The Vocabulary of Transformational Leaders


"An honest man's word is as good as his bond."
–Miguel de Cervantes.

Once, not long ago, your word was your bond. In those days your word and reputation were one. You'd never dream of bringing dishonor to your family name by going back on your word.

In those simpler times, perhaps not so very far from here, business was conducted on the basis of promises exchanged and a handshake. You didn't need lawyers to do every deal. Honor was the code of the land and you did everything in your power to uphold your word as a matter of honor.

When you made a mistake — and everyone who is learning does— you took responsibility for your impact, offered a heart-felt apology, and cleaned up your mess.

Think those principles are extinct?

Well, I'm pretty sure your parents did business exactly that way. And they probably conducted their community lives guided by the same standards.

How far we appear to have drifted from our codes of conduct in just one generation! Oh, you might argue that life was lived on a smaller, slower, gentler and more localized scale.

But maybe that betrays our collusion to lower ethical standards? The news of the day is certainly filled with the consequences of such decline.

As the American philosopher and poet Ralph Waldo Emerson warned: "The corruption of man is followed by the corruption of language…In due time, the fraud is manifest, and words lose all power to stimulate the understanding or the affections."


Today, talk is everywhere and it is carried faster and further by the media. As a result, most people have come to accept a falsehood: that words are largely empty and impotent.

Old RWE must be thrashing about his heaven listening to contemporary public discourse, gathering as many lightening bolts as he can find. His arm or his aim appears to be less than a match for the task. I'm sure he's upset.

Or maybe, like a Don Quixote tilting at windmills, the call for the return of integrity is a delusional notion falling on deaf ears?

Well, I don't think so. And if you read this newsletter regularly, I suspect that you don't either.

Transformational leaders recognize the power of their words. They choose their words carefully and stand by them as a matter of principle. They recognize the direct relationship between character and communication.

They also know that clear communication, delivered in a sensitive and timely way, is a force that can be used to further the bonds of family, work and community. Words carry the power to change the world.


Just seven words, applied with the utmost of integrity and conviction, can transform the nature of our relationships. These simple, garden-variety words are often tossed off with barely a thought. Or, they are withheld at precisely the time their expression could make an enormous difference to outcomes.

Used with consciousness and precision, they have the power to guide large-scale, complex projects requiring thousands of participants; settle sensitive negotiations that depend on laser-focus and clarity; and remediate conflicted dynamics that threaten success.

In fact, used well, these words will significantly reduce misunderstanding that leads to conflict and breakdown.

These seven words are the foundation of the vocabulary of Transformational Leaders. They were also very likely in common usage in your parent's day, and in your own home.

They are:


When we say yes we send a clear message. Yes is used to confirm our agreement with someone's point of view. It is used to accept a request to do or refrain from doing something. Yes indicates that we have undertaken our part of an agreement or that we accept responsibility for something. When we say yes action begins.

Yes is not perhaps. When we muddle the two words we make a mess. Perhaps is an expression of uncertainty. It is a valid response when there is a requirement for further thought, negotiation, or where we may lack the authority for agreement.

I once had a client that got into such a fuss with one of their customers getting to yes. It was a case of complete misunderstanding over its meaning. As a result, bad feelings and mistrust took over negotiations. Lawyers were hired, lawsuits threatened.

Fortunately, someone decided to make one last attempt to settle the dispute. An important discovery was made. To one party, yes meant an agreement had been reached. To the other party it meant, "I see your point. Let's negotiate further."

The moral of the story? Make sure you're clear about the meaning of Yes.


Can you say no?

The word no is a decline to action. Or, it is used to express disagreement, contradiction or opposition.

Many people have a hard time saying no. As a result, they agree to things they are half-hearted about, fail to set limits and boundaries, and become doormats for other people.

The failure to say no is where passive-aggressive behavior is born. When we acquiesce to others because we are afraid to say no we have strengthening work to do. Or, we need to find an environment where this response is acceptable.

Many workload issues are a result of fear of saying no. Rather than prioritize or negotiate timelines, people often sabotage themselves by accepting something that they should refuse.

Sometimes avoiding no and going with the flow is the worst thing you can do. It can damage relationships as quickly as a misstated yes.


In today's world, outside of the military, nobody likes command and control environments. Barking orders at people rarely produces anything more than anger and compliance. If you want employee engagement — where people bring all their intelligences to work— you need to master the word please.

Please is a word that indicates that we respect that other people have rights and choices. People are not task-delivery systems to do our bidding. This recognition is especially important in environments where high collaboration is required for success.

Today, our workplaces are less hierarchical than ever before. Often we work in matrix structures, peer to peer, to produce results. That requires effectiveness, efficiency andcivility.

Civility is advanced by courteousness in speech and behavior. Please is one of the cornerstones of civility because it advances cooperation and community success. It is also an expression of mutuality, the only sustainable form of collaborative action.


When we appreciate the actions and impact of other people, thanks is the appropriate expression. It says that we recognize their efforts and the positive benefit that has occurred as a result.

Seems obvious, doesn't it?

Well, I have literally spent hundreds of hours in many organizations over the years listening to employees complain about the absence of this word at work and trying to rectify the damage that has occurred from its absence.

In my experience, a little more time spent by leaders saying thanks to their people and giving credit where credit is due, goes a long way to improving morale.

An honest, heart-felt thanks is one of the most empowering experiences you can have. This is especially true when the person delivering the appreciation is an authority figure, or is a figure of respect.

When people feel unappreciated, resentment builds. And where there is resentment there is a decline in productivity.

Is productivity important to your overall performance? Spend more time saying "Thanks. You did a great job." It takes very little time to recognize excellence.


The word help is appropriate when we need assistance. Many of us would rather spend hours or days in quiet desperation trying to figure something out or overworking rather than ask for help.

Maybe we think it betrays weakness, incompetence, or we're too proud to ask? But the request for assistance advances action. Refusal to ask for help always creates a bottleneck.

One of the classic forms of resisting help is a belief that it would take more time explaining the requirements than actually doing the work. I hear this reason a lot from control freaks. Well, Lone Ranger, if this is true you've got bigger problems than communication.

Another cause of the failure to ask for help is overwhelm. If we are inundated by the volume or difficulty of accomplishing a project, it causes a form of shock.

Not only are we incapable of understanding how to progress our work when we are overwhelmed, we also seem unable to voice the need for assistance. If you see a colleague or subordinate in paralysis, ask them if they need help. It might mitigate a disaster.


Sometimes Transformational Leaders need to put on the brakes. I know, everyone's on an adrenaline drip and thinks "the faster the better!" But you wouldn't drive your car that way, and the principles of prudent driving can also be applied to the workplace.

You wouldn't drive your car at 90 miles an hour in bad road conditions. That's reckless driving. Nor would you accelerate when there is poor visibility. If you're smart, you put on the break. You keep the vehicle under driver control at all times. That's where stop comes in. It's like the brake peddle on your car.

It is the appropriate word when people are running around like chickens with their heads cut off, are confused about what to do, or are on a collision course with each other. Activity that is manic is a sign of panic.

Stop can also act as a warning that limits or boundaries have been crossed. In those cases, it is a precursor to disciplinary action.


An apology is an expression of regret. The word sorry is used to rectify or repair damage done to relationships either because a task has been mishandled or an injury of some kind has been caused to another person.

We all make mistakes (even the male readers). It takes strength of character to take responsibility for screwing up. When you admit that you're human (even engineers should try this) and say that you're sorry, you initiate a remedy.

And you have to mean it when you say it. You can't just mumble something and disappear. A real apology includes a promise to change the behavior or correct the action that did the damage in the first place.

Sorry is a word that can go a long way to restore trust and recover good working relationships. Even the high and mighty need it as part of their vocabulary.



Mother Theresa, a pretty good executive from all accounts, said: "Our words are useless unless they come from the heart."

Words that become actions and actions that support words are the most generative tools that we have. When words are also heart-felt an extraordinary conversation has begun.

Posted on August 1, 2010 .