Do what you say and say what you mean
I have found that leadership is much less about what you say than about what you do. You might impart wisdom, have great ideas, and be able to get people excited with a good pep-talk, but your actions and behavior are what people remember. Do you practice the wisdom you preach? Do you follow through on the ideas you share? Do you act in ways and make decisions that allow people to get and stay excited about their work? If the answer to any of these questions is no, your charisma and advice mean very little and may come across as inauthentic, phony, or trite. The bottom line is that as leaders, we must commit to following through and delivering on what we’ve promised, preached, or recommended. Perhaps the fastest way to squander trust is to act in a manner that is contrary to something we said or to not act at all. Over the last ten years, I cannot count the number of projects that have been sidelined and great ideas that have gone unrealized due to leaders’ lack of follow through. Naturally, we are busy, priorities shift, and change is inevitable. But if circumstances are such that you are prevented from doing what you say you are going to, that reality must be named swiftly, explicitly and openly, even if it means admitting fault.
The complementary truth to doing what we say, is saying what we mean. How often in our lives do we hear things like, “that’s not what I meant,” or “that’s not what you told me” or “I didn’t mean it THAT way” or “why didn’t you just say that?”. Breakdowns in communication are common, making it essential for us to be clear in our requests, reports, and intentions. When talking to or leading others, we must present straightforward facts that are not subjugated by sugarcoating or outrageous attempts at being politically correct or “proper.” When we do not say what we mean, or when we only half-say what we mean, the people receiving the information are forced to translate and convert what we say into their own language, allowing them to interpret things more leniently or more severely than perhaps intended. This approach is inefficient at best and dangerous at worse. By being explicit about what we mean and using clear and authentic language, we can cut through the bullshit, avoid walking on eggshells, and minimize the time-consuming dance that is often required to get to the “truth.”
I find this dance excruciating and have therefore adapted my leadership approach to minimize it as much as possible. When having conversations with my direct reports, team, or supervisor, I give them permission to check me or clarify if they hear something that feels wrong or confusing. I try not to tiptoe around challenging conversations, especially when giving constructive feedback, and regularly push others to do the same with me. While I do not encourage lack of planning or tact, I have found that sometimes it’s better just to say something as it comes and then to follow with opportunities for exploration and clarification. This, of course, requires trust and commitment from all involved parties. We must be willing to trust the intentions of others, to suspend judgment, to read between the lines, and to ask clarifying questions. In my experience, this more direct approach and intentional commitment to two-way communication, increases the likelihood that others will understand the meaning of what I say and act accordingly. It also creates a culture of mutual accountability that ultimately yields increased trust, buy-in, and productivity.
While ‘doing what you say and saying what you mean’ can be applied within a work context, it is also a lesson that is important within our personal relationships outside of work. In all contexts, it is a challenging concept to live out. I find that I struggle less with doing what I say than with saying what I mean, particularly because I care so much about the feelings of others and their perceptions of me. As opposed to digging into the many moments when I have struggled in this area, the following outlines some (but certainly not all) of the situations in my life when it was hard to say what I meant, and I fell victim to the “dance.” I find that being aware and proactive planning help me, so I offer these as a potential starting point for exploring moments when you may have difficulty truly, accurately, or fully saying what you mean.