Should A Leader Swear?

August 1, 2010 by
Filed under: Leadership, Personal Development 

A prolific leader by the name of Spencer W. Kimball once noted: “Profanity is the attempt of a feeble mind to express itself forcefully.” How many people would agree with that statement? It’s also been mentioned that a person who uses profanity to continuously express themselves is only showing their limited command of basic language skills. Most, if not all languages, have multiple ways of expressing themselves strongly for just about any type of situation without the use of swearing or the use of profane language. Sometimes though people find the need to cuss in order to get the point across to others.

When given the choice of using profane language, some freely choose to verbally let loose like the most talented sailor as the saying goes. But what good is it to cuss? It probably can be answered by noticing where you’re at or who is possibly around you when decide to do so.

The Case of the Cranky Debt Collector

A recent case in Texas calls attention to how and when never to use profanity. In it, a Texas man was awarded $1.5 million in punitive damages from a collection agency whose employee repeatedly called the man in order to collect an outstanding charge of just under $200. A charge that was being disputed as having already been paid. The issue here is that the collection agency employee decided to not just use profane language, but also to leave multiple messages using profanity on the Texas man’s answering machine. It’s safe to say that this collection agency employee and the company the employee work(ed) for are regretting the use of profanity in the running of it’s services.

One interesting scenario that points out the “positive of cussing” is pointed out in the article Should Leaders Ever Swear?:

In the most memorable scene of any academic paper I’ve read lately, Jenkins, after working in the packing department for a couple of months, uses nuclear-grade profanities to challenge an alpha-male co-worker, a guy named Ernest: “Well f—–g get on with it then, you lazy —-.” Other workers gasped, but in fact, the incident led Jenkins to be invited to join group activities from which he’d previously been excluded. “[Jenkins] had identified the profane linguistic ‘initiation rite’ for inclusion in the packers’ social group, and used it successfully,” the authors concluded.

-Dan McGinn in the HBR article “Should Leaders Ever Swear?

The funny thing to me is that, similarly to the last above example, I’ve seen first hand the affect of using profane language and it’s positive outcome (at least to one person).

At a company I use to work for, many of the managers would hang around after work in the office and continue to talk about issues and project at work. These were often the managers who were known as some of the key influencers of the company. Many of them were known for making “back room deals” that would effect company projects and their outcomes. Most of them were male, with only one female, who I will call Leslie for this scenario. What was noticeable when these managers stayed after normal work hour to continue discussions that started earlier in the day is that many of them would begin to use “colorful four letter words” in their vocabulary that they wouldn’t use during the day. Every so often they would stop themselves and apologize to Leslie for the use of such language. These managers were Directors, and Vice Presidents who would never use profane language during the regular day-time working hours. But here they were doing so in the office. What was interesting to me was how they acted around Leslie when she was in the room. Going out of their way to not cuss as often. One evening, during conversation Leslie decided to use a few colorful words of her own and when she did so, many of the people in the room stopped what they were doing and looked at Leslie using profanity. If I could describe the change in that room and in that group, I would not be doing it justice. Why do I say that? Because as soon as Leslie showed that she could cuss with the best of them, the men in the room just relaxed and it could be seen. I never saw them relax so much with Leslie in the room after work. They started to bring her into more of the conversations and ask her more often for her opinions and insights.

What was interesting to note in the above example with Leslie is that the only thing she did here was demonstrate that she could use profanity herself. She told me later on that she usually doesn’t use profanity ever but every so often she’d put into a scenario where some need to use profanity in order to be accepted by others. Others whom she needs to have some rapport with in order for Leslie to do her job.

Know Your Audience!

Profanity is not a must for a person to use in order to be accepted into a group they want to be accepted into. In Leslie’s case, it was just with one particular group where she needed to use it in order to gain some acceptance. In another case, a person who we’ll call John was attending a local Rotary Club get-together. He was excited about attending since he just moved to the area and wanted to meet some of the wheeler and dealers in business and humanitarian service group. Many of whom are members of the local Rotary Club. When John conversed with people after introducing himself, he was very “generous” in the use of profanity while discussing ideas, concerns, areas he has expertise in and areas where he’d like to get involved. As the evening when on, he noticed that more and more people were beginning to alienate him. Later, while touching base with someone who had attended the event, I found out that what stood out about John was not his skill, background or personality. It was his use of profanity. No matter who he spoke with, he would drop one profanity after another within his sentences. This turned many people who attended off and needless to say, many people did not want to associate themselves with John so readily.

There are people who would argue that a person has a right to use whatever language they want. I believe that to be true. But also true is the right of a person to experience the consequences (both good and bad) of the language they choose to use. One age old truth about freedom is that the more freedom one has, the more responsibility one has as well. There is no way to separate freedom from responsibility, they go hand in hand.

So the next time you are with someone or around someone where they can hear what you say, if you choose to use profanity in expressing yourself, don’t be so surprised at how they might treat you!


5 Intelligent Opinions, Leave Yours on Should A Leader Swear?

  1. Mike Anderson on Mon, 2nd Aug 2010 8:23 am
  2. Great post GIl. As a career coach, I often tell people to be very careful what they say and write in the office. From swearing to blue humor to inappropriate sexually charged comments, we always need to know our audience.

    My general rule of thumb is “don’t say anything your mama or someone else’s spouse would be offended by”.

    Have a great day!!


    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  3. Gil Pizano on Sun, 15th Aug 2010 12:03 am
  4. Thanks Mike for your kind message. Glad you enjoyed the article! You have a great blog by the way Mike! Awesome stuff!

    Take Care,


    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  5. Delia on Fri, 27th Aug 2010 7:32 pm
  6. Hi Gil,
    What a great article! I have a habit of cutting loose with some words, I normally only use them out of frustration…however I never use the Lords name in vain. I firmly believe cussing is an acquired habit and it can be undone, and out of habit…

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  7. Andrei Piele on Thu, 21st Oct 2010 8:41 pm
  8. Change its the only constant, nice site! Keep up the good work, Im coming back. /Bob

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  9. Tom Gosnet on Tue, 26th Oct 2010 4:24 pm
  10. You have a way with writing, but remember by and large, english is a tool for hiding the truth

    Like or Dislike: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

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