Ten Phrases Every Leader Should Use


“I made a mistake.”I'm sorry.
“I was wrong.”
“I’m sorry.”
“I’m not sure.”
“I don’t know.”
“Would you help me?”
“Could you help me understand? I’m not sure I get it.”
“What do you think?”
“What do you suggest?”
“What would you do?”

No one likes to show their ignorance, or admit they are wrong.  When we become a leader, we might feel even less likely to show our vulnerability.  After all, aren’t we supposed to have the answers when we are the boss?  Didn’t we get the job because of our expertise?


Take a deep breath.

No one has all the answers, including you.  And even if you did (you don’t, remember?), saying things like the ten phrases above would still be in your best interest.  Here’s why.

You must be a learner.  You can’t know it all. You don’t even need to know it all.  You have a team to track, know and understand things you can’t and don’t.  You have too many things going on and too many moving parts to your team/organization to know it all.  So you must be curious, open and ready to learn. This fact isn’t an excuse to stop learning, but rather to be open-minded, curious and continually learning. Each of the statements above is, at their heart, about learning.

You are a role model.  People are watching you and they will follow your example.  Do you want your team members to admit mistakes, admit when they don’t know and want to learn?  If they don’t see you doing those things, as the phrases above demonstrate, how likely are they to do those things?  Since you are a role model, you need to model the behaviors you want in others.

You need to engage others. It is quite simple – if you want to engage people in a situation, ask their opinion, shut up and listen.  “What do you think?”  “What would you do?”  These are powerful questions because they invite input, promote learning and engage the other person in a useful and meaningful way.  Asking questions like these don’t mean you don’t have an opinion, it just means you care about the opinions, ideas and perspectives of others.

You are in the trust business.  Do you only trust people that have all the answers, or people who are willing to admit when they don’t know?  Do you only trust those with a quick and pointed decision-making style or those that engage the ideas and opinions of others sometimes?  No one is perfect and so trust is built though honesty and openness. If you want people to trust you, be honest.  Let people know when you don’t know, have made a mistake or aren’t sure.

There are powerful reasons why we must ask these potentially uncomfortable questions.  As leaders, we do have knowledge and there are times when our experience and expertise should carry the day, yet at other times, being curious, open and yes, even vulnerable, might be even more important and useful.  Walking this tightrope is part of our job as a leader.  If you are willing to regularly make the statements at the top of this article, you are likely walking that tightrope pretty well.

Photo credit: Maroon Surreal

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  1. Marcia Norman says

    GM Kevin, great post. I agree with you that admitting we don’t know all makes us more human while encouraging the team that there’s always something to learn. If I may I would add that humbleness is one aspect a leader should carry

  2. says

    I wonder myself why it’s hard for people on top to say these words you listed here. It has something to do with the ego.. and humility is a hard pill to swallow. Thanks for reminding us with your post!

  3. says

    Truly wonderful thoughts. Appreciate the post. I would though add one more to the list, at number 11. “I learned” in intention to demonstrate openness and convey that learning is continuous. Great post.


  4. says

    I love this post because it points to the most-overlooked key to success in business: great relationships. You need to be competent at what you do, but great relationships make a bigger difference to outcomes than being 20% better technically than the next person. With strong relationships in place, you can be forgiven small errors or being less than perfect. Without strong relationships, small errors can be fatal. These phrases are all about maintaining and building relationships built on trust. Great job summarizing these key phrases, Kevin!
    There are some related tips on building trust on our blog: http://leadfearlessly.com/2011/10/14/fearless-leaders-build-trust/#more-411

    All the best,



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