The CEO’s Voice: Understanding the Power and Influence of Language in Leadership

 The CEO’s Voice: Understanding the Power and Influence of Language in Leadership

Words deserve respect. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little. —Tom Stoppard

The words of a CEO have inordinate weight.

Though you cannot interact personally with each employee, customer, and shareholder, these people all listen closely to what you say—and how you say it. Even subtle word choices send loud signals. These dynamics affect people’s perceptions of you, their understanding of what you expect from them, and even their faith in the company.

I’ll be covering many examples in a series on the power of language in the CEO role. Today I want to focus on one bit of language I have been noticing lately: have to.”

  • “I have to be at the sales review meeting at 10.”
  • “I have to go to this conference in San Diego.”
  • “We have to raise prices for our core product line.”
  • “We have to do a layoff.”

These may all be worthy actions, but the framing as a necessity that was thrust on the CEO or organization is unwise. When you say you “have to,” you inadvertently create a narrative of compulsion rather than choice. This has significant fallout:

  1. Elimination of Agency. As the ultimate decider, the CEO doesn’t face much real “have to” in the role (outside a resolution passed by the board—a rare case). Saying “I have to” implies that you’re under external compulsion, removing personal agency from the equation. It suggests a lack of control over your actions, even though everyone is aware of your positional authority. The effect is to undermine faith in your leadership and decision-making ability.


  2. Reduction in Accountability. Along the same lines, by indicating that your actions are a result of external pressure, CEOs distance themselves from the responsibility of their decisions. There’s a built-in defense for every action: “But I had to!” This can lead to a culture of blame-shifting and a lack of ownership.


  3. Absence of Deliberation. CEOs are expected to make considered decisions. “I have to” or “We have to” skips the process of weighing options and evaluating the best course of action. Your decisions seem forced rather than thoughtfully made. People may question your judgment.


  4. Impact on Team Morale. “I have to” and “We have to” can also affect people’s confidence and motivation. This phrasing suggests to team members that their leaders are simply buffeted by the winds of circumstance. Would you want to work for a leader who just follows the dictates of necessity rather than forging a path ahead? Probably not.

The good news is that in almost all cases, the CEO can easily eliminate “I have to,” thereby making their communication much more considered and effective. Here are some tips:

  • Replace “I have to” with “I have decided to” or “We are going to.” This simple change emphasizes that the action is the result of a conscious decision. It shows you’ve thought about it and that there’s a purpose.


  • Explain the why. Immediately follow up the previous statement with how you arrived at the choice.

    Why are you spending time in the sales review meeting? Stating your reasoning shows the person you’re speaking with that you’ve got your schedule under control and see this meeting as part of your core responsibilities as CEO.

    Why is the layoff the right choice? Trust me, your employees want to know. Getting a look at the factors that went into the decision can help them accept the outcome, trust leadership more, and feel more process fairness.


  • Encourage ownership. Cutting “have to” from your leadership vocabulary is an excellent way to lead by example. Manufactured obligation isn’t good for the CEO, just as it’s not good for anyone in a high-performing company. Seeing you frame your actions as conscious, well-thought-out decisions encourages others to take ownership, consider their options, and take accountability for the one they choose.


The CEO role is more than a position; it’s a continuous exercise in communication and decision-making. I encourage you to be transparent about your decisions by discussing them as intentional choices—rather than falling back on the easy crutch of “I have to.”

Joel Trammell

Joel Trammell is the cofounder and architect of CEO-S, an operating system for the chief executive. Joel is a previous CEO of private and public companies and the owner of Texas CEO Magazine. He is the author of The CEO Tightrope and, most recently, The Chief Executive Operating System (with Sherif Sakr).

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