5 Phrases Great Leaders Use (and one they should never use)

In Communication by Paul Casanova1 Comment

In a speech to the Royal College of Surgeons in 1923, Rudyard Kipling, author of The Jungle Book stated “Words are the most powerful drug available to mankind.” This metaphor illustrates just how powerful of an effect our words can have on another human being. Expanding on this point, Kipling said, “Not only do words infect, egotize, narcotize, and paralyze, but they enter into and color the minutest cells of the brain.”

Communication ability is a crucial competence for the role of “leader.” The language a leader chooses is one of the most powerful tools he or she has in influencing & inspiring others, engaging diverse mindsets, and growing healthy workplaces. Communication is not about long eloquent sales meeting speeches to fire up the troops, it’s about remarkably simple phrases that great leaders use instinctively and sincerely.

Great leaders use simple, powerful phrases such as these:

1. “Thank you!”

Possibly the two most important words humans use and/or enjoy hearing are “thank you.” When learning a new language, this is one of the first phrases you will learn. “Thank you” is the most cost-effective recognition program known to us! Say “thank you” (sincerely) when work is well done, say it when people try new things, and say it when someone takes a risk by sharing something. Don’t just appreciate the touchdown – a great leader recognizes the steps that were taken before the intended result!

“Thank you” – two words, powerful results!

2. “I dont know, what do you think?”

Yes, the boss is in charge. But the boss doesn’t necessarily have all the answers. In most cases, it is more important to have the correct questions. The responsibility of the leader is to facilitate thinking and the work that needs to get done. It is very possible that someone near the leader has a better idea. By asking the right questions, the leader will cultivate a healthy culture of candid debate within the group by building capability in the team, not dependence on the leader.

3. “I trust your judgement on this!”

The more often a leader demonstrates trust to his or her direct reports, the more confidence he or she instills in them. Leaders have often hired or trained these direct reports, but they have to let them do their jobs. Most top talent seeks autonomy in a job. Certainly, they want guidance along the way – don’t abandon them – but the leader must empower them to do their best work. Great leaders have a curiosity about what their direct reports are capable of.

4. “What have we learned?”

OK, so that didn’t go so well or according to plan, it happens (it can’t always happen, but that’s a different conversation). Focusing on what was learned can be powerful for both parties. Maybe the leader could have coached or guided differently? Maybe assumptions were made by either one of the parties that shouldn’t have been made. Learning is the ROI of missteps and mistakes! Mistakes are an opportunity to learn, grow and improve.

5. “I am sorry.”

An interesting one, like the Chicago song,”it’s hard to say I am sorry.” For some leaders, it’s very difficult to admit a mistake, accept responsibility, and use this  phrase. Yet, for others, the words come out too freely. Be careful, balance and sincerity is the key! Value the relationship more than your ego, make sure that you tell them what you are apologizing for, and state how it will be different moving forward. This communicates to  the person that you really get it. If possible, thank them for helping you grow as an individual…hmmm?

What phrase should a leader never use?

“My people”

This is the phrase that has irked me my entire career, does it sound like it’s from a servant leader? I believe it is somewhat degrading and certainly kills any feelings of partnership or collaboration. I know it’s not meant that way, but we are full-grown humans with families, trying our best to navigate life. We do not belong to anyone! We belong to a team, an organization, a group – and proudly so – but not to any one person.

Which ones would you add?

About the Author

Paul Casanova


Founder & Chief Leadership Cultivator of Veraison Leadership Group, Paul has also been a Life Sciences commercial leader at fortune 500 companies and several innovative startups. As a curious mind, a believer in continuous learning, and a lover of wine, Paul uses his strengths to fuel his passion for developing people.


  1. Excellent insights to the importance of choosing the right words. Nice work Paul!

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