5 phrases every leader should use (liberally)

There are probably some phrases you should leave out of your lingo when you’re a leader.

“Do what I tell you to do ‘cause I’m the boss”

“That’s a terrible idea”

“You’re useless”

These are a few examples of phrases to ditch if you want to build a trusting, high performing team.

But there ARE some phrases that skilled leaders use liberally in their conversations. Using them can help you become a better leader too. Here are five:

  1. “How do you want me to give you feedback?”

We all know that giving and receiving feedback is a good thing. See here and here if you need convincing of that. But this phrase is a good one to ask a direct report when you first start leading them. People are different and like to receive feedback in different ways, so understanding this is useful. This question helps you have a conversation about the process you’ll engage in when it comes to giving them feedback (both positive and redirectional) before you have to give it. It also gives them a heads up that your feedback to them is an important part of helping them succeed. Have a conversation around how they like to receive positive feedback, as well as how to approach it when you see they’re coming unstuck. What should you avoid when giving them feedback? What can you do to give them feedback that will be effective for them?  

  1. “What does success look like in this situation?”

We often think we’re on the same page about what success looks like. More often than not, that’s not the case. Getting clear with your team or someone you lead on exactly what you will be seeing and feeling if you’re successful not only helps you get specific, but also avoids confusion and miscommunication. Many performance issues come from us assuming we’re on the same page, when in fact, we don’t have collective clarity about exactly what success means.

  1. “I’m sorry.”

I’ve spoken about it here, but it bears repeating. Vulnerability-based trust, where people feel safe to admit they’ve made a mistake and share their weaknesses or fears is crucial for a high performing team. And this needs to be modelled by the leader. If you make a mistake or something doesn’t land how you intended it, then own up and give a genuine apology. You ain’t perfect.

  1. “Thank you for x, it meant y.”

A simple “thank you” demonstrates you value a person. It takes less than a minute and makes them more likely to repeat that behaviour. Good, yes? But even more powerful than a passing “thanks for a great job” is to add some specificity and outline the impact of what they did. In my experience, leaders tend not to give enough specific, positive feedback to their team members. Shining a light on what you want to see more of just makes sense. And as long as it’s genuine, you really can’t overdo catching people doing good stuff.

  1. “What can I keep doing, stop doing or do more of to lead you better?”

Merely asking this question on a regular basis to your team members – and then listening attentively and non-defensively to the answers – will make you a better leader. You’ll raise your self-awareness, get useful feedback on what helps your team perform and be engaged – plus it highlights where you could improve. They will probably skirt around the second point. So gently insist they give you at least one way you can improve – and don’t make it career limiting for them when they’re honest. Just don’t forget to say thank you at the end!  

Getting your leadership lingo right is just one step towards becoming a better leader. Using the phrases above can help you build trust with your team, give and receive feedback more effectively, and become a better leader. That’s a win for you – and your team.


  1. Jenn Falconer on August 13, 2021 at 8:41 am

    Mmmm. The phrases questions felt to me a bit like the diversion smart arse answers my mother used to give me to divert school bullies.

  2. Rachel Springmeyer on July 9, 2021 at 7:26 am

    Excellent post! I can’t wait to share these questions with new managers that are joining our organization.

  3. Sharwonda Peek on June 27, 2021 at 4:08 am

    This is good stuff. I am going to pose these questions in my post conferences this year with my leadership team. I will then share a copy with them to use with those they supervise.

  4. Peter Fackenthall on June 25, 2021 at 6:22 am

    Suzi…great inspiration words. We all know these ideas yet it is wonderful how you put them together. Thank you very much

    • Lgh on June 26, 2021 at 5:41 am

      This is fabulous information. Administrators and teachers should use these steps for support and to get the best out of their teams!

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Suzi McAlpine

Suzi McAlpine is a Leadership Development Specialist and author of the award-winning leadership blog, The Leader’s Digest. She writes and teaches about accomplished leadership, what magic emerges when it’s present, and how to ignite better leadership in individuals, teams and organisations. Suzi has been a leader and senior executive herself, working alongside CEOs and executive teams in a variety of roles. Her experience has included being a head-hunter, an executive coach, and a practice leader for a division at the world’s largest HR consulting firm. Suzi provides a range of services as a Leadership Development Specialist, including executive coaching, leadership workshops and development programmes for CEOs, leadership teams and organisations throughout New Zealand.

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