In Praise Of Clichés

Sometimes leaders say obvious things just because they think it's expected of them, and I'm totally OK with that approach.

David Wagner, Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

July 14, 2014

3 Min Read

I wrote last week about the lack of good leadership definitions, although I identified one that provides a starting point (more on that later). Although we don't all agree on what makes a great leader, most of us agree on what he or she isn't: a font of clichés. Clichés are lazy, they lack authenticity, and no "real" leader would resort to one, right?


With all due respect to those lists of management clichés to avoid, I maintain that leadership clichés are necessary and powerful. Despite what you read in leadership books about the need to be authentic and "real," it isn't the cliché itself that's bad. As with any tool, it's how you use it. Let's look at clichés in action.

It's that crazy time of year in the NFL, when teams have new coaches and players practicing together for the first time, in minicamps. Optimism flows through these camps, and the coaches, who are supposedly great leaders, spout a lot of clichés. My favorite one comes from just about every defensive coach: "We're going to be a lot more aggressive this year." If you don't believe me, check out here and here and take a walk through Google.

[Want more leadership tips? Read Retention Strategy: Treat Everyone As An Individual.]

Obviously, this is a cliché, because you're never going to hear a football coach say, "I'd like for us to be much more passive this year. I'd like the other team to dictate to us, and we'll react and hope we know how to stop it." There's also a limit to intelligent aggression in any sport. You could send all your guys in a mad rush to stop the other team, and it will simply avoid your disorganized barbarian charge. So what's the point of the cliché?

The point is that the team is listening. And not shockingly, they respond.

Consider the definition of leadership I offered in last week's column, from Steve Zeitchik, CEO of Focal Point Strategies: "Leadership is inspiring others to pursue your vision within the parameters you set, to the extent that it becomes a shared effort, a shared vision, and a shared success."

Shared vision is the key concept. A shared vision requires clear, simple communication so that everyone understands it. Clichés offer the chance to do something rare: Convey an idea we all understand but need to re-emphasize.

When the coach says "we're going to be more aggressive" or an executive says "we're going to empower you to innovate," those are clichés that seem easy to dismiss. But effective leaders choose clichés such as those over the truly vacuous clichés such as "we're going to take it one game at a time.”

Pick your clichés carefully. Make sure they're at the heart of your vision. Especially when all heck is breaking loose, your people can fall back on clichés, best-practices, mission statements, and other repeated messages that they might otherwise dismiss.

To keep the sports analogy alive, when it's fourth and goal and your defense needs to make a stand to win the game, it reaches back to what it knows. What it knows is that you're going to be aggressive. Each defender is going to dig his heels in and go after the ball like a wild dog.

When your team's up against your organization's own goals, your team will know your priorities and vision and act accordingly. What do you think? To cliché or not to cliché? Authentic or lazy? Tell us what you think in the comments section.

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About the Author(s)

David Wagner

Executive Editor, Community & IT Life

David has been writing on business and technology for over 10 years and was most recently Managing Editor at Before that he was an Assistant Editor at MIT Sloan Management Review, where he covered a wide range of business topics including IT, leadership, and innovation. He has also been a freelance writer for many top consulting firms and academics in the business and technology sectors. Born in Silver Spring, Md., he grew up doodling on the back of used punch cards from the data center his father ran for over 25 years. In his spare time, he loses golf balls (and occasionally puts one in a hole), posts too often on Facebook, and teaches his two kids to take the zombie apocalypse just a little too seriously. 

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