What’s in a Word? : The Unspoken in Leadership


Sue Stockdale explores the power of words—what they mean and how they influence us.  

Every day I make time to have a cup of coffee and take a few minutes to do a crossword puzzle. Not a brain teasing cryptic one, but a straightforward one which provides a sense of satisfaction as I work my way through the clues. It seems to stimulate my thinking, broaden my vocabulary and hopefully delay the onset of old age! What I have noticed over time is how pattern recognition comes into play.  Get one or two letters in the word, and my brain spots the pattern and comes up with the answer. And it’s this idea of words and patterns that piqued my thinking to write this article. 

Words, are at the heart of the activities offered by the EB Centre in helping leaders to strengthen their culture and develop balanced leadership. Their Qualities of Practice card pack offer fifty-two-word options for an individual to consider and reflect on. As I looked through the pack, I was struck by how much words influence our day to day behaviour at work and can be interpreted so differently by individuals. What seems like being inquiring to one person, can seem discriminating to another. I wondered what’s behind a word, what’s hidden, when the word is spoken, what remains untold, and how that impacts leadership? 

Words that contradict

Words can introduce a degree of contradiction and discomfort for a leader, known as cognitive dissonance in the field of psychology and described as—the mental discomfort experienced by a person who holds two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values. This discomfort is triggered by a situation in which a person's belief clashes with new evidence perceived by the person. For example, when a leader striving to be collaborative is told by their colleagues that their behaviour seems to be very individualistic, it causes them distress and they often then try to find a way to resolve the discomfort, rather than appreciate that both are valuable, necessary and can work together.

Words can lead to valuable leadership learning

I have also observed how leaders at work often display repeated patterns of behaviour, perhaps driven by the words that are uppermost in their mind, or maybe even in their subconscious. The word Results keep many leaders awake at night, driving them to focus on outputs, sometimes to the detriment of their health and wellbeing, and their team’s motivation. It’s only when they take time to reflect on their pattern of behaviour, perhaps in a coaching session, that they are able to consider new options and ways to approach their challenges differently. 

Take DeAnne Aussem as an example. As Founder and Managing Director of the US Leadership Coaching Center of Excellence, as well as MD of Learning & Development at PwC, she experienced first-hand the impact of stress and burnout through striving for ‘results’, and now believes that to be effective at work, you have to be human first. In her interview with Hetty Einzig, she explained that she has been relentless in talking about coaching as a key to wellbeing, and the two together as key to leadership. Now PwC’s professional framework has ‘Whole Leadership’ at its centre and their Discover programme has coaching and energy management at its core, with each participant working with a leadership coach. It seems like a useful activity to be reminded of the word ‘humanness’. 

What’s in the words ‘Daring’ and ‘Risk’?

The word Daring has resurged in popularity in today’s leadership vocabulary—perhaps partly spurred on by University of Houston’s research professor Brenè Brown’s popular TED Talk and subsequent books Dare to Lead and Daring Greatly.  She recalls being invited by the TEDx organisers to ‘talk about whatever makes you feel awesome’ which in effect gave her permission to be daring. Brown had spent a lot of time researching how vulnerability is at the core of meaningful human experiences and trusted the conclusions that she had drawn from her data. The message in Brenè Brown’s TED talk was that in order to live wholeheartedly we need to have the courage to be vulnerable, dispelling the myth that it is seen as a weakness. Daring to her meant sharing that message in a public forum. She did not realise just how strongly that message would resonate with people with over 43 million people now having viewed it with translations available in over 38 languages. 

A contrasting example is a leader I coached recently where to them being daring meant having a difficult conversation about their next promotion with their boss. To her although she knew that her boss would support it, she still felt in her own mind that somehow, she did not deserve it, and therefore it felt daring to discuss it.  

It certainly seems like the word daring has a degree of risk attached to it, and the word Risk is something that we as a society are becoming less accepting of. In business, leaders want their people to take risks, but somehow don’t want to accept the consequences of what that risk may mean.  

I was discussing this concept of risk with Carl Sanders-Edwards recently. He is founder of Adeption, an AI powered leadership coaching app. As a Fulbright Scholar he studied for an MBA at Babson College, Boston and during his two years there he learned how important it was as a leader to demonstrate risk-taking through ‘entrepreneurial thought and action’. Explaining how these principles relate to leadership today he says;

 ‘Don’t do anything you don’t believe in, because it’s always hard. You will run out of energy if you don’t have the passion for it or if it’s not in service of something bigger than you, which offers up a really important leadership principle. Think of risk in terms of acceptable loss, and that’s a subtle yet important reframe. Also start with the means you have, rather than what you don’t have. So often we think that if only we had X we could get started, yet if we think about the resources we do have, often we have more than we believe, and it’s really energising, and finally the key is just to take action-iterate and learn as you go.’ 

My final thought on words is to make time to stop and reflect on what a word means to you, and how it influences your behaviour. Sanders-Edwards gets a reminder every day on his phone asking him “what are the stories in your head, are they positive or negative?’ That that short string of words has stopped him in his tracks every day and caused him to reflect on what words are driving his behaviour.   

And as I take time to think about words- what is the answer to 11 across today?......

About Sue Stockdale

Sue Stockdale can be described in three words – intuitive, purposeful and goal-focused. She is a Master Executive Coach and leadership specialist. Her clients include leaders in corporates, elite sport and not-for-profit organisations in UK, Africa, New Zealand, India and North America. She has represented Scotland in athletics and was the first UK woman to ski to the Magnetic North Pole. As an author, Sue has written several business books and is an avid commentator on the changing leadership landscape. 

Vicki Gray