Keith, CEO of a Fortune 500 financial organization, called with an intriguing project—one I’ve never been asked to repeat elsewhere, but one with fascinating results.

The Project

The CEO wanted to know how much I could discover about a person’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 as I pointed out that 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.

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

He wanted me to review those emails 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 his challenge. 

The Outcome

I read, I wrote, I summarized. I sent him my findings.

He phoned: “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 and tell them what you’ve discovered—and how to change things.”

Hmmm. 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?”  Questions and comments from them fell along these lines: 

––“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?”

––“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.)

The Tell-Tale Signs in Your Own Emails

So what are the secrets jumping off the page that may undercut your own effectiveness—or at least issues you’ll want to keep under wraps until you’re ready to reveal?

  • 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, 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.)

  • Anger:    Anger shows up in your writing in several ways: “hot” words and phrases (unfair, unreasonable, insufficient, poor judgment, excuse, complaint, retaliatory), unusual punctuation, bolding, or underlined 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 sentenceand the reason for its showing disdain for the staff’s intelligence.  Pompous language and an over-dependence on jargon for simple ideas.
  • Low Trust:  Documents filled with only directives and decisions rather than data and explanations show little regard for others’ need to understand the reasoning behind those decisions and little trust for others’ ability to handle information properly.
  • 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 in one direction from these leaders––downward.

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



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