5 Key Phrases for Great Leaders

We’ve all worked under great leaders, and we’ve all worked under leaders who really suck. Whether they constantly take credit for work they didn’t do, harshly criticise or shut down innovation, or are just plain rude, we all know these leaders and we dread becoming one when placed in a managerial role.

So how can you avoid becoming the leader that everyone hates?


Seriously. Something as simple as a “thank you” is one of the most overlooked and underused phrases in management, and there’s an unfortunate reason for it. Most people notice when you do something wrong; you’re usually reprimanded or corrected in some way. And yet not many people take a great deal of note when you do something right, or when you go above and beyond to complete a project.

Becoming a great leader begins and ends with the thanks you give to your workers. If you’re not thanking them, the chances of them continuing to go above and beyond for you are slim.

“What do you think?”

Many people think that as a leader, you never have to justify actions or answer questions if you don’t want to. “Because I said so” is one of the most common phrases used by leaders—hell, parents use it all the time—and one of the most toxic things you can say to an employee.

Instead, if someone disagrees on the methods of a project or on the way a situation was handled, ask them about it. “What would you have done differently?” is a great way to gain insight into what your employees are looking for from you and shows that you have an interest in their opinions. Just be sure the question isn’t coming off as sarcastic or confrontational.

“How can I help?”

Sure, it may be that developer’s job to get things done, but in instances where things are moving more slowly than you’d like, instead of criticizing and pushing them to finish on time, simply ask “What can I do to help?”

Even if they reject your help, the fact that you reached out and offered support shows that you’re thinking of that employee and how you can support them. It can also be a great way to open up discussion if an employee is having personal or professional issues that seem to spill over onto their work.

“I’m not sure.”

One thing I hated most about some of my managers was their inability to say “I don’t know” and find an answer. Instead, they’d offer me some unhelpful, roundabout excuse that they had to do something else, didn’t have time to talk me through it, or just simply ignored me when I asked them a question.

Leaders don’t have to know everything, and being able to admit that you don’t know something says a lot about you. It can make you more relatable as a manager, and if you dig in on your own time to find the answers people are looking for, it shows that they can approach you for help no matter what.

For bonus points, try phrases like “I don’t know; what do you think?” You’re knocking out two birds with one stone and coming off as a human being rather than a distant, uninterested manager.

“Can you explain?”

Often, communication breaks down between employees and employers when one party doesn’t understand the needs, feelings, or wants of the other. When someone doesn’t understand, it can fluster and embarrass them, which often leads to inappropriate sarcasm or demeaning tones.

An easy way to get around a breakdown in communication is to politely (and sincerely) ask someone to explain. If an employee is coming to you with a complaint about another employee or unrealistic expectations on a project, instead of brushing them off or saying something like “Seriously?” Asking someone to explain something you don’t understand shows them that you’re making an effort and that you want to know what their logic or reasoning is. It also shows a great deal of humility.

Try using at least one of these phrases every day until you can incorporate them all. Trust me, your employees will thank you for it. 

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