Leading Improvement: Words that Transform

Leadership and impact
19th July 2014

Feeling particularly energised during a conversation with a client yesterday, the words Carpe Diem (seize the day) popped into my mind. Simple words. But put them together and they create something bold and confident. They inspire and uplift. Amazing how words can do that.

Written almost 2000 years ago by the Latin poet, Horace, the Carpe Diem line in its full expression, includes quam minimum credula postero – ‘put little trust in tomorrow’. It’s about taking action for the future today because ‘the present’ is all we can be sure of. Adding my own interpretation, it represents having the presence of mind to act, to ‘catch the wave’ because the opportunity – these set of circumstances – may never come again. Just thinking about the words evokes feelings of optimism. I literally straighten my back!


Another example of how one word can convey so much was when an acquaintance underwent aggressive cancer treatment some years ago. His wife was pregnant at the time and the birth of their daughter coincided with the completion of his treatment.  They named their daughter ‘Hope’. I remember the tingle down my spine as the word settled over me. Tears sprang into my eyes. It was like being swathed in a soft blanket.

More recently is the ‘proud’ letter to pupils from their teachers at Barrowford Primary School which captured attention on social media last week. That the letter ‘went viral’ suggests a yearning for a different, more human way of communicating.

In my coaching and consulting work I draw on the fundamentals of Appreciative Inquiry. Proponents speak about the ‘transformational power of positivity’ and refer to Appreciative Inquiry as ‘what gives life to human systems when they function at their best’. I have to agree. I’ve seen it time and time again. When you draw people towards the light rather than focus on deficits, they move forward. The teacher’s letter is a wonderful example in this respect.

The leaders I work with often feel they have little to offer their teams as they grapple with organisational change. It can be hard to keep people buoyant amid a sea of turbulence. Yet the power they have through the words they use is profound. Leading service improvement is as much about finding the words that enable people to move forward, as it is about action plans and improvement techniques.

Service improvement builds on what is already happening so the present situation has to be acknowledged and honoured.  Rhetoric and clichés have the effect of a wet weekend. They dampen enthusiasm and should be left at the door with the dripping umbrella. The words that truly inspire are usually simple ones, carefully chosen and uttered with sincerity.











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