What Verb Tense Do You Lead In?

Posted 02.05.2013

boat-wakeIf you want to read a blogger who gives, gives, gives and never takes, check out Leadership Freak by Dan Rockwell. With his regular posts of 300 words or less, Dan has built a loyal following of tens of thousands of leaders in the past few years. As an example of his work, check out his recent post on “Ten Strategies for Starting Over.”

It’s a great post with ten simple, actionable tips for overcoming something that many of us do without even recognizing we do it – getting stuck in the past.

We tend to hang on to stuff that’s not doing us any good and that we need to let go of. There’s a simple way to check yourself on that. Over the course of a day or a week, notice which verb tenses you find yourself speaking in throughout the day. Your choices are past, present or future.

Great leaders spend most of their energy on the present and the future. One way to think about why that’s the case is explained in a story I read years ago in a book by Wayne Dyer. It goes something like this:

Imagine you’re on a motorboat moving across a lake. As you stand at the helm, ask yourself three questions. First, what do you see in the water behind the boat? The answer is the wake that was created by the movement of the boat through the water. The second question is what’s driving the boat forward? The answer is the energy being created by the motor in the present moment. The last question is can the wake propel the boat? Of course, the answer is no. The wake represents the energy that has already been spent. It has nothing to do with forward movement.

A lot of people spend the majority of their conversational time talking about the wake. The biggest percentage of their conversation goes to the past tense. (e.g. “This happened or that happened.” “Then they did this.” “Why didn’t they do that?”) A much smaller percentage of conversational time is spent in the present tense. (e.g. “What’s happening right now?” “What do we know about this?) And an even smaller percentage is spent in the future tense. (e.g. “What do we need to do solve this problem?” “What would success in the future look like?” “What do we need to do next to get there?” “What do we need to do after that?”)

As leaders, we need to encourage people to learn from the past without taking up residence there. Our language plays a big, big role in where our team focuses their time and attention. If you focus on the present and the future, they’re more likely to as well.

What do you do to keep your team focused on what they can do now to shape the future?