In my 24-year career and now as an executive coach, I’ve seen people produce great business results yet still not get the opportunities they want, whether that’s bigger responsibilities, better projects or that “dream job” they’ve been interviewing for.

That can be frustrating and demoralizing, especially when you’re working hard and making sacrifices.

While many factors come into play, it often comes down to whether or not senior stakeholders see you as a leader or, at least, having leadership potential.

Here, “leader” is about the behavior – taking action to achieve a common goal by bringing others along – and not the formal title like “Head of XYZ function” or “Director of ABC unit”.

Anyone at any level can behave like a leader, but not everyone in a formal seat of authority demonstrates leadership!

In my experience, a key part of being seen as a leader is to sound like a leader.

What it Means to Sound Like a Leader

Sounding like a leader means you’re communicating in a way that inspires people to aspire to bigger things. To do and be their best. To embrace your ideas and follow your lead whether you have an official title or not.

You don’t need to give charismatic speeches or become a great orator. It’s more about how you sound in all your communications, including the things you say (and write) every day.

When you sound like a leader, it opens up opportunities for you and your team to make a bigger impact. And stakeholders can’t help but notice when you sound like a leader because so few people do this well.

Best of all, the way you speak, write and communicate is completely in your control. You don’t need to have the perfect assignment or be in a senior position already. You can do something about it every day from the seat you’re in right now.

How to Sound Like a Leader

One thing that’s easy to overlook is how the language and words you use are coming across. That’s because we’re talking and writing so much of the time at work. After all, it’s a connected world where collaboration is the way things get done.

When you do things in the normal course, it’s easy to stop paying attention to how you’re doing it. That’s when you can come across in the wrong way without meaning to.

Pay Attention to Your “Soundtrack”

If you had a recording of yourself in the last 24 hours, what words and phrases would your “soundtrack” be filled with?

Are you often criticizing and complaining or encouraging others (and yourself) to explore and innovate?

How often do you tell people what to do rather than help them develop and grow?

To what extent are your words expanding the range of possibilities rather than shutting them down?

If your vocabulary is filled with “no”, “but”, “can’t” and lots of complaints, it’s time to look carefully at how your soundtrack is landing with others. This is a critical part of your personal brand and reputation. And it has everything to do with how you sound as a leader.

Use Only Positive Words

When I was a teenager, I had developed the habit of complaining, whether it was about too much homework, an annoying teacher, or my science lab partner who didn’t do their share of the work. Finally, my parents couldn’t stand listening to my whining anymore.

That’s when my father gave me the advice that would later help me sound like a leader and get promoted 10 times during my 24-year career, ultimately to COO for the European business.

He said, “May, try using only positive words.”

When I took on that challenge, it changed everything. I found it impossible to complain when using only positive words, and immediately became someone people wanted to be around because they felt positive.

It also made me more conscious of what I was saying and how it might sound to others. It took practice, but I liked the challenge of thinking before speaking and finding the right words to convey my ideas in a way that would land well with the person I was talking to.

I became thoughtful about the words I used and chose language that opened up the conversation rather than shut it down.

Instead of “why did you do that?”, it was “tell me what happened”.

I replaced “no, but…” with “yes, and…”.

And “we can’t …” with “what if…”.

These simple shifts not only made me sound like a leader, they also made me feel more positive, empowered, creative and open to possibilities. And that rubbed off on the people around me. It created a virtuous cycle.

What Will You Do?

Every day you have opportunities to inspire your team and impress your stakeholders. It’s up to you to make the most of them.

So, pay attention to your words and choose language that makes you sound like the leader you are and aspire to be. Notice which phrases you use that land well with others and which you’d like to change. Keep experimenting and practicing so that sounding like a leader becomes your new normal.

Remember, even if you’re not listening to your own soundtrack, everyone else is.

What will you do to sound like the leader you aspire to be?

Leave me a comment and let me know.