instead of watering down your beliefs with complicated words so you will not offend someone or so your simple thoughts will sound more important.  Using buzzwords makes you sound less intelligent.  Filling your leadership philosophy with obscure or difficult to define concepts diminishes peoples’ trust in you.  Both behaviors are counterproductive and hinder you from reaching your goal of becoming an authentic leader.  That is why you are here, isn’t it?

Allow me to share a story that demonstrates the trouble jargon-filled leadership philosophies can cause, as well as how an executive avoided such a trap.  I know several executives who were members of the same senior leadership team.  After a reorganization, their new boss, Jared, worked hard to get the team to gel.  The team members were mistrustful both of Jared and of each other.  The team was quickly devolving into chaos.  Jared decided he would break through the dysfunction by getting everyone on the team to know each other better as people and as leaders.  He held a three-day long offsite where he and a consultant he knew well worked with the team members on leadership.  They discussed what leadership meant to them and related leadership to the corporate competency model.

The seminal event of the offsite required each leader to share their leadership philosophy with the group.  The expectation was the philosophy would be a typewritten document they would read aloud.  Jared read his leadership philosophy first.  It said all the right things.  It emphasized the importance of teamwork, trust, hard work, and fun.  When he finished ten minutes later, he asked every other member of the team to share their leadership philosophy with the group.  After the third reading, the room sounded like a beehive from all the buzzwords.

Craig, one of the team members, grew more and more visibly uncomfortable and frustrated with every reading.  By the time all the other team members finished reading their leadership philosophies, Craig’s lips were nothing more than a short, thin line covering his clenched teeth.  He gently shook his head from side to side as he stood to take his turn.  He set his typewritten leadership philosophy homework aside and took a moment to look each of his colleagues in the eye.  Craig’s gaze stopped at Jared.  With a calm, clear voice Craig stated “My leadership philosophy is simple.  Say what you mean.  Do what you say.”  He then turned and took his seat again.

With eight short words Craig had said more than every other member of the team – combined.   Those two sentences enabled him to swat away the buzzwords and quickly share a clear articulation of his standards, his beliefs, and his code of conduct.  Everyone on the team instantly knew what he expected of them and what they could expect of him.  Craig’s statement was practical and applicable to every interaction he could ever have at work.  Just like that, he demonstrated the power of one well-crafted leadership maxim.  As a result of Craig’s actions several members of the leadership team later shortened their own philosophies and the members of Craig’s team always knew how he felt about any situation and what he planned on doing about it.

I’d like to debunk the conventional wisdom that leadership philosophies must be full of buzzwords.  It destroys the myth that the longer the philosophy is, the better it must be.  Clear, meaningful, and simple are the rules that apply to maxims.  By replacing buzzwords with personal stories and experience, you will humanize yourself as a leader.  In many cases you will endear yourself to your team.  They will understand what you stand for and appreciate the time and effort you put into distilling your philosophy down into a short, crisp document.

Throwing a bunch of words on paper is easy.  Figuring out which words truly matter and arranging them in an accessible and compelling way takes energy and thought.  It is that kind of energy I am asking you to invest in writing your maxims.  The leadership maxims approach will help any leader articulate their leadership philosophy on one piece of paper.  The approach will help you make leadership personal, inspiring and exciting again.

How do you demonstrate authenticity?  How do you avoid the trap of excessive use of buzzwords?  Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

One Piece of Paper- If you’re serious about strengthening the connection between you and your team, grab yourself a copy of One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful, Personal Leadership. There are plenty of suggestions in there for how you can be a more authentic leader. CLICK HERE to get your copy.

20 Responses to “Authentic Leadership Means Eliminating Buzzwords and BS”

  1. Elizabeth says:

    Excellent advice to start the week. Thank you.

    • Love, love, love the simplicity. This is so similar to the approach I have taken in my career it is eerie (in a good way!). I call this “Get-Real Leadership” and just published a book with the same name. You will laugh at page 72 of my book….Blessings, Harry

  2. Ralph says:

    Bravo Mike. Brilliantly said. I simply love the “say what you mean and do what you say.” I am in a leadership position myself and one saving grace is that I don’t have an MBA. Nothing wrong with having an MBA but in my time I have found that strategies can get overly complex and with that the explanation for achieving them.

    My team is highly successful and the one thing that resonated with me when I started, right or wrong, is the managing principle of my firm suggesting that when communicating a strategy to make sure his 6 year old son could understand it. Simple, effective language. No, we do not treat people like children; quite the contrary but flowery language is not tolerated. Tangible concepts only.

    Thanks for this post. Great read.

    • Mike Figliuolo says:

      Glad you enjoyed it Ralph and also thrilled to hear there are others out there working hard to eliminate the bullcrap.

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  4. Joe Z says:

    This definitely resonates with me, and I would really love it if your assertions were true. Unfortunately, from what I have seen from a variety of meetings over the years involving senior leadership, at a variety of companies people seem to credentialize themselves by spouting buzzwords. I knew one guy who admitted to me that if he found himself in a situation where he was at a lack of information, buzzwords helped him at least sound like he knew what he was talking about, and the people he was presenting to seemed to buy into it. When others try to take the more concise route, they are viewed as not being insightful. It drives me crazy sometimes and while I have tried to resist it, sometimes you get pulled into this behavior as well.

  5. It’s not only the leaders that need to cut the b.a.l.o.n.e.y. It’s organizations as well. We could do without the empty acronyms that help you remember them, too.

  6. Steve says:

    I become disconnected when I hear a speaker using trite and overused expressions-of-the-day, i.e. moving forward, where the rubber hits the road, banner year, etc. Why can’t people use plain speech? “Like” and “you know” are also big offenders. I proofread a lot of copy at my organization and as a rule, edit out superfluous words that add nothing to the content.

  7. Laura says:

    Guilty as charged! Thanks for the slap! I needed that!

  8. Mária says:

    Great article! I have cringed at Buzzwordese for years. (Remember Newspeak, from George Orwell’s classic, 1984?) My last employer, a local government agency, was crazy for buzzwords: “outside the box,” “proactive,” “leverage,” “empowerment,” “flatten the organization,” “maximize,” and the newest additions, “expectations” and “sense of urgency,” this last one meaning that everything was a crisis. My favorite was “customer”: everyone with whom one dealt was a customer, though you did not sell him anything: co-workers were “internal customers,” and everyone else “external customers.” With a B.A. in English and a law degree, a heightened sensitivity to the value, hence power, of words made this jibber-jabber especially painful. (This might be part of why it is my former employer: I never learned to speak the (non-)language!)

    Relatedly, have you noticed that businesses now say “customer care,” rather than “customer service”? Some now refer to customers as “guests,” even if the business is a retail venue, not a hotel, resort or the like.

    This addiction to gibberish also seems inevitably accompanied by an addiction to PowerPoint: executive management decreed every presentation to the Board of Trustees or any of its Committees had to have a PowerPoint, if only 1 or 2 slides. Made me wonder how I managed in the courtroom with just a podium, notes, and that least useful of all technologies, a brain…………

    Keep up the great work, Mike: you are absolutely correct, and funny!

  9. Kim says:

    Funny… I recently took a trip with some colleagues and we were discussing our “Buzzwords”… I followed up with the message below to the group (it also includes two of my pet peeve words.. impordent and anyways… neither are actually words):

    “I felt we were an engaged group willing to get out of the box and shift our paradigms to allow us to un-silo ourselves. We are definitely in the house, on the bus and in the right seat on the boat. We know there is no I in team. But there is no WE either! But there is a ME if you rearrange the letters. It doesn’t matter if you are a buffalo leader or a goose, you can save those starfish one at a time. We can improve our ROI by CBWA. Never hesitate to offer up a BHAG based on a SWAG.

    Its impordent to remember that frankly, at the end of the day, holistically… it is what it is!”

    So anyways!
    Kim

    • Scott says:

      I had to comment on your article. You make an excellent point. So excellent in fact that you could of done it in one paragraph.

      • Mike Figliuolo says:

        Thanks for the thought Scott. Glad you liked the point. Clearly you’ve got a flair for writing succinct and insightful ideas – I invite you to submit a guest post sometime. Would love to see some of your work.

  10. Jane says:

    TESTIFY!!!!!

    I once sat in on a meeting at a major corporation where both the senior management person in the room and the high paid consultant on teleconference spent about 45 minutes saying absolutely nothing. I looked around the room and saw a bunch of people trying very hard to look like they understood with furrowed brows and nodding heads writing scrupulous notes. I thought to myself “no one has the guts to stand up and say that none of this makes any sense.” This same senior management person got very frustrated later in the project when his team did not deliver what he expected. Maybe he should have just told them in plain English.

    Marketing buzzwords are the acceptable way to bully others in a business setting. Most people use them to cover up what they don’t know and to intimidate their coworkers who don’t understand their oh so “advanced” vocabulary. I cannot tell you how many creative briefs I’ve read over the years that are full of utter BS. Overuse of buzzwords has become an epidemic and ends up causing more confusion than anything else.

  11. Miette says:

    Buzzwords have gotten my hackles up for many years. Many times my reaction to a string of such empty words has been to ask the buzzworder: “what does that actually mean?” Most of the time I just get more of the same in reply.

    Sigh.

    Perhaps the only solution is to continue to utilize (!) our Buzzword Bingo gameboards?

  12. Great article Mike! In my work, I see these buzzwords fly around like sparrows building a nest – only I don’t see them as effective as the sparrow’s efforts. In fact, I feel that the beauty of the programs we deliver in an effort to “team build” help break down those buzzwords into simple, concise concepts that go beyond language and celebrate true authenticity. Because everyone has their own internal dictionary that may differ from someone else’s, sometimes language gets in the way. So, we drum the metrics. It works! Going to re-post this and share with our readers…

  13. […] Authentic Leadership Means Eliminating Buzzwords and BS… […]

  14. […] Authentic Leadership Means Eliminating Buzzwords and BS… […]

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