I am 7 years old.  My mother has signed me up for a drama class.  We are presenting a Christmas story. I stand up straight and proud – an begin:

                “Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house…”

Suddenly, my mind goes blank and I panic.  I look left and right until I finally spot my teacher.  She smiles, mouths the next two words, and off I go to perform perfectly. 

Afterward, my parents come up and congratulate me with big smiles, hugs, and kisses.  However, the woman whose opinion means so much to me is my grandmother, not much taller than I, who is standing behind them. “Were you proud of me?” She just looks at me and sternly speaks the words that would change my life:  “Linda Ann Frank, you should never speak in front of large groups of people. You just aren’t very good at it!”

I was devastated.  The wounds of her words were so deep that I never volunteered to speak in elementary school, high school, or even college.  It took being thrust into leadership roles as an adult to really bring me out of my shell.

The Reluctant Speaker

As an officer in the U.S. Army, not speaking is NOT an option.  One position I held was on the recruiting team at Ft Devens MA, where we had to speak in front of high school groups, day after day. I went kicking and screaming into this role. Yet I recruited twice as many seniors as the rest of the team.  I learned that story-telling was a leadership skill as well as a speaking style.  

At Ft McClellan, AL, I was an Executive Training Officer for a company of 120 women. As an officer, I had responsibility teaching evening “soft skills” classes, meaning interpersonal relationships and everything you needed to know about bugle calls. Talk about boring!. 

These women had maybe an hour of sleep at night, so the class was where they caught up on their sleep.  I failed my evaluation of my first class because I tried to follow the written script.  I soon discovered that written scripts weren’t working for me as they brought me back to that 7-year-old girl reciting her script, only to get shut down.

I was not about to be another poor evaluation, so I looked to my strengths and decided to transform the way I let the classes. I created jeopardy like-games and introduced interactive role-playing.  They loved this — and stayed awake all the way through the course.  I got great results and was asked to help other Platoon Officers to do the same.  Grandma was silenced once more.

Over time, I began to own my leadership roles, gradually changing my feelings about speaking in public. Accordingly, I changed my actions to find a style that fit me and that seemed to resonate with my audiences. What worked for me was NOT to memorize my speeches or training sessions; rather to create an outline with key points and questions to guide me through the subject without being rigidly fixed to a script. 

As a result, I regularly received standing ovations and top marks on evaluations. My participants learned how to prepare to step into their career with confidence, and benefited from the power, strength, and leadership I clearly demonstrated. 

I had finally overcome my fears and rebuilt my life.

”Be Careful What You Say…”

My Grandmother likely never knew the devastating effect her judgmental words had on me. Nor do I believe she meant to hurt me. I have been able to turn this traumatic experience into an important lesson that has made my life better, so I’m grateful to her for that.

What I also know now in my own relationships is: “Be careful what you say. You can say something hurtful in ten seconds, but ten years later, the wounds are still there.” (Joel Osteen)

I have been more mindful of my words with my daughters, as well as in my professional relationships.

The Power of Your Words as a Leader

Especially as a leader, you find that people are hanging on your every word, seeking your approval, wanting to learn from you and follow you. Your influence as a leader is a large responsibility, and your words can either build up others, or tear them down.

Danny Iny, writing for Inc.com, offers some simple yet powerful words to use that will have a positive effect on the listener and help you become a more effective leader:

#1 “And:”  An inclusive word. It expands, it joins, it connects. Using “and” instead of “or” shows that you recognize there are possibilities and options, and invite your people in to explore those.

#2 “Why:” A powerful word to ask yourself so you can learn and expand your knowledge; and also powerful to use with others, to learn more about them and their ideas that will contribute to solutions and positive change.

#3 “Tell me more:” I train my leaders to build deep relationships with their team members, by listening carefully and being curious about them as individuals. This prompt encourages them to engage with you. It shows that you are seeking understanding and connection. It also is a good way to gently encourage people to explain their ideas to the group.

Linda Patten is a Leadership Trainer for women entrepreneurs and change-makers. Her vision for every woman is to become the natural leader she is meant to be, through teaching an empowering mindset, masculine AND feminine leadership skills, and how to activate a vision into a full-bodied business or social change movement.

For opportunities to awaken and empower the leader within you, please visit Dare2LeadwithLinda.