Sky’s the Limit

Sky’s the Limit

I sat in the audience listening to the CEO speak about his organization’s recent achievements and they seemed impressive. Progress had been made in multiple diverse areas, stakeholders were satisfied overall, and the company appeared to be operating successfully.

Throughout the report, though, he offered little mention of the company’s leadership team and employees. Instead, he used words like “me,” “mine,” and “I” extensively when referring to both accomplishments and staff. The language was self-promoting enough that it made me chuckle to myself. I wondered whether this executive secretly was a multi-armed octopus with dual-brain processing capabilities. I also pondered how the hundred or so employees must have felt when they were presented as little more than extensions of the CEO.

Similarly, a few months ago, I was talking with my daughter when she surprised me by asking, “Why do people say ‘the sky’s the limit’ when we’ve been beyond the sky?

I wanted to tell her that we say things like that because humans are visual creatures that love to create and tell stories. Also, since the sky is always above us, it’s an easy go-to in our idiom grab-bag.

Think about it:

Aim for the sky,” “out of the clear blue,” and “blue-sky thinking” are sky-related sayings that we’ve all heard. The interesting thing about saying “the sky’s the limit,” though, is that it’s no longer true.

The idiom appears to have originated during the first era of powered flight when the sky served as an actual limit to our reach. However, since then, we’ve been to the moon several times, we regularly reach low-earth orbit, and we have sent an object out of our solar system. Yet we still say “The sky’s the limit” today because every day we see the sky, and, unless we have airline tickets, the sky remains just out of our daily reach.

What do the stories of the CEO and my daughter’s question have in common?

First, they’re both about language choice, which is very much shaped by the perspective of the individual.

Second, they’re both examples of how our word choice limits us, our organizations, and those around us.

The language that we use shapes our thoughts—and our reality. When we use limiting words, even unconsciously, we restrict our potential realities. If this all seems either too academic or “woo-woo,” let me sharpen the focus for you.

Language that promotes your accomplishments over those of the team and the organization sends a clear message that you believe in the “Great Person” theory of organizational management. If that’s your philosophy, then eventually every single major problem will land on your doorstep or desk. After all, the Great Person can solve all problems, right?

Similarly, language that restricts you and your organization’s vision sends a very clear message that there are boundaries to your innovation, execution ability, and overall possibilities. This stifles your organization’s ability to adapt to change and instead promotes attitudes like “We’ve always done it this way, so don’t even think about change—that’s dangerous.”

So, if you’re a leader that doesn’t want your language to limit your organization, what should you do?

First, make sure that whenever you discuss your organization you use words like “we,” “us,” and “our.” It’s as simple as remembering what every high school coach says a hundred times each season: “There’s no ‘I’ in ‘team.’”

Second, reexamine your own personal idioms and sayings because as the leader, your word choice has outsized importance. Don’t use expressions or paint verbal pictures with limiting phrases.

This includes saying things like:

  • “beyond our ability”
  • “do more with less”
  • “at the end of the day”
  • “We’re sticking to our core competency.”

Finally, beware that the same secret sauce that enables rock-solid execution may also serve to impede your organization and people from achievements. Excellent execution involves institutional structures (process, procedure, guidelines, etc.) that subtly influence the language that your organization uses internally. In turn, this language shapes your organization’s stories and narrative and can serve to create a bounded reality. When this occurs, you stifle innovation (even when you say it’s a core principle) and risk that it will stagnate and die. I ask you to recall the cases of Kodak, Borders, and Blockbuster…to name a few.

So, the next time you hear someone in your organization say that “the sky’s the limit” or talk about “me” and “I,” think about the fact that limits begin with your choice of words. Then ask yourself whether you’re ready to start using different words to move beyond the sky and into the unknown where possibilities abound.

As a leader, you must continually seek to better understand yourself, those inside your organization, and your outside environment. Learn more with my free e-book, “Leadership In Real Life.”

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