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Scott Eblin offers his take on lessons in the news and his advice on your pressing leadership questions.

The Government Shutdown and the Verbal Tells That Give Leaders Away


Well, here we are again.  This week’s federal government shutdown is the latest in a series of sad and maddening examples of a leadership class that’s disconnected from the people it’s supposed to lead and serve.  There are plenty of commentators from across the spectrum who are offering their opinions on the issues and the politics behind the shutdown so I won’t go into that here.  That’s not the purpose of this blog anyway.

Instead, I want to call out something I’ve noticed in the story that can be both a pitfall for leaders and a warning sign for the people they lead.  It’s the go to word or catch phrase that a leader uses when they don’t want to say what’s really going on.  It’s known as the verbal tell.

In reading coverage of the shutdown, the verbal tell that I’ve seen again and again from members of Congress on both sides of the aisle in both houses is “the American people.”  As in, “the American people don’t want this,” or “the American people deserve better than this.”  (You see example after example in this article from the New York Times.)  The phrase is used so much that it’s become a cliché that cues the listener to stop listening to what’s coming next.  You could cut the insincerity with a knife.  It’s the opposite of authentic leadership.

Of course, it’s not just political leaders who have verbal tells.  Some of the usual suspects from other career paths include:

  • “This shouldn’t take you too long (get ready for an all nighter),”
  • “I value your opinion (and when I want it, I’ll give it to you),” and
  • “It’s not you, it’s me (It’s you. Wait a second, how’d that one get on this list?)

Leadership tells are credibility killers.  That’s why it’s so important to be aware of them and eliminate them from your lexicon.  The quality of the conversation and the outcome will be greatly improved in the process.

What are the leadership tells that you’ve worked hard to remove from your repertoire?  What are the leadership tells that turn on your radar system and drive you crazy when you hear them?

Executive coach Scott Eblin’s goal is to help you succeed at the next level of leadership. Throughout the week, he’ll offer his take on the leadership lessons in the news and his advice on your most pressing leadership questions. A former government executive, Scott is a graduate of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government and is the author of The Next Level: What Insiders Know About Executive Success.

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