Humility and Apology: The Lexis of an Authentic Leader

“Do you wish to rise? Begin by descending. You plan a tower that will pierce the clouds? 

Lay first the foundation of humility.”

Saint Augustine

The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) recently released the vocabulary scores for 4th and 8th grade students on the 2009 and 2011 reading comprehension exam. This marks the first time that results of a separate mastery scale for vocabulary comprehension administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress have been released. The scores are troubling – but not unexpected. While the average performance on the U.S. Education Department’s national exams remained mostly stagnant at low levels, the highest performers lost ground during the same period!

According to the report, the comprehension levels of 4th grade students were tested on words like create, spread, clenched, outraged, puzzled and striking. Eighth-graders, on the other hand, were expected to know the meaning of more difficult words such as anecdote, edible, replicate, specialty, and permeate. Finally, high school seniors were asked to recognize terms such as prospered, capitalize, articulate, proactive, mitigate and delusion. As the NCES described it, the exam’s word index was based on vocabulary usage across a variety of content areas. Unfortunately, while on average, 4th graders scored 218 out of a total of 500 points, 8th graders recorded a paltry 265!

While parents and educators opine the decline in vocabulary scores among the young, the fateful situation illustrates a broader issue that should concern us all, namely, the level of appropriate vocabulary use among our nation’s leaders! More specifically, it requires an assessment of the rate to which our leaders employ a lexis of oral humility. While verbal comprehension is indeed important, it should not be treated as the sole gauge of the mastery of vocabulary.  On the contrary, the authentic practice of a word’s implication must also be introduced into the calculus of proprietorship, as mastery of an appropriate leadership vocabulary is the combination of comprehension and authentic demonstration!

Research indicates that the size of a student’s vocabulary corresponds with his/her adulthood earning power. A seminal study in 1995 discovered that children whose families were on welfare heard on average 616 words per hour, while children from wealthier families heard 2,153 words for the same time period. Recent test score results are, therefore, vexing because early vocabulary skills have long been a divider between the affluent and the disadvantaged.

Studies have also discovered that vocabulary styles correspond to organizational ethos. The dialectal culture shared by a particular group of individuals directly impacts the quality of their interactions, and often regulates their institutional conditions. Consequently, it is imperative for business, civic, and religious leaders to regularly audit the phonological characteristic of their respective institutional environments. Do employees trust what they hear from peers and managers?  Is profanity fostered and inappropriate innuendo tolerated? Is language used to intimidate and coerce, or is it used to inspire and motive? Is the work climate predicated on erratic individualism, or on the sturdy foundation of collaboration? Most importantly, do leaders possess the necessary confidence to acknowledge mistakes or do they lack a robust lexis of humility?

Research identifies a strong relationship between a leader’s vocabulary proficiency and organizational alignment. Moreover, this correlation grows stronger as leaders spend more and more time building relational equity with both constituents and their clients.  One could not over-state the benefit of relational equity to the effective implementation of organizational mission, including fund and friend-raising strategies. Successful capital campaigns, stewardship programs, and venture philanthropic investments are related to prior relational cultivation.  All are the direct result of leaders who are sympathetic to the appropriate use of elegant yet powerfully compassionate vocabularies.

According to the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation, large vocabularies characterize top executives of major corporations. Words are instruments that enable people to grasp the thoughts of others. Like O’Connor, the dean and chancellor of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, Aaron Lazare, spent more than a decade studying the vocabulary of American leaders, including their comfort with expressions of regret and apology. In his seminal book, “On Apology” (2004) Lazare posits four stages that are essential for an apology to be effective: (a) asking for and giving it, (b) accepting it, (c) restoring the relationship, and/or (d) educating for change.

In their book, “The Five Languages of Apology” (2006), Gary Chapman and Jennifer Thomas provide quantified data that supports the thesis of O’Connor and Lazare. According to the authors, effective leaders are self-assured, and confidently adhere to a four-fold process of apology.  First, one must acknowledge that hurt or damage has occurred. After accepting responsibility for the mistake, a leader should then explain the role he or she played. Language plays an important role in the third step, as the recipient of the apology must be able to recognize regret and humility in the language they hear. Forgiveness, as a form of authentic restitution, is finally exchanged only after a credible commitment to change is tendered.

It is of vital importance, therefore, for our nation’s leaders to develop resilient vocabularies of high ethical and professional thresholds. While the consensus of organizational research insists that all ages require explicit life-long vocabulary instruction, like their younger counterparts, leaders of all ages and types struggle to cultivate their vernacular acumen. Developing an appropriate lexis of leadership, however, is more difficult than it might at first appear. A rich vocabulary signifies more than a register of influential words. It is a personalized proxy of inner aspiration, emotion, expertise and content knowledge. This is why the learning of new words is often so difficult. It is not merely the memorization of new definitions but the welcome reception of novel ideas, affiliations, and comportment.

As with other professional competencies, leadership requires a distinctive and refined vocabulary. The language that a leader most frequently utilizes reveals his/her most personal chain of inferences and insights. Words divulge the frameworks, biases and interpretations of specific situations. Consequently, regardless of distinction, all leaders need to demonstrate the sympathy of their respective world-views by prudently employing the most appropriate words and phrases in a given situation.

Leaders may choose to assess their respective institutional environments by honestly auditing the frequency with which they employ the following lexis of eight powerful idioms.

Leadership Phrases

Never Use

Infrequently Use

Frequently Use

  1. “Thank you!”
  1. “You did a great job!”
  1. “What do you think?”
  1. “Excellent!”
  1. “How can I help you?”
  1. “How are we doing?”
  1. “I was wrong.”
  1. “I am Sorry!”
Total: Total: Total:


Scores obtained from the aforementioned inventory may help leaders identify critical areas of personal limitations as well as organizational deficiencies. The most difficult phrase on the list may perhaps be the ability to frequently vocalize sincere regret over their mistakes. Many leaders unfortunately believe that they should never acknowledge error, for doing so would be a sign of weakness. And yet, research indicates the very opposite to be true!

It has long been known that the right words spoken by a leader at the right time can create a favorable environment for collaboration, risk-taking and learning. The use of appropriate vocabulary motivates, reassures and gives team members a sense of pride, ownership and organizational loyalty. Alternatively, the tragic use of incongruous words can generate mistrust, division, and create an antagonistic environment of rivalry and hostility.

Countless biographies can be cited that illustrate how the most successful leaders were not the ones that failed to make mistakes, but rather those that used their gaffs and blunders as teaching moments for those around them.  Apology is actually a powerful tool that increases legitimacy and, when practiced regularly with sincere humility, develops a culture of solidarity and innovation. The very best thing for a leader to do when they have made a mistake is to own up to it, ask for forgiveness, explain how they are going to fix it, and quickly move forward in a new direction.

In the final analysis, the vocabulary of apology is precisely the core message of the Christmas season. Required to provide an elucidation for the Birth of Christ, the Evangelist John could only assert that it involved the “Word assuming Flesh” (John 1:14)!  The Church, consequently, understands the Incarnation as a cosmic apology, wherein shame and power between offender and victim are actually reversed.

Putting the interests of others above the desire for justice and recompense is not easy. And yet, this is exactly what the role-reversal of the Holy Nativity involved.  Jesus, the Grand Apologizer, relinquished His Divine power and glory only to place Himself at the mercy of humanity . . . the actual perpetrator made victim.  Such an act of humility is and continues to be a moment of uncertainty that distinguishes the act of apology as compassion for the wronged, and not redemption for the offender. What could be more valuable than to undeservedly receive the Gift of such a Word!

The recent test scores of our nation’s youth provides an opportunity to devise strategies for rescuing the language of leadership by identifying the essential vocabulary for religious, economic and civic workplaces. Saint Augustine correctly asserted that humility is the “foundation of towers that pierce the clouds!” If we truly desire such high aspirations, then we must focus on cultivating the vocabularies of humility and apology . . . the lexis of an authentic leader!

Dr. Frank Marangos is CEO and Founder of OINOS Educational Consulting. He received a Doctors Degree in Adult Education (Ed.D.) from NOVA Southeastern University (Ft. Lauderdale, FL) and a Doctorate in Ministry and Childhood Education (D.Min.) from Southern Methodist University (Dallas, TX). He is also a Certified Charitable Estate Planner (FCEP).

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