The lingo of leadership

Studying CEO language can highlight issues a CEO regards as important. But it can also signal destructive narcissism and hubris. Closer scrutiny of the words used at the top of an organisation can foreshadow trouble and indicate the need for remedial action.


Many CEOs strive to create an impression of a favourable “tone at the top” through the language they use in communications with company employees and external stakeholders. Annual letters to shareholders, for example, are important in communicating the attitudes, values and behaviours of a CEO. Their readers are alert for language-related signs that CEOs exaggerate their proficiency, their ability to command events and their claims of success.

The importance of a CEO’s language should not be underestimated. It can help reveal the mindset of a CEO and help explain management policies and practices. However, care in language use is important because narcissistic, pretentious or inappropriate language has harmful consequences.

Russell Craig

Russell Craig is a professor at the College of Business, Victoria University. He is co-author (with Joel Amernic) of CEO-Speak: The Language of Corporate Leadership, published in 2006.

Joel Amernic

Joel Amernic is a professor of accounting at the Joseph L. Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto. He has published several books and articles and is the recipient of several awards.

Dennis Tourish

Dennis Tourish is professor of leadership and organisation studies at the University of London. He is a fellow of the Lancaster Leadership Centre and his most recent book is The Dark Side of Transformational Leadership (2013).