[July 20, 2018] If there is one lesson I personally learned the hard way as a leader, it’s that words matter. There are words that inspire and can make a leader look both gracious and intelligent. Words matter, even a few.1
It was over a decade ago in 2007 when I was standing inside Camp War Eagle; a military base located in northern Baghdad, Iraq and occupied by elements of the U.S. Army. It was still early in the war and a contracting company was on hand to assist the military in facility improvements.
I saw that the contracting company was not helping one of our units move materials to a storage facility, although they possessed the equipment. I told the contracting company’s project manager that they were not being helpful. He refused to help. Word got out that I’d told him his company was not helpful. He was promptly fired and sent home. Words do matter.
“Even little words and gestures still matter in high-stakes international relations. Bad actors look hard for even the smallest sign that they might get away with aggression without consequences.” – Victor Davis Hanson, American historian
In 1981, Britain, as a goodwill gesture in the growing Falkland Islands dispute, promised to withdraw a tiny warship from the islands. But to the Argentine dictatorship, that was seen as appeasement. It convinced them that the United Kingdom was no longer the nation of Winston Churchill. So Argentina invaded the Falklands.
American Ambassador April Glaspie told Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein on July 25, 1990 that the United States had “… no opinion on your Arab-Arab conflicts, such as your dispute with Kuwait.”2 Saddam invaded Kuwait a little over a week later.
Secretary of State Dean Acheson gave a comprehensive address to the National Press Club in early 1950. Either intentionally or by accident, he mentioned that South Korea was beyond the American defense perimeter.3 Communist North Korea, and later China, agreed. War broke out six months later.
People pay attention when leaders speak. It is irrelevant that a leader might be new and on their first day on the job or the leader is the highly experienced President of the U.S., people look hard for any excuse to use the words of a leader to their advantage.
- This leadership post is based upon Victor Davis Hanson’s article on the same subject: https://victorhanson.com/wordpress/words-matter-even-a-few/