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"As you climb higher in the ranks, your words will be taken as commands even if you're just thinking out loud." Simon Sinek

When you are a leader, there are no trivial comments. Your people look to you for guidance, for direction, for wisdom - and, as numerous anecdotes illustrate - for absurd and unreasonable requests. Leadership and management expert Marshall Goldsmith provides the best advice: sometimes (oftentimes), you have to just "bite your tongue."

Laughable Leadership "Demands"

It started with a simple question. A staff member asked Advanced Steel Recovery president Nathan Frankel, "What kind of soda do you like?" Frankel replied, "Caffeine-Free Diet Coke."

Maybe Frankel didn't want the extra carbs; maybe he didn't want to stay awake for his next meeting. Whatever the reason, word spread that the boss drank only Caffeine-Free Diet Coke. Soon after, Frankel attended a conference in a small town - and there was not a single can to be had. A staffer eventually found one an hour away. The natural conclusion: what an unreasonable boss. How demanding! Who does Frankel think he is, anyway?

Frankel's throwaway comment, or transitory craving, turned into a commandment. Thou shalt get me my desired carbonated beverage...or else. The lesson: stay away from diet caffeine-free anything. And watch what you say. As a leader, there are no throwaway comments.

Implied Power

Leaders have both obvious and implied power. The obvious is, of course, exerted through direct commands (or requests). Implied power is trickier. Marshall Goldsmith captures the difference perfectly, and succinctly, in "It's Not a Fair Fight If You're the CEO": "When the boss sneezes, everybody else gets pneumonia."

Goldsmith recounts a story of a CEO of a telephone company who passed a phone booth on his way home. (Dates the story, doesn't it!). He wondered, out of curiosity, how much money the booth made his company. The next day, he ran into an operations-level employee and asked. "It's not a big deal. Don't spend a lot of time on it. Just send me a note."

Of course, the employee's manager gets involved. The "not a big deal" question becomes a two month, three-ring binder project. Finally, a VP walks into the office with the answer, cost comparisons, probably some nice graphs - and the CEO had absolutely no idea what he was talking about. He didn't even remember asking. To him, it was simply a passing thought.

Thinking Out Loud

One of my Vistage members did this as well. She is a highly creative leader, with a propensity to think out loud. She had her people running around doing tasks she didn't really want done because she verbalized her thought processes.

This is a dangerous habit for any leader. You end up with a variety of negative consequences, from being labeled as "demanding" and "unreasonable" to wasting the time and resources of your people. You can avoid them by being clear about what is a thought and what is an order.

Be explicit. Is this a concept you're working through - or do you expect action? Don't make people read your mind. Otherwise, they'll end up wrong and frustrated, and you'll end up being the jerk that demands Diet Caffeine-Free Coke.

When you're a leader, you don't have the luxury of trivial comments. Like it or not, what you say matters. As Simon Sinek writes, "When you're junior, you can get away with thinking out loud and saying anything, but as you accumulate authority, be aware that your whispers will become shouts."


Larry Hart

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