How Leaders Can Leverage the Difference Between “Showing” and “Telling”

I’ve been writing about scientific leadership for a while now, and people often mention how much they like my posts.  The last time I got a compliment – after saying thank you, of course! – I asked,

“What is it you like about my writing?”

She said she likes how I use my own experiences and observations to make a point. That way, the reader can learn without feeling defensive or talked down to.  (She also said she likes my posts because they aren’t too long 🙂)

Reflecting on her feedback, I realized that there’s so much I’ve observed and learned and believe, I want to pass it all on in my writing so my readers can benefit. But there’s something else going on, a quality I struggle with in all parts of my life: being adamant.

When I’m adamant about a topic, the same information comes across in a different tone, as in a firm, “Here’s how you need to do it.” This way of communicating, this “telling” has a particular sensation for me – heavy, grounded. There is less room for others’ opinions.

Instead, when I’m showing, it feels lighter. I’m a guide who points out an interesting path or possibility. I could be telling a story, or sharing a principle with suggestions to try it out.

Telling is the mindset of, “I have all the answers.” Showing is the mindset of, “You will arrive at your own answer with my guidance.”

Which is the the better approach for a leader? It depends on the situation.  And…

Understanding how and when to flex between “showing” and “telling” is a leadership superpower.

You likely have a default style between the two. Do you know which it is? Or maybe you switch to one or the other depending on the circumstances, like I go to “telling” when I’m stressed or rushed.

Try this:

Today, the next time you are in a conversation, notice your own words.  Are you speaking firmly and definitively?  Or are you describing and asking?  Do you “tell” more often, or “show more often?

I was going to talk about the situations where a leader should be telling not showing, but decided to follow my friend’s advice and keep it shorter 🙂.  I’ll cover that topic in the next newsletter in two weeks.

Please let me know what you try or discover. I answer all emails and comments.

Leave a Comment