Leadership: Thoughts, Words and Destiny

leadershipWatch your thoughts, for they become words
Watch your words, for they become actions
Watch your actions, for they become habits
Watch your habits, for they become character
Watch your character, for it will become your destiny
-Origin unknown, often attributed to Lao Tzu

We often sit back and wonder, how did we get here? The quote above provides a road map. Who we are starts with our thoughts and more often than not, those thoughts turn into words that we may or may not have intended to come out.

Leaders sometimes say something they wish they could take back, or now the common phrase is “walk back” when a politician says something particularly inaccurate or galling. As I have written previously, one way to think of integrity is as your word. If you say something you regret, own it and clean it up.

The key to all of this is to start with your thoughts, as everything else is a waterfall from there and that will indeed become your destiny.

So how do you control your thoughts? Easier said than done. In my work with executives and leaders, I ask them to consider slowing down. When the thought appears, or starts chatting in their heads, I tell them to practice taking a beat and stopping before they speak. Next, question the thought, is it accurate? Are there other ways of thinking about the issue? Is it opinion or fact?

The split second of “pause” between the thought and the word can make all the difference in the world. As a leader, everything you say is taken as true or as “what is,” even though sometimes you may simply be thinking out loud. The problem is that we don’t let people know when we are simply thinking through different things vs. declaring the way it is.

Let’s walk through a scenario. A leader continually makes derogatory comments about a particular individual or group of individuals. Perhaps these are just personal opinions vs. issues based in fact. Now, because he or she had said these words many times there is likely some actions that will result. Others will assume the leader doesn’t like that individual or group and act accordingly – either the same or worse depending on their level of influence. In fact, it might become acceptable to shun the person or persons. Now we have a “culturally acceptable” habit in the organization. From the outside, this culture could be defined using words such has “racist,” “bigot,” “hater,” etc. This may not have been the original thought or intention in the leader’s head, but now it’s the organization’s destiny. This may sound harsh, but this is the reality of the power of the ripple effect of leadership.

How do you want to be remembered? What do you want your destiny to be? It starts with your thoughts so be intentional.