THE BLOG

Does Your Writing Reveal Secrets About Your Leadership?

02/25/2015 10:26 am ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015

Keith, the president of a Fortune 500 company, called with an intriguing assignment -- one that I've never been asked to repeat anywhere else, but one with fascinating results that I'll never forget.

The Assignment

He wanted to know how much I could determine about someone's leadership style from their writing. "I don't know; I've never had occasion to test my theories," I told him, quite reluctant to take on what already sounded like an oddball way to lose a good client. He listened to my explanations about how someone might be a great leader, but just an incompetent writer and vice versa--how they might be an eloquent writer, but a lousy leader.

Then Keith persisted: He proposed having his executive assistant gather and send me three categories of documents from four of his executive vice presidents: 1) documents they'd sent up the chain either to him or the board of directors, 2) documents they'd written to their peers--the other 17 EVPs, or 3) documents they'd written to their own staff.

He wanted me to review those emails and reports and write him a brief summary of the leadership style of each of the four EVP's (as revealed in those documents). With reluctance, I accepted the challenge.

The Outcome

I read, I wrote, I sent him the summaries.

He phoned me, "You've got 'em pegged exactly! Just what I'd observed on my own. Now, next step: I need you to meet with each one of them and tell them what you've discovered--and how to change things."

Gulp. I'd met none of the four previously. And I never like being introduced as the "hired gun." But I decided the next step was inevitable--and the real test. After all, only the real writers knew what they were thinking as they wrote--what they actually felt about the various people and situations involved.

The overriding theme of each meeting was, "How did you know THAT?" Comments and questions from them fell along these lines:

--"Sure, I was upset when I wrote that email, because Jack is ALWAYS past deadline and over-budget, but could you really tell that I dislike the guy?"

--"Well, you got that right--Caroline and I are peers, and we've never gotten along. But I respect her work--I really do. Did you think all these were condescending?" (I did.)

--"Unsure of myself? Really? Well, yes, I was feeling shaky on that proposal to the board. How could you tell?"

--"Angry? You're darn right, I'm angry about the turndown. But does that really come through here? Do you think the board could tell?"

The Dead Give-Aways in Your Own Writing

So what were the secrets leaping off the page that may undercut your own effectiveness--or at least things you'll want to keep under wraps until you're ready to reveal?

  • Anger: Anger shows up in your writing in several ways: "hot words and phrases" (unfair, poor judgment, excuse, complaint, retaliatory), unusual punctuation, bolding, or underlining negatives as if people are too dumb to understand. For example: "I repeat: Do NOT staple this form when you submit it!"
  • Arrogance: See the last example sentence--and the reason for its showing disdain for the staff's intelligence. Pompous language and an over-dependence on jargon for simple ideas.
  • Formality: A writing style that removes pleasantries and personal pronouns and uses passive voice sounds formal and stiff. That writing style is often an extension of leadership style and personality.

--Absence of pleasantries: (please, thank you, appreciation, asking about a current situation, good wishes for an upcoming holiday)
--The absence of pronouns (you, I, me, we, us, he, she, they).
--Passive voice rather than active voice (Passive voice: This information should be forwarded to my office. Active voice: Please forward this information to my office.)

  • Low Trust: Documents filled with only decisions and directives rather than explanations and data show little respect or regard for the people's need to understand the reasoning behind those decisions and little trust for people's ability to handle information appropriately.
  • Hierarchical Rule: Consider the absence of questions. Emails that seldom ask for opinions, feedback, or other input reveal a leadership style that operates in a vacuum--with only minimal upward communication. Most communication moves only one way from these leaders--downward.

Vision, attitudes, and personality generally come through loud and clear in your writing. Your challenge: Make the revelations intentional!