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The Grammar of Leadership

By Patrick Lencioni - February 2019

When I was a kid, I was one of the few students who actually liked diagramming sentences. And I really loved those Saturday morning Grammar Rock cartoon songs (younger readers probably won’t understand anything I’ve written so far). For some reason, I was always fascinated by the difference between an adverb, an adjective and a gerund. I was strange that way and, lucky for me, I became a writer.

Well, the other day I was thinking about the connection between grammar and leadership. As I said, I’m a little strange. What I was thinking about was the different ways that people tend to evaluate leaders, and how those ways often correspond to different parts of speech. Whether you consider adjectives, adverbs or verbs, the evaluation of a leader will vary greatly. What follows is my assessment of which parts of speech are most indicative of great leadership.

Least important: the adjective. Is the leader charismatic, charming, eloquent, intelligent, funny? As enticing as adjectives may be, they are the least important for leadership evaluation because they are often surface-level indicators and don’t stand up in the midst of the pressure of day-to-day leadership. If grammar were a corporate function, adjectives would be marketing. And I think the world would be better if we paid less attention to how leaders market themselves, and more attention to, well, we’ll get to that in a second.

Most important: the verb. What does the leader actually accomplish? Is it all talk or do they get good things done? I prefer someone who actually leads rather than simply being a leader. The best measure of a leader is the fruits of his or her labor. Some people become leaders because they are determined to make a difference by getting things done. Most are content to merely occupy the seat of a leader.

Runner up: the adverb. Just in case the emphasis on leadership as a verb sounds like permission to do anything in the service of accomplishing goals, consider the importance of the adverb. How does the leader get things done? Do they go about their work courageously or fearfully? Determinedly or tepidly? Thoughtfully or carelessly? The adverb is more important than the adjective because it is more closely related to the act of leadership, rather than the mere appearance of being a leader.

So, when it comes to choosing a leader in any field or, for that matter, evaluating whether you want to work for one, avoid the temptation to pay attention to how they market themselves. Focus instead on what that person is likely to do, and how they will do it. And remember the line from the grammar rock song about verbs: “I put my heart in action.” Okay, that sounds cheesy. It sounds a lot better when you hear it sung in a video. Check it out at