Why Your Words as a Leader Matter More Than You Realize

Helpful guidelines for using your words wisely

Leaders, your words matter. More than you think.

No matter how many or how few followers you have as a leader, your words matter. A lot.

Like many of you, I was horrified watching the historic and ugly assault on the U.S. Capitol on January 6th.

After watching Congress return to the floor and waking up the following day, I was left reflecting on so many things and felt so many emotions.

That day’s events, and the long run up to it, have left me thinking about the power of words and leadership.

You and I have watched people get angrier and angrier over the last five years. I, and many others, have written about the damaging impact of tribalization, polarization and the hate that passes for so much of social media, public discourse and even the comments on social media and on sites like this.

It’s deeply alarming to me. It’s been devastating to see us devolve to this level as a culture.

It horrifies me even more that the church has descended into a lot of the hatred, vitriol and division that has come to plague our culture.

Especially in a season like this, the culture needs an alternative to itself, not an echo of itself.

In the hours after the assault on the Capitol, I was talking to a much younger friend. He’s 22.

I sensed that he saw the events of January 6th as less shocking than I did. As almost resigned to them. Or, that they were somehow normal … like some video game that just happened to play out in real life.

And then I remembered that this is how much public and private discourse has been over his lifetime. It saddened me greatly.

I assured him, being three decades older than he was, that this was not the way humans always interact. And it shouldn’t be how we interact moving forward.

Which brings me to words. My words. Your words. And the power of words we wield as leaders, even for the vast majority of us who are private citizens.

WORDS CREATE WORLDS

Leaders, your words create worlds.

I promise you that some of the most damaging moments in your life happened when someone said something to you.

They didn’t do anything to you in that moment (hit you or assault you physically). They just said something that pierced your heart and has stuck with you for years, decades.

The fact that it may not be true (i.e., You’re stupid/fat/will never amount to anything) is irrelevant. It crushed you. And, it still does.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me is a lie.

I’ve seen people whose lives have changed direction because someone told them they didn’t have what it takes, so they stopped acting like they did.

For better or worse, words shape things that come into being.

This has probably been one of the hardest lessons for me as an adult, let alone as a leader.

I like to think of myself as just one voice among many, but as soon as I occupied a position of leadership, that changed. Suddenly, your words weigh 800 pounds, even if you don’t want them to.

They weigh 800 pounds in your organization or church, and every time you post on social. It’s so easy to forget that people are watching, listening and taking cues.

People look to you not just for direction but for tone and influence.

Your tone shapes theirs.

The way you speak and think as a leader is the way your followers learn to speak and think. That’s a very big weight.

This is true personally, too. Words I’ve spoken helped tear down my marriage, until I decided to use words to help heal it.

Words can destroy a relationship. Apologies can restore them.

None of this should shock us.

The Christian Scriptures tell us the universe began with a word. God spoke, and it came into being.

Biblically, blessing and cursing are shown to have power. Just ask Isaac, Esau and Jacob whether words once spoken change futures.

You and I have the power to bless, to curse and to shape the lives of the people we lead.

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The question becomes then, leaders, what kind of world are you creating with the words you’re speaking?

NEUTRAL WORDS REALLY AREN’T A THING

The longer I lead, the more I realize there are no neutral words in leadership.

Everything shapes something.

It’s easy to think you’re being neutral. You’re not neutral.

You’re either …

… speaking life or speaking death.

… Healing or harming.

… Helping or getting in the way.

I’ve had to learn this the hard way.

I can be careless with my words. Cruel sometimes. I’m an Enneagram 8 and trained as a lawyer too, so using words as a weapon comes easily and naturally to me.

I can use my words as weapons, and I can do it well.

Or, I can use them to build up, to give life, not to destroy or harm.

One of the great traps in leadership is to say the phrase, “Well, I just …” in front of anything that justifies your words.

Well, I was just …

… telling the truth.

… saying what everyone needed to hear.

… explaining what I did.

Having played this game for too long, I finally realized I wasn’t just …

I was either making things better or making them worse.

And, pretty much every time I start to justify myself, I’m making things worse.

Check your social media feed … there’s a lot of justification.

3 PRACTICAL THINGS YOU CAN DO ABOUT YOUR WORDS

So, what do you do with all this?

My team and I are trying to make this space one of the good places on the internet, where people who don’t always agree can come together without being disagreeable.

For the most part, the comments and dialogue on this site reflect that, and when they don’t, we’ll delete a comment here or there to make sure the 95% of people who appreciate meaningful dialogue can speak and be heard.

I continue to try to make the rest of my life about bringing words that heal and bring hope.

When it comes to the churches and organizations you lead and the online space you occupy, here are a few things to remember that have helped me.

1. Ask What Your Words Will Do Before You Speak Them.

Two quick things—one that happened a millennia ago and another in the last decade.

According to the biblical account, when Adam and Eve ate from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil, they actually received knowledge. Their eyes were opened.

Here’s the problem though. Having the knowledge of God without the wisdom of God is a trap. You suddenly know things you don’t have the power to properly address or solve. It explains so much of human history.

Fast forward to the last decade, when all of a sudden billions of us have access to information and knowledge at a level never known to humanity, and yet lack the wisdom to know what to do with it.

The algorithms used by social media outlets and search engines further inflame your echo chamber to align you with voices who agree with you and are more extreme than you, and actively work against your ability to think freely and independently.

All of a sudden you have all this information you don’t exactly know what to do with and a keyboard sitting right in front of you.

How do you find wisdom in the midst of the insanity that is public dialogue today?

Before you speak, ask how it helps.

Ask how it heals.

Ask what it will help accomplish.

If it doesn’t help, doesn’t heal, and doesn’t do good, don’t speak or post. Especially if you’re a Christian.

2. Vent Privately, Not Publicly (Write a Hot Letter).

So, what if you’re still mad?

Try this: Vent privately, not publicly.

If you vent privately, you won’t need to vent publicly.

Abraham Lincoln and King David give us great examples of this.

Lincoln, known for his calm temper and extraordinary ability to forge unity in a highly divided culture, was subject to angry emotions, too.

As his biographer, Doris Kearns Goodwin notes, Lincoln would often write ‘hot letters’—angry diatribes against his opponents. He would then put the letter aside until he cooled down and could address the situation more rationally.

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When his papers were opened decades later, historians found a raft of Lincoln’s hot letters with Lincoln’s notation at the bottom of each, “Never signed. Never sent.”

He told his cabinet ministers to do the same thing—write hot letters when they were angry and never send them.

When his Secretary of War was furious with a general, Lincoln told him to write it all down, after which, Lincoln told him to throw the letter in the waste paper basket.

“But it took me two days to write,” Stanton told Lincoln.

“Yes, yes, and it did you ever so much good,” Lincoln replied. “You feel better now. That is all that is necessary. Just throw it in the basket.” (Thanks to Kearns Goodwin for this account.)

King David did a similar thing.

I was always amazed at how David decided he would never lift his hand against Saul, an exceptionally irrational and troubled king.

Then, one day I read his diary where he vented against his enemies. We call it Psalm 109.

This is what David wrote about his enemy:

“May no one extend kindness to him
  or take pity on his fatherless children.
May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord;
  may the sin of his mother never be blotted out.”

Slamming his enemy’s kids and dragging his mother into this? And, this is in the Bible? Trust me, David goes on and on and on.

But because he went on and on privately, he never acted publicly. That venting stayed between him and God and never leaked into his public leadership.

Here’s what I learned from reading Psalm 109: Turn to God with your frustrations about people, because if you don’t turn to God, you’ll turn on them.

Vent privately, and you won’t need to vent publicly.

(Note: In addition to prayer, very close friends can be helpful for this.)

3. Remember That Word Issues Are Heart Issues.

Finally, as I’ve wrestled down my words, tone and the impact of my leadership, I’ve realized that word issues are really heart issues.

As Jesus so clearly said, out of the overflow of the heart your mouth speaks.

Word issues are heart issues. The only way to really fix your words is to fix your heart.

Years of counseling, prayer, confession, reflection and feedback from the people around me are helping me reshape my words. That continues to be a work in progress.

Your heart and mind are also deeply connected, which means a lot of this also goes back to how you think. Again, the algorithm isn’t helping us right now. It escalates and inflames your divisive thinking.

Which is why renewing your mind is so important.

My friend Craig Groeschel has a very powerful forthcoming book that I’ve had a chance to read. If you struggle with negative thoughts, anxiety or even anger, I’d suggest you grab a copy of Winning the War in Your Mind. Craig and I also have a great conversation about his journey and learnings in this area that will release on my leadership podcast this month.

Changing your mind changes your words and ultimately, your life.

A FEW MORE THOUGHTS:

If you want to read deeper into the issues I’ve talked about here, I’ve written a few other posts that I’d recommend you read today:

Why Do We Hate Each Other So Much? (5 Reasons Anger Is the New Epidemic)

The Death of News, Re-Tribalization and The Future Church

Why Every Good Leader Should Escape the Algorithm (Before You Can’t … or Won’t)

WHAT’S HELPING YOU?

Leaders, it’s going to take all of us to help heal a very deep wound we’ve inflicted in ourselves in this moment.

No matter how many followers you have or don’t have, your words as a leader matter more than you think.

What’s helped you speak and write words that heal?

Read more from Carey Nieuwhof »

This article originally appeared on CareyNieuwhof.com and is reposted here by permission.