3 Common Phrases Every Leader Should Eliminate Starting Today

You and I say things as leaders that work for us. And we say things that work against us.

Sometimes we know we’re saying counterproductive things…and sometimes we don’t. The latter is what this post is about.

The words you speak as a leader can make you a better leader…or create the opposite effect.

Here are 3 common phrases to eliminate.

Unless I remind myself to stop saying these 3 phrases, I say them every day. And they never help me lead well. In fact, they do the opposite.

So what are they?

3 Common Phrases Leaders Should Eliminate

Here are the three phrases I’m banishing from my vocabulary as a leader.

1. I’ll try.

You’ve said it. I’ve said it a thousand times:

I’ll try to get that done today.

I’ll try to make the meeting.

I’ll try to get home by 5.

I try to get to the gym 3 times a week.

Which usually means, you don’t.

Think about it: when someone tells you they’ll try to get something done, you likely run it through a translation filter that tells you they might not get it done. At least I do.

Saying you’ll try leaves you with an out. And often under that out is fear (I hate the gym!) or a lack of forethought (which really devalues the person who’s hearing your half-promise) or even self-centredness (I’ll be home by 5 if it’s convenient for me).

Why leave yourself with an out?

Just commit.

Either go to the gym 3 times a week or stop talking about it.

Get home by 5 or be realistic.

Move the project out the door when you said or stop promising false delivery dates.

Eliminating I’ll try from your vocabulary stops you from predicting failure before you start.

And eliminating I’ll try will help you lead better because you’ll simply be more honest in every conversation you have, including the conversations you have with yourself.

Eliminating I'll try from your vocabulary stops you from predicting failure before you start. Click To Tweet

2. I don’t have the time.

Sure you do. You absolutely do.

You have the same time everybody else does on the planet. The only two exceptions are the day you’re born and the day you die. Other than that, we’re all handed the same amount.

Should you say yes to everything that comes your way? Absolutely not. You can’t say yes to everything.

But that still doesn’t mean you should say you don’t have the time.

Years ago I made a shift.

I stopped saying “I don’t have the time” and made myself say “I’m not going to spend the time.”

This is a change you shouldn’t talk about out loud all the time—you’ll offend people. But as an internal shift, it’s powerful.

When you make yourself say I’m not going to spend the time, you force yourself to make a decision.

You will become a better time manager because you’ll be honest with yourself.

If you want to get serious about what your real priorities are, stop saying I don’t have the time and make yourself say (even internally) I’m not going to make the time for that. 

You’ll be a better leader.

If you want to get serious about what your real priorities are, stop saying I don't have the time and make yourself say (even internally) I'm not going to make the time for that. Click To Tweet

3. I can’t.

A third simple but powerful shift happens when you eliminate I can’t from your vocabulary.

I can’t make that.

I can’t get that done.

I can’t help.

Sure you can.

Often I can’t is a cover up for I don’t want to. I get that. No one wants to offend.

Other times it’s a cover for a lack of confidence, as in there’s no way I can do that! Occasionally that’s true. You like can’t run a marathon you haven’t trained for. But most of the time that’s a lie. You could. If you wanted to.

Well, as long as you think that way, you’re right. There’s no way you can do it.

As Henry Ford said, “Whether you think you can or think you can’t—you’re right.”

So stop thinking you can’t.

Whether you think you can or think you can't—you're right. —Henry Ford Click To Tweet

How do you know? Why don’t you try it? (This is an appropriate use of the word ‘try’ by the way.) So what if you fail?

And when it comes to your schedule, instead of telling yourself you can’t, force yourself to say “you won’t.”

It’s okay not to do things. Just be honest with yourself.

When you’re honest with yourself, you will become a far better leader.

You’ll avoid excuses. You’ll make hard choices. And you’ll get better.

You can still be polite and say “I’m sorry, I won’t be able to make it that day. I have another commitment.” or “Thanks for the invitation! I’d love to help but I’ve got some other things I need to get done!”

When you're honest with yourself, you will become a far better leader. You'll avoid excuses. You'll make hard choices. And you'll get better. Click To Tweet

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Sounds crazy, but it’s not. I know because I’ve lived it. A few years back, I seriously crashed and burned because the demands on my time and life were bigger than the time I had to accomplish them. I promised myself that wouldn’t happen again.

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What Would You Cut?

Those are three phrases I’m cutting or have cut from my leadership vocabulary. I think they’ll force me to be a better leader.

What phrases would you cut?

Leave a comment!

3 Common Phrases Every Leader Should Eliminate Starting Today


  1. joshpezold on December 16, 2015 at 4:05 pm

    I’m not sure how to word it, but I’d eliminate pastoral excuses. We all say them at times. I’d replace them with, “i’m sorry. Will you forgive me?” Rather than rationalize or explain behavior or even intention, we should display humility and grace to the one offended. Great list! Love the length of the list as well.

  2. Tammy Tolman on August 5, 2015 at 10:19 pm

    I love it, It is so true, thanks for the reminder ! God bless

  3. David on August 5, 2015 at 9:40 am

    You don’t live in my world where your job requires you to “volunteer” and extra 10-20 hours a week. Sometimes “I can’t” or “I don’t have time” is the only way I can go home to see the family.

  4. eddie on October 11, 2014 at 6:36 am

    I read it today and it’s not only for leaders to eliminate these phrases. Everyone can use this..in everday communicatie and also is your marriage..
    I saw myself in the three phrases….I think that live would me less complex and clearer wen the phrases will be gone in your everyday live..

  5. Scott Douglas on October 2, 2014 at 4:44 pm

    Good stuff again today Carey. Thanks for the insights. Appreciate the short list by the way. 🙂

    • Carey Nieuwhof on October 2, 2014 at 8:02 pm

      Sometimes my 8 points are too much for me too. 🙂

  6. Tim on September 25, 2014 at 8:35 am

    I would also add ‘your in our prayers”. I find it’s an easy out for pastors in particular.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 26, 2014 at 5:52 am

      Tim…thanks for this and I completely appreciate your perspective. You are right, prayer is essential. I almost never list prayer or reading your bible or confession of sin because, well, I assume people are doing this. They would also be featured on every blog post as well. On this blog, I try to point out the less obvious factors. Hope that helps explain why you rarely hear me talk about those things explicitly, even though they are foundationally to all I do and write.

  7. Lisa on September 23, 2014 at 10:31 am

    If saying “I won’t make the time for that,” is a hard one to spit out (for people pleasers or soft-hearted souls it can seem so harsh), a good transition phrase is to say instead, “I’m sorry, that won’t work for me.” As Lysa Terkeurst would say, sometimes (as women in particular) we need to seek relief from being overburdened, over committed, and off our personal mission by finding the “Best Yes.”

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 23, 2014 at 12:25 pm

      Great phrase Lisa. Thanks for this! I agree, saying “I won’t make the time for that” is something you should say to yourself, not others. Love your phrase for others. Thanks!

  8. Alvin on September 19, 2014 at 10:24 pm

    I must admit I have some reservations about this list. e.g. “I can’t” could be a legitimate restriction whether internal or external. If it’s internal, then your suggestions are correct. However, if they are external, then there is a legitimacy to “I can’t”. I’m not sure if I would be that absolute in nixing those phrases. It does challenge us to examine our internal motives but not having a cop out. But some of those phrase to have their legitimacy especially for second-chair leaders.

  9. Leadership Roundup | Worship Links on September 18, 2014 at 3:01 pm

    […] Carey Nieuwhof shares three things that leaders should stop saying: […]

  10. Brent Brewer on September 18, 2014 at 11:33 am

    Instead of saying to people, “I’ll pray for you”. It sometimes it’s a spiritual way to push people along. They are obviously informing you because of their need for prayer- why not pray for them on the spot? They will be blessed and you will keep your word.

  11. Jeremy on September 17, 2014 at 9:32 pm

    I just wanted to say thanks for beginning to allow full postings on RSS. I’ll try always to click through and read comments, but sometimes I can’t because I don’t have the time.

  12. Kevin Glenn on September 17, 2014 at 1:55 pm

    Thanks for this, Carey! Looks like Master Yoda was right after all … “Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.”

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 17, 2014 at 6:52 pm

      So funny Kevin. Thanks!

  13. Jeremy Mattheiss on September 17, 2014 at 10:55 am

    Good list. One I’ve been semi-cognizant of lately is “Someone should…” If I’m not willing to be the one to do it, I shouldn’t expect someone else to step up and do it instead.

  14. Jon Stallings on September 17, 2014 at 9:59 am

    Similar to I’ll try is “I might” – Most often results in you wont.

  15. Chris Shumate on September 17, 2014 at 9:26 am

    Interesting perspective on “I don’t have time”. I have been using that lately for a couple of writing projects I am working on. I keep them on my list because I want to do them soon. I have a tentatively time frame to get started on them. I am not at a place right now that I can devote the time needed, but I still want to do them. This is one reason why a personal growth plan is so big for me. Right now I don’t have time for those projects, but since they are on my growth plan I have determined they are important enough for me to keep on my radar. Still, I am going to chew on and think through this phrase a little more.

    I have certainly tried to eliminate “I can’t” from my vocabulary. I still slip up and have to correct myself. I once thought I couldn’t write a book, or design a website. Well, I have now done both. I may never be the next Dr. Seuss, Richard Scary, etc., but I wrote a book (even if it was self-published). I may never design a website for IBM, Walmart, or a “Mom and Pop Shop”, but I was able to design one that is currently meeting my needs. Plus if I remove “I can’t” from my vocab, then hopefully my son won’t give me that excuse when he get older.

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 17, 2014 at 6:53 pm

      Timing is everything Chris, and it’s great to have long term goals. I couldn’t have done what I do now when my kids were young. That’s for sure!

  16. Robin Jordan on September 17, 2014 at 8:39 am

    I would omit the phrase, “I’ll think about it.” What you are really saying is “no” without being direct. It is better to simply say “no.”

    • Carey Nieuwhof on September 17, 2014 at 6:52 pm

      Good point…although sometimes I mean “I’ll think about it” when I say the phrase. I can’t make every decision on the spot. Thanks Robin!

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