Underutilized Leadership Sayings: 5 Phrases That Will Transform Your Leadership Approach

Written by Darren Kanthal

May 9, 2023

Leadership Sayings

I read that there are no new thoughts – just a new take, your take, on something that’s already been said or thought. I’m not sure I like that!

As I go about my professional day and speak with leaders at all levels of organizations, I see more similarities than differences in the human (leadership) experience, the challenges and struggles we face, the best practices when resolving problems and conflicts, and how communication is often the root cause when things go south.

Is this new? Or just my take on what others already know? Damned if I know! But I’m gonna roll with my thoughts and hope you resonate with them.

Here are the most underutilized leadership sayings I’ve experienced and ones I suggest you consider adding today.


#1 “What do you think?”

What do you think

In my last corporate leadership gig, I read a book that talked about applying a coaching-centric approach to being a leader. The idea is to ask questions before telling people what to do or how to solve their problem.

I see some form of this play out almost everyday. For example, a coaching client might say to me “My direct report came to me and told me about a problem. So I did what any self-respecting leader does – I solved their problem! I told them exactly how I would solve it, provided clear guidance, and off they went.”

When I hear that, I might ask something like, “What did you notice about your direct report? Did they seem overjoyed by your step-by-step ‘how-to’ guide? Did you happen to notice if their shoulders slumped and they were defeated or less-than-thrilled that you didn’t invite them into a conversation?”

This is commonplace. Leaders often see themselves as the most qualified to solve their team’s problems. While I believe there is some truth to this, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach.

Rather, if you lead with a coaching-centric mindset, your first step and inclination are to invite them into the discussion. When they present you with a problem, a great first step is to ask them, “What do you think?” or “How do you suggest we proceed?” (or something like that).

In doing so, you are first and foremost inviting them and giving them permission to utilize their cognitive problem-solving. You are also allowing them to possibly be wrong in a safe and open setting (this goes with the understanding that you’ve established an open relationship built on trust and respect. If not – let’s talk!).

This approach also gives you a clear window into how they approach problem-solving, where gaps in their experience might be showing, and also where they have room to grow and flex into more.

For instance, my client Matt told me the other day that a relatively new hire with less than 90 days on the job, and only a couple of years removed from college, had exceeded his expectations. In fact, on a team call he suggested a way forward, and this new hire spoke up with an alternate plan, and even had all the data, forecasting, and spreadsheets to support her suggestion – AND Matt realized her approach was better. BOOM!!


#2 “I Don’t Know”

I Don’t Know

When were leaders anointed as all-knowing creatures? It drives me nuts when leaders tell me the expectation is for them to have all the answers. And if, by chance, they don’t – holy fuck balls, Batman!! The travesty of not knowing!!

Instead of simply stating, “I don’t know”, they make stuff up. They fumble their words, speak in circles, or make little to no sense. In some instances, they get called out, which can lead to defensiveness. Before we know it, we’ve self-manufactured a shit storm just because our hubris got in the way and we couldn’t admit that, by some stroke of universal unluckiness, we don’t actually know something!

If you’re picking up on some sarcasm and annoyance – good! I’m laying it on thick.

There’s nothing worse than taking someone on their word and believing what they say to be fact, only to find out it was wrong. When that happens, we all look like fools.

If you don’t know something – just admit it. We’re adults, and there’s nothing wrong with not knowing. In fact, it’s IMPOSSIBLE to know everything. Why put that incredible level of burden on yourself?!

When you say “I don’t know” you can always follow up with “…I’ll find out and get back to you with the information.“

Try it out for yourself – you’d be amazed at how freeing it is!


#3 “I’m Sorry”

I’m Sorry

Here’s another thing that I really don’t understand: Why oh why is saying sorry so hard these days? After all, when we’re kids, we’re taught to apologize all the time. In fact, we go even further and encourage our kids to reconcile by hugging it out.

And then what happens? There’s forgiveness, and before long, the kids are back to having fun, laughing, and enjoying themselves.

As adults, it seems we prefer to hold grudges, and stay in negative thoughts and actions, to prove some sort of point. In doing so, the problem persists, we dig our heels deeper and stronger, and working towards forgiveness seems out of reach.

Grow up, people! If you make a mistake – own it! Apologize! Bring people into the story and let them know what occurred.

And just like our kids, we actually have a great ability to accept an apology. It’s refreshing to hear the apology, and it feels good to accept it. Give it a try!


#4 “Have you spoken with them?”

Have you spoken with them

This is arguably my favorite! I hear so many stories when person A (Bob) has an issue with person B (Mary) and goes to person C (Julie – the leader) to complain. Bob explains Mary said something that he didn’t like.

Here’s where Julie has an option as to what to say and how to deal with the situation – and the best option is often to ask Bob, “Have you spoken with Mary about that?”

If he hasn’t, that is usually a great first step.

Similarly to saying “I don’t know”, Julie, as the leader, may feel a great sense of responsibility to solve everyone’s problem – both job-related and interpersonal. She may also derive her self-worth from her ability to do just that.

But just like parents who tell their kids, “Figure it out” (ie – resolve this problem on your own and leave me out of it), workplace interpersonal challenges should start with the 2 involved parties trying to come to a solution on their own.

Let’s call out what I think is obvious – I am NOT speaking to bullying, a hostile workplace, unsolicited sexual advances, or any other egregious acts that breach the line of respect, courtesy, and dignity.

I’m talking about the myriad of other ways people raise their personal problems with other people in hopes they’ll solve them.

As a leader, I believe you have a responsibility to empower people to do their best work. In order for this dynamic to thrive, people need to fend for themselves in many situations and figure out how to work through problems and challenges.

If you always solve it for them, they’re likely not going to learn how to develop and flex those skills themselves.


#5 “What else?”

What else

I’d like to enter this into the contest for greatest questions ever – and I think it has a real shot of being crowned champ!

If you’ve never tried this, I encourage you to do so as soon as possible.

I asked my client, Kerri, to try this with her husband. Mind you, she’s more introverted and enjoys downtime after work. On this particular night, she asked her hubby how his day was. And then (drumroll), she said, “What else happened?”

She asked that question three times before he tilted his head to the side and exposed what was happening. As she retold the story to me in hysterics, she openly acknowledged that each time she asked, he went deeper and shared more.

That’s the beauty of this question! It’s an open invitation to go deeper and a layer below the surface. Most people will follow this to a T – they’ll tell you the immediate thing on their minds in general, about a problem they’re faced with, about their day, etc. The first time you ask them “what else” – you’ve given them permission and invited them to share what’s also on their mind.

It’s a remarkable question. If you’re open to it – let me know how your “what else” experiment goes. I’d love to hear about it!

Now It’s Your Turn

As I go about my coaching day, these sayings come up regularly. I sometimes say coaching is magical. As hokey as that might sound – I think it’s mostly true. There’s magic that happens in a coaching relationship. Typically two people are exploring life’s challenges with a deep sense of curiosity and unknowing. Then we investigate, uncover, discover, and come to some actions to move life forward in a more positive direction.

Yeah – I’ll take that magic all day long!

Coaching has helped me to gather these sayings, but still, it’s up to you to apply them! When you do, you start to create a culture of reallness, accountability, and openness – and who doesn’t want that? I encourage you to try these phrases in your leadership approach – you might be surprised by the positive impact they can have.

Darren Kanthal

Darren Kanthal, Founder of The Kanthal Group, is a values-driven leadership and career coach with over 20 years of experience in HR and Talent Acquisition. Darren is intensely passionate about helping mid-career leaders cut through the BS, do the foundational work, and achieve their greatness.


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