The Spirited Leader – Passion vs Intensity

The last six months have been different, and the next six months may continue the trend. And our response to that is beginning to show up in language and communication.

We’ve said a lot about blurred lines between workspace and personal space, worktime and down time. But we’re also hearing some blurred lines between appropriate and inappropriate language and experiences.

Most of us are stressed with uncertainty and have felt a little frayed along the way. It’s a very confusing picture when some companies and individuals are overworked, and some are out of work. Some managers are pushing to make quotas and others are pushing to deliver products and services faster than they ever have before. And both extremes seem to bring out bad behavior.

Here’s what we hear:

“He just snapped on our sales call. He yelled at me and called me an idiot who would be lucky to still have a job on Monday.”

“She glared at me and told me I was the dumbest product manager she’d ever had to work with. She just didn’t think she could put up with me through the conversion.”

 “He called me out in front of all my peers.  He said his ten-year-old could have done a better job than me. And I was so upset that I burst into tears on the call. Then, I was mortified.”


And while the tense times may bring out the worst in some, the spirited leader wasn’t born out of the pandemic. And the language above isn’t passion; it’s intensity. It’s lashing out with the intent to make someone feel badly. And it’s wrong.

If you’ve been on the receiving end of intensity, you know how it makes you feel. We’ve all had our feelings hurt by a personal friend who’s a little too honest or a little too direct. But, when your boss takes a shot, it’s different. It’s someone in a position of power and influence who makes you feel belittled.

We meet a lot of leaders who are intense. And we sometimes meet leaders who need a little help recovering from outbursts similar to those above. In most cases, I don’t think they mean to belittle anyone.

Their roles are stressful. If an employee feels pressure, you can assume the pressure only intensifies when you talk to their manager or the manager’s boss. That’s not an excuse, but it is an explanation for what happens.

The spirited leader is someone who blends thoughts with emotions and expresses them in a tangled outburst. For a moment, emotion gets the better of them and they say things they shouldn’t say.

Through coaching, we can help someone recognize that emotion and thought have been smashed together. As a leader, you have to be intentional about what you say. And sometimes, you have to be careful about revealing how you feel. It doesn’t mean that you won’t have emotional reactions to people or situations. You are a spirited leader, and that spirit or passion may have gotten you where you are today.

But you can’t release that on someone else. You have to stay intentional about what you mean to say, and you have to own how you make someone else feel based on what you say. By separating your emotion from your thought, you can talk through what you’re thinking without always sharing what you’re feeling. You can also share what you’re feeling and then put it aside before you share the thought of what you want an employee to do.

Here are coaching thoughts for the leaders who shared the emotions above:

“He just snapped on our sales call. He yelled at me and called me an idiot who would be  lucky to still have a job on Monday.”

“John, I’m very frustrated right now, and I don’t want that frustration to be the only thing you hear.  So, let me put that aside and tell you this. (Breathe!) You aren’t delivering on our agreed upon expectations.  You had three things to accomplish this week, and they have not been accomplished. So, you need to figure out how to get out of a rut in order to stay in your role.”

“She glared at me and told me I was the dumbest product manager she’d ever had to work with. She just didn’t think she could put up with me through the conversion.”

(Breathe and exhale as you relax your face. Don’t send emotion forward through nonverbals.)

“I am feeling very defeated by our mistakes on this conversion. And I’m not sure how to improve things. Do you have better insight on why we’re struggling to work well together?”

“He called me out in front of all my peers.  He said his ten-year-old could have done a better job than me.  And I was so upset that I burst into tears on the call. Then, I was mortified.”

It doesn’t take a spirited leader to get this one wrong. Good leaders give positive feedback in front of a peer group and give constructive feedback only one on one.

We have blended workspace and personal space and work time with down time. But intensity has to stay out of the work conversations. In personal relationships, unleased emotion may hurt someone’s feelings. In a work relationship, it could cost you your job.

If you’re a spirited leader, try the concept above. Recognize what’s happening and manage through it by talking about emotions and thoughts separately. And if you work for a spirited leader, see if you can get this newsletter in front of them.

Maybe they’ll call us when they need us.

Sally Williamson

Don’t Blame PowerPoint!

Next to a laptop, PowerPoint (PPT) could be considered one of the top three tools used in business. More than 30 million presentations are built in the software every day tying up 15 million people hours at a cost of $252 million…..every single day! And yet, few of us are Masters of it. In fact, we have a love/hate relationship with the software which has led to the term, “death by PPT.”

AT SW&A, we hear a lot of the angst around preparing presentations blamed on the software.

From the listeners:

  • “There were too many details and too much information.”
  • “I got lost in the details and didn’t understand what the listener was asking me to do.”
  • “It’s a horrible eye chart.”

From the communicators:

  • “We go through more than 15 iterations of decks before we have a final presentation.”
  • “I got so many edits to my slides that I’ve lost the point I was trying to make.”
  • “I’m not artistic or creative; I hate building slides.”

And our response is always: Don’t blame PPT.

It’s the process…or lack of a process…that frustrates you. Not the software.

Here’s a little self-diagnosis.

Assume that you’re asked to deliver a presentation two weeks from today.  Whether you start planning it today or wait until next week to develop it, how many of you will start the process by opening up a PPT document on your laptop?

If this sounds like you, stay with me. Then, you begin outlining points by putting a text box on each slide or if you’ve covered the topic previously, you’ll open up another PPT and begin to migrate slides to your new deck. Either way, you’re building the foundation of your content, one slide at a time.

It’s a very linear approach to structure, and it’s the wrong approach.

Because now you have a collection of details instead of a storyline, and you will present the deck slide by slide versus concept linked to concept.

Is this your approach?  Most people say yes.

When PPT is used as the planning tool, it becomes cumbersome to work with and takes on a very different role. PPT’S role is to help you illustrate details or connect two points, not to thread all the points together.  That’s the role of an outline or storyline structure as we refer to it. The usage numbers above may explain this.  Because organizing content has become such a constant in our day, we may be telling ourselves that we can skip a step and organize our thoughts at the same time as we illustrate them. And, that’s a misuse of PPT.

The storyline structure is the first step, always. Whether you use our model or you have your own tool, as the communicator, you should always start with an end to end view of what you’re asking the listener to do. It’s rarely the details that fail in presentations; it’s always the connection between them.

A storyline view helps a communicator understand the bigger ideas and repeatable points that will lead the listener to an outcome or takeaway.  This changes how you build out a PPT.

When PPT becomes the second step, it works beautifully for the communicator and the listener. A broader storyline helps the listener see beyond what you’re illustrating and understand why you’re illustrating it. The communicator’s focus gets simpler and key concepts get repeated as the communicator focuses on pulling ideas forward rather than making every point.

PPT is also a horrible communicator and a really good illustrator.

Let’s diagnose that one.

Assume that the presentation you’re building is for another leader to deliver or it has such high visibility that several people want to give input before you deliver it. So, you work on the PPT for a few days and then you forward it for feedback.

Does this sound like you?  Then, what you may not realize is that even though you shared it for feedback, you were pretty locked into those slides. And your editors now begin to interpret what the slides mean.  They can see the illustration; they just don’t know the storyline. So, they create their own mental storyline to support your details. Then, they edit to their own thinking.

This leads to adding content on your slides, reordering your slides and even adding new slides to support their thinking. You get the edits back and don’t feel grateful for the input.  You’re frustrated. Because they’ve changed the meaning of your slides and thrown off the flow of your storyline. At least the storyline you have in your head.  Because it was never shared as a structure for the conversation.

Have you had this experience? Most people say yes.


The storyline drives communication; PPT creates illustration. If an editor can read a storyline to see the end to end plan for communication, they are much less likely to edit slides.  Instead, they’ll identify areas of the storyline that aren’t easy to understand or where they want you to add detail.

In fact, when a team is involved in preparing a presentation, we urge communicators to get buy-in to the storyline first before PPT is even introduced. This helps a group align to the full direction of communication and the big ideas before the supporting PPT takes shape. And it keeps a team moving through the organization process together. Then when you move to PPT, the second step, the feedback is limited to the look and feel of illustrations.

As a communicator, you want listeners spending less time on how to follow your thoughts and more time on understanding how the big ideas connect and lead to outcomes.

And if we’re pleased with the transformation we see when individuals add our first step  into content planning, we’re ecstatic when we see teams adopt it. Because if an individual can improve a single meeting, the full team can change their influence in an organization.

We know because we’ve made it happen.

We’ve taken many teams beyond the storyline structure to a team template that gives the communicators a template to follow and the listeners a consistent expectation. So, listeners spend less time trying to follow the structure and more time hearing the ideas.

When teams adopt a standard structure, it quickly takes hold in an organization. They become known for their ability to deliver clear ideas and recommendations which often raises their visibility in a company.

If you’re getting bogged down in details and edits, don’t blame PPT. Put the first step back into your process. And if you’d like some help learning to do that, join us for an upcoming storylines workshop. Even better, bring your team together and strengthen the group’s impact across your organization.

Call us when you need us.

Sally Williamson & Associates