Skip to main content

We confuse certain words in leadership. And that can be a real problem for someone like me.

Anyone who has ever served with me on a team could probably agree I am not a wordsmith. I often say to people, “Listen to the principle of what I’m saying more than the actual words I use.” I tend to think and act very big-picture and am less in tune with the details of things.

But words matter. Greatly. I get that and often need help from our team in shaping the right words.

I’ve noticed we confuse a lot of words in leadership. Some may seem related, or even used interchangeably at times, but they are very different.

Here are pairs of words we often confuse in leadership:

Possibility with Probability

Just because something has a chance of happening, doesn’t necessarily mean the chance is good. In making changes, for example, I want to know what’s possible – what might happen, but also what is probable – what probably will happen. There’s a difference. Some things you can fairly well predict and others are unknown.

The leader needs to be clear as to the risk involved and not pretend every possibility is a probability – and vice versa.

Opportunity with Obligation

Just because I could do something doesn’t mean I have to do it or even that I should. This is incredibly important for those of us who struggle to say no at times. We could easily become ineffective if we make every opportunity an obligation.

Challenge with Impossibility

Sometimes we dismiss the hard work, because it seems impossible, when really, if we are honest, it’s just a bigger challenge than we are willing to accept. We don’t always like the things that make us walk by faith into the unknown. But what is really impossible if it’s of God?

I know numerous pastors, for example, who have labeled change in the church as impossible, when really it’s just going to be harder to implement than they care to tackle, so they live with status quo.

Delegation with Assignment

Some leaders I know confuse assigning someone a task with delegating. Delegating requires more leadership than that. Giving an assignment is easy. I tell someone what to do and get to walk away from it.

Delegating involves much more. It’s ensuring the person assigned a task has the skills, knowledge and resources to complete the task and then following through with them until the task is complete. This takes time and intentionality, but overall produces a healthier team.

Responsibility with Authority

This is a personal pet peeve of mine. Responsibility means I have an obligation to do something. Authority means I have the actual freedom to get it done in a way that matches my skills and talents.

If you want me to be a good follower – give me responsibility. If you want me to develop as a leader, and feel like a valuable part of the team – give me authority.

Idea with Initiative

Ideas are many. Actually working to make an idea a reality is very rare. Most organizations (and leaders like me) have far more ideas than we have initiatives.

I find, because words matter, that I have to be very intentional in letting people know when something is “just an idea”. If I’m not clear, they will start running with what they thought was an initiative I want completed.

Leadership with Management

Please know I’m a huge fan of both leadership and management when done well. (I have a chapter about it in my book The Mythical Leader.)

Leading involves taking people somewhere, often into an unknown, where they may not go otherwise without leadership. It involves facing risks to achieve a vision, but where the path to attain it is many times unclear.

Managing involves helping people achieve and maintain a known, predetermined vision, by implementing systems and procedures to effectively move people forward.

Leaders tend to thrive in tension and challenge. Managers tend to thrive in details and structure. Both are needed, and there are overlaps for sure, but overall they are very different.

Intentional with Conventional

This might be a stretch in words, but the thought behind it is not. In reality, we may not even use the words, but we certainly confuse the actions.

By intentional I mean doing things in the best way possible to get the job done – doing whatever it takes to be successful. By conventional I mean doing the same things we’ve always done and hoping progress continues.

Both of these may be working towards a worthy vision, but one lasts for a season. The other lasts longer – much longer.

Intentional Change with Natural Progression

Progression is actually a form a change, but it’s the easy one. Everything changes. People get older. Buildings wear out over time. Those are changes. Ignoring change is an impossibility. Progression happens whether we want it to or not.

It is one thing to let things progress naturally over time and it is another to make intentional changes for the good of the organization. Letting things progress is easy. Making intentional change, even when resistance is heavy, is the hard work of leadership, but a necessary part if we want to continue to grow and remain healthy.

Promise with Principle

A promise means it’s going to happen as promised. A principle means this will generally work as stated, under normal conditions, provided the described conditions are met.

The danger is living as if a principle is a promise. It will make you very disappointed when conditions weren’t in place for the principle to perform like a promise. (I promise. In principle.)

(Side note: We confuse these last two words in our relationship with God sometimes. – “train up a child in the way he should go” for a classic example. In those cases, we have to ask if God promised it or if He provided a principle.)

I realize all of these could be blog posts of their own. I have expanded on some of them previously. Which would you like me to expand upon?

Add to this post. Can you think of any other words we confuse in leadership?

Check out my leadership podcast where we discuss leadership nuggets in a practical way. Plus, check out the other Lifeway Leadership Podcasts.

Ron Edmondson

Author Ron Edmondson

More posts by Ron Edmondson