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Four Letter Words

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“Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.” –Rudyard Kipling

Words have power. They can hurt, heal, and make people laugh or cry. String them together in the right sequence and magic is created. That magic can be inspiring, devastating, gut-achingly funny, and occasionally life changing. I have been drawn to the written word ever since I can remember. The power in words, how they sound, what they mean, and how they are spelled, has been a lifelong fascination and keeps me close to a dictionary. I suppose, according to Kipling, this could be considered an addiction. 

Some words, those of the vulgar four-letter variety, were forbidden in my family. Naturally, I learned them somewhere else. Imagine my excitement at picking up a few new vocabulary words on the school bus. The best part is that my older siblings warned me about playing with verbal dynamite at home. I chose to try out my new word "finds" at the dinner table anyway, while my sage brother and sister shook their heads with the knowledge of what was to come. This was just another memorable early life mistake. 

Casual use of four letter vulgarities has become unfortunately common and ubiquitous in our culture, not limited by generation or gender. I should probably confess that my children might have heard a few at home, or more likely in the car, than would have been considered proper parenting a few decades ago. 

My occasionally uncivilized language aside, what is it about four letter words that we find so attractive? Shock value? How easily they roll off the tongue? I'm not all that sure. What I am cocksure of is that I could easily come up with a favorite curse word or phrase should I ever be invited to appear with James Lipton on “Inside the Actor's Studio.” You know where he asks famous performers their favorite curse words? That is the best part of the show. You’re never quite certain what people will say. I don’t know about you, but I’m not in much danger of having to share mine as a revered star of stage and screen. I also know that if I did, the people who raised me to adulthood would not be very impressed.

There are plenty of other powerful words that we use to express ourselves without resorting to profanity. As a leader and a student of leadership, here are ten of my favorite simple but high impact four-letter words:

1. Hope-“a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen.”

 Is there a more profound feeling that that encompassed by hope? Hope speaks to optimism and positive outcomes, that things will be better tomorrow than they are today. If there is one thing I never want to be without, it is hope. Hope is what drives us all to keep our heads up and moving forward to a better future, especially in the face of adversity. You want to give someone a gift? Give them hope. 

2. Fear-“an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat.”

I admit to a fascination with fear. I have seen more people paralyzed, personally and professionally, by fear than I care to share. I suppose it is possible to fear both failure and success. Of course, many fears are real. They are often things that we need to find a way to experience, and/or condition ourselves to overcome, such as jumping out of airplanes or speaking in front of a large group. Fear has a biological basis in survival so it is often rational, such as a fear of venomous creatures, but there is also a cultural tendency to have fears that are learned and perhaps less rational, such as fear of clowns. The ability to overcome fear can change a person’s life for the better. Unless, of course, that bold step to take a solo hiking trip into the wilderness leads to an encounter with a hungry bear. Did you know that fear is an excellent motivator?   

3. Real-“being or occurring in fact or actuality; having verifiable existence; genuine and authentic.” 

My test of people involves their degree of ‘real.’ Authenticity and ownership are deal-breakers for me. I like people who know who themselves, are content in their own skin, and allow others the gift of imperfection without shame. Real, or authentic, provides a degree of comfort because it is clear and people know where they stand. I absolutely struggle with being ‘played’ by someone who is pretending to be someone or something they are not, especially in a business setting. Real should not be confused with pretty or painless, because often, it is not.  

4. Dare-“to have enough courage or confidence to do something.” 

Being daring had a much different meaning for me in childhood. Then it often led to falling out of a tree or off a bike. Of course, it also led to new discoveries of fun and learning. When I ask people about their fears, I often hear that they wish they were more daring about telling their truth, exploring their talents and following their dreams. It does take certain courage to try something new, make changes, and stretch ourselves. Go ahead. I dare you. 

5. Grit-“courage and resolve; strength of character.”

Grit is one of my favorite words and something that I greatly admire. Like ‘dare,’ its meaning involves courage. It is a quality that drives focus and determination when things get tough. It is a reminder of the ‘rub some dirt on it’ philosophy that I learned as a kid. Grit is not allowing others to define you or allowing setbacks keep you from moving forward. Whether you grow up in Kennedy Park or the Kennedy compound, grit is the determination and resolve to make things happen and find a way when others have given up. 

6. Feel-“to test or explore with caution; to be aware of; sense; to undergo the experience of.”

Do you ever find yourself on the wrong end of feeling? I do, and far too often when I don’t pay enough attention to the feelings and concerns of others. 

I am much more of a thinker and very protective of my own ‘feels’. I have a tendency to ‘feel’ things out in writing or by asking too many questions. I often see things from a different, less emotional point of view. I much prefer an analytical, logical approach. The challenge is to remember the human vulnerability side, including my own and practice empathy.   

7. Team-“a group on the same side. A group organized to work together.”

There are few better experiences than being part of a successful team. Building and participating with teams is fun. Being on the same side with the same goals, and finding a way to leverage each other’s strengths and not pick apart each other’s weaknesses is a hallmark of great teams. I am fortunate to have had many great team opportunities, through sports and through work, and enjoy the balance of competition and collaboration that it takes to work as an effective team.  

 8. Play-“to occupy oneself in amusement, sport, or other recreation. To engage in a game.” 

One of the best parts of being a parent is the constant reminder of the value of play. Sometimes it is necessary to set aside the weight of responsibilities and have some fun. Without play, and with too much focus on work, it can be a challenge to remain in balance and not take life so seriously. I loved taking my kids to the park to climb on jungle gyms when they were young. I think every workplace should have a playground. We don‘t all enjoy the same types of play, and some of us are better at relaxation than others. Find what works for you and commit to doing it regularly. 

9. Love-“a deep, tender feeling of affection and solicitude toward a person, such as that arising from kinship or a sense of oneness. A strong predilection or enthusiasm.

Leave it to ‘love’ to be the complicated definition. It figures. Of course, love is the key to everything. It connects us to our work, our passions, our joy, and to other people. A long time ago, I learned that grief is the price of love. Love is about giving more than you get and going “all in.” It has a lot to do with a healthy self-knowledge, desire to be better person and live in a better world, and understanding that everyone has a ‘why’. I personally believe that great leaders have a tremendous capacity for love because leading the right way takes a lot of heart. 

10. Lead-“to show the way by going in advance; to guide or direct; to inspire the conduct of.”

Leadership done well is a gift and an inspiration. Many leaders are born with innate abilities. Those who are willing and able can also develop the skills needed to lead. Leadership is fundamentally about caring, growth, and making the constant choice to do the right thing. The ability to lead is the ability to improve yourself, inspire others, and make your organization a better place. Leadership is hard work and takes constant effort, awareness, and no small measure of humility. Lead is definitely my favorite four-letter word.   

Thank you for reading. Your feedback is always welcome and appreciated. 

4.71 (7)


Deb Sparrow
Maine State Credit Union
Senior Vice President/CLO

Deb is Senior Vice President and Chief Lending Officer at Maine State Credit Union, the largest credit union in Maine. She directs the lending and collections functions and has served in a senior leadership role at the credit union for over 18 years. She has more than 27 years of experience in all types of lending. She is a graduate of Bowdoin College and Priority Learning's Executive Leadership series.



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