4 Alarm Words for Leaders

April 28, 2015

9572961_sThere are words that grab my attention. Some are opportunity words like success, excitement, future. Others are inspirational words like honor, loyalty, integrity. Still others are warnings. As a leader, I want to always hear these 4 words to keep me from slipping in the quality and the energy associated with leadership.


“But” is the excuse word. It always provides an alternative.  When everything before the “but” is related to personal responsibility, commit, promise or purpose, we’re always our best when we simply replace “but” with a period.

“I should have completed my report, but…”
“I know we didn’t make our profit projections this month, but…”

How often do you catch yourself using “but” as the introduction to an excuse? Let “but” sound the Excuse Alarm.  Listen for it in your speech and in the language of others and try to stop using it. Simply using it less will send the signal you are a person of purpose. You operate without excuses. You face challenges head on. Over time as you avoid its use, you be seen as responsible.

You don’t agree? Prove me wrong. Stop using it for a couple of months and then ask a trusted co-worker or your spouse. Just say, “I’ve been trying to be a bit more responsible lately. Have you noticed any areas where I could improve?” Or, “Have you seen any improvement?” (Chances are your spouse will need more than 60 days.) Let me know how it goes for you. Even if you don’t see it right away, the world will have one less victim making excuses for everything that happens. We can always make the world better one person at a time, if we’ll only start with ourselves. Let “but” trigger you to accountability.


“They” is a victim word. When we use the word “they”, we give others power over our situation and we deny our own ability to make a difference. Often “they” aren’t the only ones who can do something about a particular problem; “they” are simply the ones we’d choose to do something about it. “They” may in fact choose us!

In just about any circumstance, there is always something we can do too. And until we’ve done everything we can, we don’t need to worry about “they” and what “they” haven’t done. Sure, “they” have some power. “They” could do something. “But” I take my destiny into my own hands when I stop waiting for “they” and I engage “me.”

Just yesterday another friend used a sister word – “someone.” “Someone should do something about the problem.” Whenever we believe “they” should get “someone” to do something, volunteer. Let that person be you. Choose yourself. Stop letting “they” make you a victim. Let “they” trigger you to responsibility.


“Need” is a scarcity word.  Whenever I find myself thinking about needs, I’m working from a mindset that says “there isn’t enough.” “We need more power Scotty!” Most of what we need we already have. Often we need only the willingness and the courage to use our resources in pursuit of great goals.

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Howard Thurman

Let “need” challenge you. Rather than a complaint about scarcity, consider it an order for more of what the world needs from you. Let “need” trigger you to action.


“Can’t” is a resignation word. When we use “can’t” we quit. We admit our inability to achieve a dream or a goal. “Can’t” says we give up.  It focuses on the half-empty side of the glass.

Often, “can’t” is code for “won’t”.  We say we can’t spend money on something, many times we mean we choose to spend our money on something else.  We say we “can’t” do something but it often means we won’t do it.  I “can’t” help build the Habitat house. Or I “can’t” go visit grandma.  Those uses don’t mean a lack of ability nearly as much as they mean a lack of desire or a lack of importance.

When I was a young man, my father gave me a desk plaque that stated, “It can’t be done” but there was a line through the apostrophe and the “t”.  No, everything isn’t possible, but something is always possible.  Why focus on what “can’t” be done when you can focus on so many other things. Let “can’t” trigger you to possibility thinking.

Maybe you have other warning signs that trigger you to action. If so, do you mind sharing them below? What other words challenge you to bring your best “you” back into action?

This post was adapted from one that originally ran on Lead Change Group. Photo Copyright: / 123RF Stock Photo.

2 responses to 4 Alarm Words for Leaders

    Emerson Freedman April 28, 2015 at 10:42 PM

    “Try,” as in, ‘yes, I will “try” to deliver that by next Thursday.’

    “Try” is a pre-emptive excuse for failure. It lets us off the hook for any real promise of delivery, paving the way for the ever-irritating delivery failure excuse, I “tried.”

    This is another word that can simply be replaced with “will,” and “did” or “didn’t do,” depending on the level of success.

    Changing this gives us back control of our future, and ownership over what we will do, or did / didn’t do.



      Great addition Emerson. You’re so right about how this is planned failure. “Don’t expect I’ll succeed.” Like Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” Thanks very much.