I was lucky enough to be invited to facilitate a group of 60+ people on a 2-day strategy development workshop recently with the EMEA team of a pharma MNC. Given the brief: a recently restructured business, a new leader and a tough environment, my co-facilitator and I carefully designed a workshop that encouraged creativity, networking, best-practice sharing and courage-building.

The leader is an unprepossessing man. In a leadership line-up, he is not the one I would select. But looks can be deceiving. He opened the gathering on day 1, standing casually to the side of the lectern.  No notes. No stories. No slides or graphs. Just quietly speaking to the group. But something about the way he spoke, his flow, captivated me and after a few seconds I grabbed my pen and started writing some of the words he was using: responsibility, pace, team, career, SMART, dream, vision, capability, dynamic, speed, change, challenge, direction, journey, entrepreneurial, nimble, first, potential, success, attention, creative, competence, focus, speed, honesty, response, better, growth, innovation, knowledge, excitement, robust. The words came so naturally but the effect was electric.

Over the two days, I was impressed by his participation; the quiet way he engaged, standing at the back of groups, observing, listening, asking questions, challenging respectfully, broadening discussions. His participation and focus was one hundred per cent – no phone calls, no nipping out, no side meetings. He stayed the pace, encouraged the group to think big – and a challenging 2022 goal was set.

At the end of day two, he closed out the session. Again, his sentences were short and to the point. This time I had my pen ready: challenge, belief, dare, tough, ready, competition, drive, share, team, support, possibility, standards, build, sustain, serve, share, encourage, impressed, certain, proud. thank-you.

Had he spent hours preparing or did these words just come naturally? I have no idea. But watching the participants leave , it was clear that his words had sparked excitement and determination.

And I contrast this with another true story (sadly not experienced by me but reported by someone who was there): A recently merged organisation. It’s day 1 and all members of staff have been called into the boardroom to hear from the MD/business owner. Two groups of people wondering how they are going to work together, move forward, and make the business successful. All of them know that right now is important. Right now is a moment they will all remember. The MD enters the room and the silence intensifies. He looks around the group of people – some look thoughtful, others have worried faces. “All right” he says “you’re either on the bus or you can f**k off”.

My take on leadership is that it happens through conversation – interviewing, inducting, goal-setting, delegation, sharing feedback, coaching, brainstorming, information-sharing. A series of great conversations that engage, ignite, focus, challenge, forgive. So words matter. They are the leader’s number one motivational tool. To some, they come naturally, others have to work a bit harder. But they are free and powerful and available to everyone.