In 1887, when future president Warren G. Harding was just twenty-one years old, he worked as an editor for a local Marion, Ohio, newspaper called the Star. One night, he attended a town hall meeting to hear from a local Ohio poet named Will Carleton. The poet recited his narrative poem “The First Settler” about a farmer who harshly criticized his wife for letting their cattle stray—so harshly, in fact, that the wife had gone out into the night to bring the cattle back. After finally rounding up the stray cattle, she returned exhausted and sank onto the cabin floor, where the farmer later found her dead. The farmer had rhymed his remorseful ballad:
Boys flying kites haul in their white-winged birds;
You can’t do that way when you’re flying words.
“Careful with fire” is good advice, we know:
“Careful with words” is ten times doubly so.
Thoughts unexpressed may sometimes fall back dead:
But God himself can’t kill them when they’re said.
This poem affected the young editor deeply. He memorized it and quoted the lines back to people for the rest of his life. In effect, this poem became his life’s philosophy as he spoke all the good he could of others and rarely any bad. The application of this principle ensured he made few enemies in his later political career because he kept back unspoken words of wrath and anger, unlike his political peers.
As leaders reflect on their lives, many will discover that their biggest mistakes were not necessarily the actions taken as much as the words spoken while taking the right actions. In other words, a leader can make the right decision but still execute it wrongly through the poor use of words. Everybody is guilty of this to some degree, but imagine if by applying the biblical principle of “a soft answer turns away wrath,” the harsh words a person thinks were killed before they flew out of his mouth. What if angry words, spoken or written, were replaced with loving and encouraging words? Rather than breaking friendships, this simple principle would strengthen them, increasing joy and bringing peace where enmity existed. This should be the goal with every word a person speaks. Accordingly, before speaking, ask yourself a simple question: “Is it worth it?” Are the words about to be spoken worth being spoken, or do they have the potential to destroy a valued relationship? If it isn’t worth it, then tread carefully with your choice of words.
If Warren G. Harding, admittedly average in so many leadership areas, developed into one of the best politicians of his time through the thoughtful application of his choice of words, what can others do through application of the same? Even though Harding knew he lacked many of the leadership qualities people look for in a president, his amazing ability to maintain cordiality in the “thunder and lightning” political environment moved him to the top. Harding’s superior ability to get along with others overcame his other defects and moved him to the top of his field, thus validating Dale Carnegie’s principle that success in most fields is based upon people skills. Biographer Francis Russell elaborates:
In spite of the legend, Harding was neither a fool nor a tool, but an astute and able Ohio politician (not the highest breed of that animal) who knew how to get what he wanted—a place in the state senate, the United States Senate, the White House—while, all the time disclaiming that he wanted any such thing…In essence, he was nominated for the presidency because he had done the necessary political spadework in the grass roots and because, in one politician’s words, he was “everybody’s second choice.”
The reason he was everyone’s second choice is because he had mastered the principles of people, including the one learned as a twenty-one-year-old editor on eliminating harsh words against others.
Remember, friends can come and go in life, but enemies seem to accumulate. If possible, do not create needless enemies through the careless choice of words. Either choose better words or, if possible, don’t say anything at all. As Abraham Lincoln once humorously said, “Better to keep my mouth shut and thought to be a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.” Moreover, life is too short for grudges or conflict, especially when there is so much to do and so much more that can be done by uniting in a worthy cause. Nonetheless, if a person has made mistakes, he can still begin anew today. Mastery of one principle catapulted Harding to the presidency. Few realize the power of this one idea applied to their lives to radically change outcomes. When a potential leader replaces words of discouragement, fear, and hate with words of encouragement, hope, and love, his or her life will be changed forever.
Posted by Kristen Seidl, on behalf of Chris Brady.