The 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.
- 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.