Leadership Revelation

Cat clearly sees its own way. Clearly.

Recently, I had a revelation. It came by happenstance. I was doing research for a piece I’m working on about the Language of Leadership (more on that in a later post).  At some point, I realized I hadn’t defined leadership. It means so many things to so many people, clearly defining was important.

Since the origins of a word give so much darn insight into its true–and/or most useful–meaning, I did some serious online foraging on the etymology of the word “leadership”.

What I learned stunned me.

Etymologically speaking, leadership means: to see one’s own way.

Whhhhhaaaaaat? The origin of the meaning of the word leadership has nothing to do with other people. Leading them, inspiring them, managing them. Nothing. Aside from the leader themself, there’s nary another person to be found in the definition.

Mind blown, right? Least mine was. I’ve been ruminating on this ever since.

The idea of leadership being about other people is, in fact, quite modern. Yet that modern definition  has taken root with great force. Leadership has become synonymous with leading others. It implies that one has followers.

This modern definition begs a question: if you can’t see your own way clearly, how can you lead others effectively?


In a word, are you lacking a leader who leads?

leadership, leading, lead, leaderless, leaderlyIf an organization doesn’t have a leader, it is leaderless.

If an organization has a leader, it…has a leader. There’s no adjective to officially refer to the state of someone or something displaying leadership.

Why is that?!

I first started wondering about this almost two years ago. And I’ve written about since.

I’m bringing it up again because language reflects our society, our values, our opinions. So what does it say that we have a word for when we don’t have a leader but not one for when we do? 

Dive deeper in this week’s podcast:

Being leaderly when leaderless

Quick follow-up to yesterday’s post on The Importance of Being Leaderly.

There is an Official Adjective that speaks to leadership in an organization: leaderless.

Yes, that’s right. We have a word to describe a lack of leadership but not one to describe a surfeit of leadership. Nope, not one to describe the idea of an organization being filled with people imbued with the confidence to–regardless of title or status–be leaderly.

We have a word that speaks directly to the terrible state of affairs of being, gulp, leaderless. But not one that speaks to the awesome state of affairs of being filled to the brim with people who–again regardless of title or status–can and will step up and lead.

On a day when the United States has been all but shut down due to a distinct lack of leadership on the part of our Capital ‘L’ Leaders, it seems fitting to look at the power of being leaderly. This power goes largely untapped and un-encouraged. Clearly, that needs to change.

The Importance of Being Leaderly

Awhile ago, I started using the term ‘leaderly’, e.g. “That was a tough situation and you handled it in a very leaderly fashion.” I make up words all the time so didn’t give much thought to this new addition to my personal lexicon. It’s a funny sounding word and therefore catchy. I noticed other people started using it. Again, I didn’t think much of it. People embraced ‘funective‘, so why not leaderly?

This week, I start teaching Strategic Marketing in Seattle University’s Master in Nonprofit Leadership program. So I’ve been thinking a lot about how marketing and language can help someone be more, um, leaderly.

Somehow, being leaderly doesn’t feel weighty enough. It lacks the gravitas we tend to append to all things having to do with leading and being in a leadership position. I mean, leaders are the the ones who “go before and with to show the way,” who “guide in direction, course, action, opinion, etc.” These people are serious. They have corner offices. Their smart phones are on over-drive. They are in a league of their own.

And therein lies the problem. We’ve elevated leadership to a level that makes us believe we can only achieve it if we can leap tall buildings in a single bound. Since only a scant number of people can do that, it’s easy to opt out.

This isn’t just a problem for one (word-obsessed) professor preparing for one class at one university.  This is language getting in our way in a seriously egregious manner. This is a fundamental issue that, I contend, is undermining our efforts, and ultimately our ability, to make the world a better place.

We may not all be Leaders, with a capital ‘L’. We may not have the right title or pay grade or a reserved parking spot. But we can all lead. We can all, in ways big and small, go before others, and with others, and guide them in direction, course, action and opinion.

There’s a difference between being a Capital ‘L’ Leader and being someone who leads. If we’re going to  make the world a better place, we need both. In spades. We need as many verbs, nouns and adjectives as possible to describe this idea of forward momentum, conviction, vision and execution.

It begs the question: how will you be leaderly today?



The Language of Leadership

leadership, leadership development, storytelling, messaging, language, communicationYesterday, I spent the afternoon with the brave and audacious participants of the University of Washington’s Nonprofit Executive Leadership Institute (NELI). As one who believe that word nerdery will change the world, I invited the group to explore the language of leadership, a.k.a. “leaderly language”. (No, leaderly is not officially a word. Roll with it.)

We spent a chunk of time looking at how to use language to create messages that create stories that inspire action from both internal and external stakeholders. No small task, for sure. Yet one made much easier with a good S.U.N. Story in hand.

If you’ve never heard of a leader’s S.U.N. story, you’re not alone. It’s an acronym I made up to make it easier to remember  Marshall Ganz’s recommendation that leaders always think of telling three stories in one:

  1. Story of Self: why you have been called
  2. Story of Us: why we have been called
  3. Story of Now: the urgent challenge on which we are called to act

See? A SUNny story.

Ganz outlined this idea in his 2008 article, “What is public narrative?”  It’s based on Hillel’s famous quote:

“If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am not for others, what am I? And if not now, when?”

Leaders who use language effectively have answered Hillel’s three questions and know how to calibrate their answers to the setting and their audience. The ‘us’ changes based on context and therefore the ‘self’ and ‘now’ must always be adjusted accordingly. For instance, the ‘us’ of you and a new donor is different than the ‘us’ that is you and your staff. Being able to share why you were drawn to your work and how that relates to the task–or moment–at hand creates a sense of intimacy and purpose.

A leader will have  many S.U.N. Stories in their story arsenal. The art is knowing when to use which one.

If you want to see a great S.U.N. Story in action, check out the Harmony Project’s Margaret Martin’s Social Innovation Fast Pitch. That’s a whole lot of SUNny awesomeness, right?

[Hat tip to Andy Goodman for bringing the idea three stories of one back on my radar.]

Leading a million revolutions

Sometimes a piece of writing is so powerful in its elegance that it stops you in your tracks.

In a recent Harvard Business Review post, Umair Haque, wrote one of those pieces. It is a powerful call to action for anyone working to make the world a better place. The piece is called, How to Fix Your Soul. I’d strongly encourage you to read it in its entirety, but wanted to share this:

“I don’t want a revolution. I want a million tiny revolutions. Awakenings to the heart-stopping commandment life gives to the living: to believe in life. Weary and directionless in the desert we may be — yet, the future, a sunlit ocean, never ceases singing. Sometimes, all we have to do is listen.”

Which he follows with this:

“Each and every one of us is a leader. Some of us just don’t know it yet.”

Which mini-revolution are you, or will you, lead?

1,000 chances to make the world a better place

Words, winkies, Wizard of Oz
Be like Dorothy: command your words (or your Winkies) to make the world a better place!

Most of us could be more effective if we paid more attention to the words we use and how we use them.

I’m not talking about big speeches here. I’m talking about day-to-day word choice. I’m talking about what you say when you open a meeting and close an email. I’m talking about which words you use in the executive summary to a new report or the intro to your annual report. I’m talking about talking to donors, customers and anyone else you come into contact with in a given day.

The average adult uses around 15,000 words per day. That means that, on any given day, you have 15,000 chances to make the world—your world, our world—a better place.

You’re a word expert–own it

Whenever someone says, “I’m not good with words,” I cringe. What they’re really saying is, “I never learned what a gerund was in English class and am therefore not ‘good with words’.”


Being good with words isn’t about syntax and grammar. It’s about finding words that give voice to your vision.

In his book, Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell established the 10,000 Hour Rule—basically, that you can become expert in anything after 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

This infographic shows how long it would take, in years, to become an expert if you did deliberate practice for a certain number of hours per day. The average is 9.6 years, assuming you practice 20 hours per week.

Here’s how this relates to you being a word expert: Let’s be generous and say you started talking, really talking (meaning stringing together cohesive sentences) when you went into Kindergarten. Even if you zoned out for big chunks of time in school, you were still probably eking out 2 hours of “deliberate practice” per day, five days a week.

That means that, on average, it took you 20 years to become a word expert. Roughly by your mid-20s when, coincidentally, your frontal lobes—the part of your brain in charge of concepts and abstract thinking—becomes fully developed.

In sum: by around the age of 25 you had practiced enough and had the brain development to be a full-fledged word expert.

If you are over the age of 25, the “I’m not good with words” excuse simply doesn’t hold up. So best to stop using it, accept your status as a word expert and start using that expertise to your advantage.

Words are like Winkies

In the Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West calls on her Winkies to destroy Dorothy and her crew. Winkies are not brave; they are dutiful. They have to do whatever their master says.

When the Winkies’ master was the evil Wicked Witch of the West, they did bad stuff (usually related to killing things). After Dorothy successfully kills the Witch (by accidentally dumping water on her, oops), they do good things because Dorothy is nothing if not nice.

Words are like Winkies—they will do what you ask them to do. They are dutiful. They will serve you well if you use them well. The can help you be a more effective leader and make the world a better place.

1,000 chances to make the world a better place

A key piece to being an expert at something is the intentionality you bring to it, whatever ‘it’ is you are out to master. If your ‘it’ is more effectively using words to give voice to your vision, this means deciding how many of the 15,000ish words you use in a day you are going to use intentionally.

Can you be intentional with 1,000 of your words today? (As a point of reference, this post is about 700.)

This could be in a meeting with staff, or lunch with a donor, or in an email you write to a colleague at a partner organization. Heck, it might be a chat with your accountant or teenager.

Remember: Those words are like 1,000 Winkies waiting for you to give them orders. They are your 1,000 chances to make the world a better place today. 


Help your board get over its messaging hiccups

Help your board get over its messaging hiccups

Last week, I got to help board members from three different organizations find their words. One of the biggest hiccups they faced was using jargon and/or acronyms. On the receiving end, these both sound like blah, blah, blah.

Staff bandy about some blah, blah, blah with the best of them. Don’t get me wrong. But since board members don’t talk about the organization as often as staff, they don’t have as many opportunities to shake the habit.

If your board members are struggling to de-jargonify their personal pitches, teach them this trick: as soon as they hear themselves use jargon or an acronym, have them pause and say, “Here’s what I mean by that…”

This allows them to keep some words and terms that are comfy to them (which is often important in order for them to let their passion shine through!) while making it understandable to those not as familiar with your mission and work.

Any other tips and tricks to help board members get over messaging hiccups?

Get off message & on belief

Don’t be a messaging robot.

Earlier this week, I was invited to give a workshop for 501 Commons volunteers. My advice to get off message raised a few eyebrows. Don’t we want everyone ‘on message’?! Nope, you want them ‘on belief’. Here’s what I mean.

You aren’t successful if every single person in your organization answers the question: “What does your organization do?” in the exact same way.

You’re successful if everyone answers that question using your 3 key words in a way that reinforces what you want to be known for with passion, energy and conviction.

Supporters want to engage with an organization that has a compelling way of addressing a cause they care about.

Word-for-word ends up being robotic. Robotic isn’t compelling.

Worry less about being “on message” and more about attracting staff and board who are “on belief”–you’ll go further, faster and with less effort.

(Here’s guidance on how to help your organization find its 3 key words.)

photo credit: Ѕolo via photo pin cc

Is your mission guiding or motivating?

mission, marketing, communications, fundraising
Image by © Royalty-Free/Corbis

When something is “mission-driven”, it means it is guided by mission: mission-driven strategy, mission-driven communications, mission-driven staff.

When something is “mission-motivated”, it means the mission offers a motive for action: mission-motivated messaging, mission-motivated marketing, mission-motivated fundraising.

Be clear on when your mission is guiding and when it is motivating. There’s a big difference.

Do you communicate as effectively as you think?


Do you communicate as effectively as you think?