The Language of Leadership


The exact words you use when talking about your school may seem insignificant, but they can have a huge effect on motivation.

As an education leader, you know the importance of maintaining a collaborative culture and avoiding anything that diminishes your colleague’s motivation. You carefully offer feedback, think long and hard about decisions and work to ensure that the culture of your school is sustained on trust. But are you lacking one big, easily remedied insight that might be draining the motivation out of your staff?

In his book, Leaders Eat Last: Why Some Teams Pull Together and Others Don’t, Simon Sinek goes on to say, “the true price of leadership is the willingness to place the needs of others above your own. Great leaders truly care about those they are privileged to lead and understand that the true cost of the leadership privilege comes at the expense of self-interest.”

Educators have grown sensitive to an idiosyncrasy used by many education leaders, albeit small, that has an outsize impact on their teams motivation. We’ve all been in a meeting where a principal has said “I” over and over again. Then there’s the numerous times they refer to “my building,” “my teachers,” and “my budget.”

It takes the wind out of your sails because you know how many people are contributing to the success of the school. There are so many layers of service–from the bus drivers who deliver students to school, to the food service workers who feed students, to the Deans who manage discipline–that work their tails off. The school is a great learning environment, and the principal is a great leader, but there is a huge amount of “we” in the effort and it is demotivating to hear “my building” and “I, I,I.” Schools are teams and every time you speak in public and say “I” instead of “we” you are sending a signal that neglects sharing credit with the people who are on the front lines, which unintentionally stunts motivation.

While each person has their own distinct personalities and behavior, sustaining a successful school is a team effort, and when you say “I,” your language and actions undermine this. As an education leader you have to recognize that there is a lot of “we” that is enabling you to be successful. Rise above the “I” and you will be seen as a leader who appreciates the hard work and effort of your faculty, staff and colleagues.

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