3 Warning Signs for Responsible Leaders

by  Mike Henry  |  Self Leadership

I’ve come to notice some warning signs in my speech. These are words that help me identify when I’m not being a character-based leader. Whenever I use these words, I’m avoiding a character attribute that is valuable to me. For each one, I try to let them trigger me to change my thoughts and my behavior.

The 3 Warning Signs are “but”, “they”, and “need”.


“But” is the excuse word. It always provides an alternative. But when everything before the “but” is related to a personal responsibility, commitment or promise, we’re always our best when we simply stop the sentence and keep the “but” to ourselves.

“I should have gotten my report done on time, but…”
“I know we didn’t make our profit projections this month, but…”

How often to you catch yourself using “but” as an excuse? Let “but” be a flag to you. Listen for it in the speech of yourself and others and try to stop using it. Simply using it less will send the signal that you’re a person who means what you say. Avoid its use for a while and you’ll be seen as more responsible. Don’t agree? Prove me wrong. Stop using it for a couple of months and then ask a trusted co-worker or your spouse. Just say, “I’ve been trying to be a bit more responsible lately. Have you noticed any areas where I could improve?” Or, “Have you seen any improvement?” (Chances are your spouse will need more than 60 days.) Let me know how it goes for you. Even if you don’t see it right away, the world will have one less victim making excuses for everything that happens. We can always make the world better one person at a time, if we’ll only start with ourselves. Let “but” trigger you to accountability.


“They” is a victim word. When we use the word “they”, we give others power over our situation and we deny our own ability to make a difference. Often “they” aren’t the only ones who can do something about a particular problem; “they” are simply the ones we’d choose to do something about it. They may in fact choose us!

In just about any circumstance, there is always something we can do too. And until we’ve done everything we can, we don’t need to worry about “they” and what “they” haven’t done. Sure, “they” have some power. “They” could do something. “But” I take my destiny into my own hands when I stop waiting for “they” and I engage “me.”

Just yesterday another friend used a sister word – “someone.” “Someone should do something about the problem.” Whenever we believe “they” should get “someone” to do something, volunteer. Let that person be you. Choose yourself. Stop letting “they” make you a victim. Let “they” trigger you to responsibility.


“Need” is another of my trigger words. It’s the newest addition. Listening to Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly, I now consider “need” to be a scarcity word. Whenever I find myself thinking about needs, I’m working from a mindset that says “there isn’t enough.” “We need more power Scotty!” Most of what we need we already have. Often what we need is the willingness and the courage to use those resources in pursuit of great goals, or lofty objectives.

“Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Howard Thurman

Let “need” be a challenge to you. Never let it be a complaint about scarcity, but rather an order for more of what the world needs from you. Let “need” trigger you to action.

Maybe you have other warning signs that trigger you to action. If so, do you mind sharing them below? What other words challenge you to bring your best “you” back into action?

Photo © Douglas_Freer istockphoto

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About The Author

Articles By mike-henry
Chief Instigator (Founder) of Lead Change Group and VP of IT for a mid sized technology company. Passionate about character-based leadership and making a positive difference.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

Hugh Ballou  |  06 Sep 2013  |  Reply


Really important stuff in this post. Thanks for sharing. I referenced it in my blog today.


Hugh Ballou
The Transformational Leadership Strategist

Mike Henry  |  08 Sep 2013  |  Reply

Thanks very much Hugh. I appreciate the kind words and the link / plug. Much appreciated.


Jodelle De Jesus  |  07 Sep 2013  |  Reply

You try so hard to be a leader, but they need so much out of you!
Heh, I just wanted to use your trigger words. You’re right; it does make a spineless victim out of “you”.

The one phrase that triggers me into action is “I cannot”. Now, I understand and fully accept that there are things a lot of people CANNOT do. They may be physically, economically, mentally restrained from completing something. Whenever someone drops that phrase — whether it’s me or someone else — I automatically go into “explore” mode to see why I or that person says they cannot do something. Often, I find it’s more out of laziness or seeing something as undesirable; I don’t accept those excuses. Maybe I’m too strict, but rather, I like to think I value people’s capabilities too highly and refuse to believe that they “cannot” do something.

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Mike Henry  |  08 Sep 2013  |  Reply

Thanks for the comment and the addition. “Can’t” is another of those words for me too, if I had thought of it. I just saw a quote by Henry Ford, “Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off your goal.” When someone says they “cannot”, I often hear that as “something else is more important to me than our agreed objective.” It definitely needs to be included. Thanks for catching that. Mike…

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