Write like a leader

Most leadership studies are built on abstract ideas and vague descriptions about what a good leader looks like. But how do you become a transformative, inclusive or servant leader when you don’t feel like one? The buzzwords aren’t helpful, so here is some more practical advice – write like a leader.

If you want to be a confident leader, then write that way. For example:

  • Don’t use fancy words instead of simple words. Write ‘utilise instead of ‘use’. Both words mean the same thing. Using a fancy word doesn’t make something more important.
  • Get rid of adverbs and adjectives. Confident writers don’t use generally, usually, carefully, normally, rigorously, especially etc without a good reason.
  • Don’t bury your message. Say what you mean politely, but say it early and clearly.

You might not be a naturally confident leader, but you can write like one.

Assertive language

One of the most common questions we are asked during training is ‘what tone should I use when writing at work?’ People ask us how to adjust their tone when writing to clients, colleagues and senior managers.

Some experts scale tone from very formal (please accept my deepest appreciation) to text message casual (thx). These experts suggest using a tone somewhere in the middle of this ranging from ‘official’ to ‘friendly but formal’. They suggest your choice of tone should depend on who you are writing to.

I disagree. There is only one tone to use in your workplace writing – assertive. An assertive tone is emotionally honest and has no hidden agenda.  The alternative tones are never acceptable:

  • aggressive tone is rude and it should be treated as misconduct
  • passive tone tries too hard not to upset the feelings of the reader, and therefore doesn’t tell them how you feel
  • passive aggressive tone masks bad news with a pleasant voice.

Use your words to communicate tone. Emojissmiley face emoji are not a substitute for saying ‘well done’, and text in all capitals is the same as shouting. Be polite, but don’t be afraid to tell the reader how you feel. If you are delivering bad news, your reader deserves to hear it delivered in a polite but honest way. If they read your email and then go skipping down the corridor with a smile on their face – you didn’t get your message across.

Forget formal, official, friendly but formal and all the other vague descriptions of tone you might have heard about. It doesn’t matter who your reader is, write what you mean using polite language. Anything else is dishonest.

The curse of knowledge

We know our writing must be clear and reader focussed – but how do you know if what you wrote will make sense to your reader? After all, you know things that your reader doesn’t, and you can’t unhear or unsee this knowledge. This can cause you to write things that make sense to you, but no-one else. This is a type of unconscious bias called the curse of knowledge.

The best defence against the curse of knowledge is to get someone else to review your document. Fresh eyes will find gaps in your logic that your own mind had subconsciously filled. If you can’t get someone else to review your document, put it in the freezer. Set it aside for a few days before you review your draft; you will be surprised what you pick up. If you can’t put your document aside for a few days, try overnight. Or go make a cup of coffee – a few minutes in the freezer is better than nothing.


When setting goals for your team, for one of your people, or even for yourself, you have almost certainly tested them to make sure they were SMART goals. It is accepted wisdom that goals must be Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant and Time-bound. I could not agree more, but I don’t think it is enough.

The SMART criteria are sensible and logical. That is part of the problem. Goal setting is all about change—it is about moving towards a different future. In order to get most people (including yourself) to do something differently, it is not enough to get them to think differently, you must also get them to feel differently about the matter. SMART goals are good at making people think logically about what is required, but we need SMARTER goals to make them feel differently.

The next time you are setting goals, make them SMARTER. Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, Time-bound, Engaging and with a Reason to do it. Don’t assume your people will be persuaded by logic alone or that they will see the benefits of the goals for themselves. Make these benefits explicit. Make your goals SMARTER.