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Leadership Language: How to Speak Like a CEO

Leadership Language: How to Speak Like a CEO

Integrity, credibility, compassion, creativity: all are hallmarks of CEO leadership. The language of leadership is crucial for the CEO – or for others who inhabit the C-suite. When it’s time to communicate, how can you convey these qualities – and more – in your message? When the message involves change (and any new initiative involves change), you have to build on a platform of clear and precise communication.

When you are the person in charge, it’s critically important for you to approach your employees, your team or your constituents in a way that prepares them to engage with your ideas.

Today, great ideas aren’t enough for the CEO.

You’ve got to be able to answer the one question that’s on everyone’s mind – and that means everyone on your payroll, as well.

Anytime you are speaking to your team, your employees, or even your family, there’s one question on everyone’s mind:


  • When someone knocks on your office door, the first thing that pops into your head is: “WHY are you here?” (of course, you don’t blurt that out loud. Hopefully you say it a little nicer than that).
  • When you tell your kids to do something, what’s the first word out of their mouths? Answer: WHY?
  • When it’s time to rally the troops around a new initiative, everyone wants to know: WHY should we do this? And, by the way, if the answer is “Because it’s your job” or “Because I said so”, you’re missing the point of this post. While it may be true that you don’t owe anyone an explanation, it’s also true that your team deserves one.

Choose the path that gets you to the results you want; if a hard-driving CEO style is all you’ve got, maybe you should consider some coaching. Your words are vitally important to your team; choose them carefully.

Making your message matter requires that you think about the needs of the most important person in the room: your audience. Even if your audience is paid to listen and execute your vision, you still have to create a story that inspires. Otherwise, your elevator has stopped at a floor called “compliance”.

Compliance is not the hallmark of CEO leadership.

Consider an unexpected approach, with a straightforward look at a challenging situation, as you leverage the power of honesty as a leader.

  • “Times are tough, and we’ve got more cuts in front of us. Unless… and this is a big ‘unless’…unless we can increase operational efficiency by 12% in the next quarter.”
  • “There is a way to make it through this; we just have to work together on the plan.”
  • “Sacrifices are going to have to be made. We will see if we really understand the difference between discipline and regret, my friends.”
  • “People have been underestimating us for a long time, especially our competition. Today, the announcement of our new distribution is going to change the game. We will have more shelf space than ever before, but it’s still not enough. I need your help...”

As a CEO, it may be difficult to show the vulnerability that’s implied in a statement like, “I need your help.”

For a leader, the courage to speak honestly and personally can be a powerful and important communication tool.

No one individual, no matter how gifted, acts alone. Engaging others in a way that recognizes their humanity, and yours, is the most candid kind of conversation. The real power of honesty, for current or aspirational CEOs, hinges on your ability to clearly and directly say exactly what’s needed.

And remember, you don’t have to carry the CEO title to tell someone the truth.