Words Matter

By | July 20, 2018

[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.

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  1. This leadership post is based upon Victor Davis Hanson’s article on the same subject: https://victorhanson.com/wordpress/words-matter-even-a-few/
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/April_Glaspie
  3. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dean_Acheson
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Author: Douglas R. Satterfield

Hello. I'm Doug and I provide at least one article everyday on some leadership topic. I welcome comments and also guests who would like to write an article. Thanks for reading my blog.

23 thoughts on “Words Matter

  1. Lynn Pitts

    Thank you, Gen. Satterfield for providing us with real-life examples we can use when we are discussing the same topic with our friends, employees, and others.

  2. Kenny Foster

    Another good article today. Well done and thanks.
    I would suggest a future follow up on this article that lays out a number of historical events that reinforce the points made here.
    I would also suggest we have one of your special guest bloggers also tackle the subject. THanks.

  3. José Luis Rodriguez

    “Better to Remain Silent and Be Thought a Fool than to Speak and Remove All Doubt”. Don’t know who said it but it certainly applies here.

  4. Wesley Brown

    Good article today, much appreciated.

  5. Danny Burkholder

    I liked the quote from Victor Davis Hanson. He is a really smart guy and those of us just learning our lessons in leadership should be paying attention.

  6. Gil Johnson

    Gen. Satterfield. Thank you for another good article to put into my leadership rucksack. Well done.

  7. Jerry C. Jones

    Well said, Max. Always good to read your comments to add to the discussion’s value.

  8. Max Foster

    This Friday morning, I enjoyed your article that pointed to some of the most famous (infamous?) examples how a few words led to the death of many. Words do, in fact, matter. But most folks have no idea. Leaders should be aware that they are judged by what they say and how they say it.

    1. Tracey Brockman

      Good comment Max. I always appreciate your view of the subject.

    2. Drew Dill

      I agree. Yes, leaders should be focused and aware.

  9. Jonathan B.

    Really good article with historical facts to back it up. Much appreciated. Oh, good comments today.

  10. Billy Kenningston

    Dennis, you kill me with that last comment. I laughed when I read it. Yes, that is an old saying and one that is appropriate for today’s Millennials. Whether we curse or use acronyms or some other oddity, people will think less of us. On the other hand, if we chose our words carefully and talk at the right time, we will be viewed as intelligent and gracious. As it should be. Thanks for a great article.

  11. Dennis Mathes

    I had no idea that these incidents had occurred. If you are stupid, it really pays to keep your mouth shut. My grandmother always said to shut-up and people might actually think you are smart. Open your mouth and they will be convinced you are stupid.

  12. Mr. T.J. Asper

    The history lesson here is good. I will be using these examples in my classroom today.

    1. Bryan Lee

      Thank you Mr. Asper. It is good to see that a teacher and coach is willing to use such well-established historical examples to reinforce learning in young kids.

  13. Army Captain

    Your article today goes well with your one from yesterday about “words to live by.” Another good post. Thx.

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