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Avoid the doublespeak trap

Say what you mean, do what you say, and your team will perform better as a result

If you’ve been in the corporate world for any amount of time, you’ve no doubt heard something like this:

“My leadership philosophy is to optimally leverage the passions of my people such that at the end of the day we maximize employee engagement to get them to think outside the box and synergistically drive value-added activities in a profit-maximizing way that is a win-win for our people, our shareholders and our customers.”

“It sounds great,” says leadership trainer Mike Figliuolo. “It is polysyllabic. It uses words with long definitions. I have only one question: what the hell does it mean?”

Figliuolo is on a crusade to wipe away all of those unproductive phrases and words that get in the way of being an authentic leader. Too many companies, he says, have cultures that lead people to articulate ideas in a less-than-genuine way. The worst part is that these buzzwords have migrated from corporate strategy and consultant presentations into how we talk about ourselves as leaders. When this happens, we are turning leadership into something disingenuous, ephemeral and bland.

“The only way I know to roll back the tide of all this meaningless jargon is to say what you really mean,” Figliuolo says. “Words spoken from the heart and the gut are clear, concise, meaningful and genuine. They help ground you and your team.”


In his book “One Piece of Paper: The Simple Approach to Powerful Personal Leadership,” Figliuolo shares the story of a company whose middle managers were mistrustful of their boss as well as each other. The boss decided a three-day offsite would bring the leadership team together. The seminal event of the offsite required each leader to share their leadership philosophy with the group.

The boss went first, emphasizing the importance of teamwork, trust and having fun. Other participants took their turns and suddenly buzzwords were being tossed out like parade candy. One team member was uncomfortable with the emptiness of what was being said, however, so when it was his turn to speak he said simply, “My leadership philosophy is simple. Say what you mean. Do what you say.” He then turned and took his seat.

Those two sentences enabled him to swat away the buzzwords and quickly share a clear articulation of his standards, his beliefs and his code of conduct. Everyone on the team instantly knew what he expected of them and what they could expect of him.

“By replacing buzzwords with personal stories and experience, you will humanize yourself as a leader. In many cases you will endear yourself to your team. They will understand what you stand for and appreciate the time and effort you put into distilling your philosophy down into a short, crisp document,” Figliuolo says. “Throwing a bunch of words on paper is easy. Figuring out which words truly matter and arranging them in an accessible and compelling way takes energy and thought.”