October 11, 2021

Talk like a leader

You’re a leader at your organization — or, at the very least, you have the potential to be. What makes a leader isn’t a job title or formal authority: it’s how they use their strengths to inspire and motivate action in others.

Your strengths — the set of skills and perspectives that made you the right person for your role — are unique to you. You bring something valuable to your team. To be seen as a leader, you need a communication style to match.

How does a leader talk?

Cultural bias has significantly shaped the way leaders are conceptualized and perceived. Unfortunately, biases against non-standard grammar, “foreign” accents, uptalk, and speech disorders remain prevalent. However, we’re setting that aside for this post. Anyone can talk like a leader as their authentic self.

Listen to any leader speak, and you’ll notice three main qualities: intentionality, confidence, and emotional intelligence.

Here’s what each of those means:

  • Intentionality: The person who talks the most is rarely the one who makes the greatest impact. It’s more important to be thoughtful about what you say and when you say it. 
  • Confidence: Your co-workers can only believe in what you’re saying if you believe it. You know your stuff (and what you don’t know, you can learn). Help others see that by projecting confidence and authority.
  • Emotional intelligence: A leader can adjust their message and style based on context, and is attuned to a situation’s emotional nuances.


Just like the best actors can steal the show on the strength of a single scene, a leader can earn more influence by saying less. Here are two tips for speaking with greater intentionality.

Bring solutions

A solutions-oriented person is someone who looks past problems to focus on opportunities and solutions. You may hear someone with a tendency to complain be told to “be more solutions-oriented.”

That’s not to say that raising problems without having a solution handy is inherently unproductive. When you need to bring a problem to the team’s attention, earlier is better, and there isn’t always an answer handy. Still, you can practice a solutions-oriented mindset by challenging yourself to look at everyday problems with a forward focus.

Anticipate other perspectives

Taking time to think about other people’s perspectives is a great way to prepare for a high-stakes conversation. It also allows you to flex your empathy muscle and “train” yourself to speak more intentionally. Questions to ask yourself before a meeting or important conversation include:

  1. What does the other person need? How might they be expecting me to support them?
  2. What kind of emotional response could they have to what I’m going to say? (Excitement, disappointment, relief…?)
  3. In what ways might they disagree with me? Do we share common ground in those disagreements?


When it comes to your confidence, you want to be your own greatest ally. Avoid words and expressions that undermine your confidence and authority, and try these more empowered alternatives:

# Instead of… … consider saying
1 “I’m hoping…” “I feel confident…”
“I’m working toward…”
2 “I’m not sure this is right, but…” “Based on my experience…”
“My idea for this is…”
3 “Does that make sense?” / “I’m sure that’s confusing, but…” “Does anyone need clarification on anything I’ve said so far?”

Let’s take a closer look at each of those three examples:

  1. Whereas “I’m hoping” sounds passive, these alternatives make clear that you’re taking action.
  2. When you show hesitation or uncertainty about your own ideas, you give others permission to reject them outright. There’s something to be said for admitting you don’t have all the answers, but it’s also essential to give your ideas space to grow.
  3. Giving the listener a chance to request clarification is helpful to both of you, and doesn’t make an unnecessary value judgment on your own communication. 

Emotional intelligence: Vulnerability

Emotional intelligence (EI) is a set of skills with five major elements: self-awareness, self-regulation, motivation, empathy, and social skills. Building your EI is a lifelong endeavor. This post will focus on vulnerability as it relates to leadership.

Shedding the armor you put up at work is powerful, allowing you to build stronger relationships. You’ll also inspire others to do the same to get their needs meet.

Leading with vulnerability can start simple:

  • Answer the question “How are you?” truthfully
  • Ask someone for something: a little help, a moment of their time, an answer they might have
  • Start an awkward conversation you’ve been putting off 

A leader also knows that not every context calls for them to be vulnerable. When it’s time to sit back and listen, they can do that, too.

Vulnerability in the workplace is most effective when it’s actively helpful in some way, like: 

  • Making someone feel less alone in what they’re feeling.
  • Putting someone at ease in an awkward situation.
  • Providing the emotional context for an action or decision.


“Talking like a leader” doesn’t mean abandoning authenticity. You can develop the skills to communicate with authority and influence while maintaining who you are.

When you communicate with intentionality, confidence, and emotional intelligence, your abilities as a leader can be on full display.

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