When Leaders Try


“There is no state of being called ‘trying.’”

― John Yokoyama, When Fish Fly: Lessons for Creating a Vital and Energized Workplace from the World Famous Pike Place Fish Market

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As a leader, what do your words reveal about your commitment?

When my kids were young, I was fully dedicated to my career. I had made it a higher priority than my own family and even my health. On weekends (well, Sundays, which was all the weekend I thought I could spare), all I wanted to do was spend time recovering mentally and physically from my hard work all week.

My kids, Jennifer and Chris, had other ideas. They would often come to me and ask if we could do things together as a family that day. My standard answer was, “We’ll see.” After getting this response on a fairly regular basis, I overhead Jennifer, the older of the two, tell Chris one day that “we’ll see” meant “no.” Based on my past behavior, my kids were smart enough to translate what I thought was a non-committal answer into what it really meant – “no.”

Recently I spent some time on the phone with a leader I had met just some months before. I’m a member of a select group of leaders who have invested both time and money into learning from some of the best leaders in the world through a monthly conference call. We also spend time one-on-one sharing best leadership practices. On the phone with my new friend, we talked about leadership in our respective companies and discussed our leadership teams. Well into the conversation, my leadership partner asked if she could provide some feedback on what she had observed. “Yes, please do,” I replied.

Her first observation was positive reinforcement. She had not heard the word “but” during my entire description of the leadership within our company. She explained how the senior leadership team of her company had thrown their energy into changing the mindset of their leaders. One of their key focus areas was changing the language their leaders used. The first example she shared was their practice of asking others permission to coach them. They use wording that goes something like this: “I sense an opportunity to mentor you; is it okay if I share with you today”? If the answer is “Yes,” they share their observation or feedback. If the answer is “No,” They say, “Great! Have a wonderful day. I’ll talk to you later.” I realized she had just done that in our conversation when she asked my permission for her to give feedback.

Her second observation was not as positive. Basically, she “busted” me on using the word “try” when describing our company’s leadership. I think most of my talking points had started off with, “We try to….” She very politely helped me understand how the use of this word really provides a basis for not doing something, rather than being a commitment to do something.

This was not my first exposure to the word “try.” Early in my career I had been mentored about the same word. It was around the time that Nike had come out with their slogan, “Just Do It.” My mentor explained that you either do something or not; there is no in between. When you say you’ll try, you are not fully committed to the action. You have a safe out to fall back on – “Well, I tried.”

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines the word “try” as:

“To make an effort to do something; to attempt to accomplish or complete something; to do or use something in order to see if it works or will be successful; to do or use something in order to find out if you like it.”

There are several phrases that stand out to me in this definition: “attempt to accomplish,” “see if it works,” and “find out if you like it.” When we use the word “try” in our conversations, the people we are communicating with could receive our words within any one of these contexts. More likely, though, people will define “try” based on their previous experiences, either with us or with other leaders.


I am a firm believer in servant leadership and have dedicated the balance of my life to living as a servant leader and sharing our knowledge with others. We have implemented servant leadership in our companies and have created the Servant Leadership Institute to help others do the same.

Let’s look at how others might receive my comments on servant leadership if I were to use these concepts of the word “try”:

“We are going to make an effort to implement servant leadership at our company.” “We are going to use servant leadership to see if it works or will be successful.” “We are going to implement servant leadership to see if we like it.”

Compare these statements to the following commitment:

“We will be a servant-led organization. I believe that servant leadership is the only way to lead and serve others, and we will be known as a servant-led company.”

Early on in our implementation at Datron, our leaders thought that servant leadership was just the latest “fad,” and that it would be replaced with something else within twelve months. Their reaction was not directed to me as an individual, nor was it directed to the concept of servant leadership. It was based on the fact that the leadership of the company over the years prior to 2005 had spent a lot of money and effort “trying” different leadership styles to “see if they liked it” or “to see if it works.” They never committed themselves to operating their business in any particular way. Does that sound familiar?

We have dedicated our lives to servant leadership. Over the past several years, though, the leadership team at Datron has drifted in its commitment to this practice. It’s been slight and it’s been subtle, but there has been a drift. Several leaders were brought in from outside the company, including a new CEO. The on boarding of these new leaders in a servant- led organization was not what it should have been. When I stepped back into the CEO role at Datron earlier this year, I even found myself falling into the slight change in how we talked about servant leadership. In reality, this culture or mission drift happens in all companies, but that doesn’t mean it has to be permanent. (I would suggest you read a book called Mission Drift by Peter Greer and Chris Horst to fully understand this concept.)

As I was listening to my new friend, who served me in the best way, politely “bust” my leadership language, I realized that this little change in my language – and hence in my thinking and that of my team – was hindering our company’s ability to recover from the culture drift that had happened over the past several years. The language I was using was limiting our team’s commitment to stop the culture drift by refocusing on our original mission and purpose.

I took over eight pages of notes during our hour-long phone conversation. I am still “thinking about my own thinking” – about the words I use as the CEO, about their impact on others, and about the mindset I have on the language of a servant leader.

Where do you stand as a leader? Are you fully committed to a leadership style? How do those you influence translate the words you say as a leader? Do you use words like “we’ll see” or “we’re going to try…”?

In the end, leaders need to show their commitment to those we influence. Our message must be clear. When we’re in a senior leadership position, our words send messages to others that reveal the level of our commitment to serve them. I am thankful for this leader’s servant heart. Those I serve will feel her leadership influence through seeing a change in my behavior.

Servant leaders understand that our learning will never end. Living your life for the sake of others requires a commitment to reflect on your own behaviors before you look at others.


Art Barter

Founder & CEO of Servant Leadership Institute