Deeds Not Words

Healthskills Leadership Academy e-letter #114

Deeds Not Words

The celebrations last week marking the centenary of one of the greatest steps forward for women – the Fourth Reform Act, which saw propertied women over 30 gain the vote for the first time, broadcast the slogan ‘Deeds Not Words’, which the suffragette movement adopted to describe their methods to secure the vote.

I was reminded of this powerful phrase whilst seeing two films at the cinema recently; ‘The Darkest Hour’, which explores new Prime Minister Churchill’s decisive actions and inspiring words during the Dunkirk crisis in World War Two, and ‘The Post’, where we see Katherine Graham, owner of The Washington Post in the early 1970s, growing as a leader as she makes a series of choices culminating in whether to publish the ‘Pentagon Papers’ and potentially see her business fold or face a jail sentence. In both films we observe two emerging leaders dealing with extraordinarily difficult judgements and forced to take a stand in doing what they believe to be right.

Churchill’s leadership style has been well documented, but Graham’s, less so. Graham did not aspire to a leadership role but was effectively forced to when her publisher husband committed suicide. During her tenure from 1963 to 1991, she made some hugely important decisions, which also included breaking the Watergate story despite threats from the US government, and that ultimately led to the resignation of Richard Nixon two years later.

Katherine Graham proved to be a resolute but empathetic leader and this balance between humility and firmness is explored by Greenleaf in his work on Servant Leadership. Too often we fail to speak up about things that bother us for fear of offending someone. Greenleaf talks of balancing the tension between being both ‘of service’ and a ‘leader’ at the same time:

“Becoming a servant-leader begins with the natural feeling that one wants to serve, to serve first.  Then conscious choice brings one to aspire to lead. That person is sharply different from one who is leader first … The difference manifests itself in the care taken by the servant first to make sure that other people’s highest priority needs are being served”

One of the writers who built on Greenleaf’s ideas suggested that discovering your purpose beyond results, outcomes or profit can be identified by asking three questions – that every leader should ask themselves first, before they ask them of others:

  1. What is my purpose or mission in being here in this leadership role? What am I ultimately trying to achieve?
  2. What must I do in order to fulfil my purpose?
  3. How am I to be, how am I to behave, how am I to live my values towards others as I go about fulfilling my purpose?

I would add a fourth, to make this practical and real: What Deeds and Words are you deploying to balance being of service and a leader?


Tylor, J. (2012). Leadership lessons from Katherine Graham. Humphrey Fellows at Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Spears, L.C. (2002). On Character and Servant-Leadership: Ten Characteristics of Effective, Caring Leaders.  Greenleaf Centre for Servant Leadership.