If you want to know whether a leader has the kind of confidence that moves crowds, paves the way forward, and paints a powerful vision of the future, pay attention to their language. There are words the most confident leaders live by, as well as phrases they would never dream of uttering.
Ladders asked 10 executives and leadership experts to share the phrases that are symbolic of their own confidence in the workplace, whether they’re navigating challenging times with their team, having a mundane day-to-day interaction, or leaning into their favorite mottos. Learn from their leadership and develop your own confidence-projecting communication style.
Change or die
“‘Change or die’ is a phrase I use because when a company has been around for decades, it’s easy for its leaders to stick with a formula they know. If anything, the pandemic has taught business leaders just how dangerous this static thinking can be in a constantly changing world,” says Tom A. Wolfe, President and CEO of Ziebart International, an automotive appearance and protection company.
“We feel we’ve overcome the pitfalls associated with a stagnant mindset thanks to this mantra. Specific examples to the auto industry include staying ahead of the curve with constantly evolving car models year-to-year. But it’s important to understand the market and demand and not roll out new products and services just to do it,” he says.
“Confident leaders never use the words can’t, won’t, or don’t because they have a positive outlook,” says leadership expert and author of “Be a J.E.D.I. Leader, Not a Boss” Omar L. Harris, who is also a former GM.
While those words can seem like a harmless, regular occurrence in conversations, it’s about what they represent.
“[Confident leaders] use vocabulary that moves them forward with words like ‘can,’ ‘will’ and ‘do.’ ‘Can’ is about one’s expansive mindset. ‘Will’ is about one’s degree of self-discipline and ability to progress towards goals every day. ‘Do’ is about taking personal accountability for your commitments.”
Make ‘no’ your vitamin
Will Moyer, CEO, and co-founder of Pizzaforno, a 24/7 automated pizzeria, has been used to hearing no, especially while expanding a brand-new company during a global pandemic. But he leverages rejection to increase his confidence.
“We’re expanding a two-year-old brand during a global pandemic and there were many people along the way we ended up proving wrong. Don’t let the ‘nos’ stop you, but rather fuel your resilience. If you believe in what you’re developing, then do your research and go with your entrepreneurial gut. We didn’t fit into any of the boxes, so we made our own category to disrupt an industry and pave a path where there wasn’t one,” he says.
Understand the why
“Empathy is a key value I preach when communicating with colleagues or customers. I say ‘understand the why’ every time someone asks my advice on reaching out to someone because it’s important to align objectives,” says Dustin Hansen, CEO of global shipping franchise organization InXpress.
“I’ve found that identifying, unlocking, and understanding someone’s ‘why’ when taking action generates the greatest chance for top performance and achievement – both for the individual and organization.”
I’d like to explore that idea
Deborah Sweeney, CEO of MyCorporation.com, a company that provides free EIN/Tax ID filings for businesses, says confident leaders would never shoot down an idea by saying “we tried that before and it didn’t work” or “that won’t work.” Instead, they use language that demonstrates they value input and contribution.
“A confident leader will not use these phrases because they are discouraging to their team. These phrases shut down the possibility of ideas and initiatives before they have the chance to begin,” she says.
“It is better to say something along the lines of ‘I’ll look into it’ or ‘I’d like to explore that idea.’ This encourages team members to contribute, and keep providing feedback, on their ideas and findings.”
I don’t know but I will find out
“Even when a leader does not know the answer to a question, or feels that information is not being shared sufficiently, signaling to employees that finding answers is an impossible task is a discouraging message,” says executive coach Wendy Hultmark.
That doesn’t mean self-assured leaders always have all the answers, but they avoid deferring accountability when speaking and choose personal responsibility instead.
“Leaders are often in a situation where they do not have all the answers, or perhaps do not agree with a decision that has been taken. A confident leader, however, resists the temptation to defer accountability to others. It takes confidence to sit in ambiguity with your employees and to know how to channel frustration productively during challenging times.”
Any decision is better than none
“It’s less important what you decide than it is if you decide” is a key phrase for Gino Wickman, author, and creator of the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS).
“Sometimes the only reason problems are present is because a decision hasn’t been made, and a leader’s inability to make a decision one way or the other is the antithesis of being a confident leader,” he says.
“Of course, it matters if the decisions that are made end up being good decisions, but at the same time you will never reach that good decision if you don’t make a decision in the first place. The number one common denominator of great leaders and leadership teams is making good decisions.”
Listen first, talk second
Mike Morini, CEO of WorkForce Software, shares the phrase “listen first, talk second” as a pillar of confident leadership.
“I like to live by this mentality since I believe it is critical when managing companies with staffs of all sizes. Before making decisions as an organization, it’s integral to listen to your employees’ feedback and adjust practices where necessary,” he says.
“A business is ultimately no bigger than the sum of its parts, so ensuring your employees are satisfied and feel appreciated is key to successfully leading and managing talent while supporting a strong company culture and positive employee experience during a challenging time.”
Let’s book a time to talk about it
You know how some leaders say, “my door is always open?” Amanda McDonald, Founder and President of Unbound Disability Claims, an organization that supports individuals in the process of making Social Security Disability claims, would never say that.
“That is unrealistic and unreasonable. My children do not even have that amount of access to my brain! I am always open to suggestions and feedback — but send me a message so we can schedule a time to talk. Then you will have my full attention and I am prepared for the conversation,” she says.
I’ll need this by _
“Confident leaders know that when requesting something or delegating a piece of work, people respond best to deadlines as well as knowing the mode in which to pass back the work,” according to leadership coach and consultant Jill Berquist, PCC.
“Giving the timeline as well as whether [a deliverable] is due via email, hard copy or shared file, is the clear and confident way to ask for something. Being nebulous is the sign of an unsavvy and unconfident leader.”