3 Ways to Improve Your Leadership Language


“Speak up, and act confidently. Say it like you mean it.”

These were the words that my managing director told me in his office after observing me in a meeting – quiet as a mouse, as I recall – that centered on material that I had put together. It was the summer of 2001 and I was finishing up an investment banking internship at one of the largest firms in New York City.  

“I know you can speak, Moses,” he said. “But do you have the moxie to lead?”

These words have stuck with me throughout my career since graduating business school in 2003. The notion of using my words to boldly, courageously and confidently communicate my ideas has helped me to launch a couple of companies, recruit and retain talent, engage customers, raise capital, and lead teams to accomplish a common goal.

At Michigan Language Center, we tell our corporate partners all the time that it’s one thing to learn and master the English language, but it’s another to use English to lead a team meeting, sell your ideas to clients, or mobilize your colleagues around you to get something done.

That’s why we don’t just teach ESL, we also teach people how to lead and understand their cultural context.

A few thoughts, especially for international employees, on the language of leadership:  

  • Body Language: People say that body language accounts for more than 50% of communication. That means that how you deliver words with your eyes, hands, posture, and overall demeanor is more important than the words themselves. Many international employees have not been trained or have not given this much thought, and incorrectly just focus on language acquisition and pronunciation.  
  • Word Choice & Tone of Voice: Some words can empower and encourage, while others can tear down and destroy. As a leader, word choice is critical. That’s why it is important to be thoughtful and to choose the right words in given moments. For example, there’s a huge difference between calling something “a failure” vs. “an opportunity for growth.”   I’ve also gotten into a lot of trouble in the past when people tell me that it’s not what you said, but how you said it that has created confusion. Tone of voice can be the difference between whether someone wants to work with you or not, whether you win a deal or not, and whether you get a promotion or not.  
  • Cultural Context: I realize how important it is for me to take in and understand the context of a situation before choosing the best way to communicate an idea or respond. This is especially difficult to understand for people who are working across different cultures. For example, if you’re going into a meeting with entrepreneur-types, you might want to dress more casually and ditch the long report in favor or a short presentation deck. On the flip side, if you’re going into a meeting with a reputable financial firm, you will probably dress the part and communicate everything more formally.

If you’re an international worker or you work with international colleagues, don’t just settle for ESL. It’s important to master the language of leadership to grow your career and reach your potential.