Exclamation-Point Leadership

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One of my former employees recently recalled some advice I gave the editors at our marketing communications agency: “You only get one exclamation point in your writing career. Use it wisely.” At the time, I thought I was quoting Tennessee Williams, but I can’t find any such remark from him. My search for the origin of the quote turned up all kinds of contempt for the exclamation point among literary personages and, of course, the venerable Strunk and White. F. Scott Fitzgerald is said to have quipped that using an exclamation point is like laughing at your own joke. In any case, I thought I was dispensing good advice. I had a master’s degree in English, after all, and felt I was knowledgeable in such matters.

Something in the way that employee recalled the story, though, made me uncomfortable. This woman had been a crack proofreader, so my advice to her was professionally relevant, at least. But the way she shared the anecdote suggested it was a commentary not just on my punctuation preferences but on my management style—like I was more hung up on the minutiae than the larger, more meaningful aspects of the enterprise. “It’s less important what you say in the sentence,” she might have paraphrased me as saying, “just don’t get the punctuation wrong.” The letter killeth, says the Bible, but the spirit giveth life.

Ugh! There, I used it.

Several years after that proofreader left the firm, I sold my agency to a Phoenix-based company and stayed on to run what became their East Coast operation. After the transaction, I had the chance to compare our company culture to that of the acquirer, which was fascinating. I’d always prided myself on the strength of our culture and its emphasis on openness and integrity. The other company had remarkably similar values, though articulated much differently, which made for a smooth integration of the two businesses.

Then, some months after the integration was complete, the CEO of the acquiring firm made an interesting distinction between our two businesses. “You guys are much more buttoned up on process than we are,” he said. “But we’re much better at selling.” It was true. More broadly, their firm had an ebullient, rah-rah culture that seemed to turn everything into an internal campaign or a big party. Their enthusiasm came across loud and clear in the company’s internal and external messaging, which helped retain employees and win new clients. One particular expression of that enthusiasm showed up in company emails. If I provided information to one of the Phoenix production managers, I’d get a response like, “Thanks so much!!!” or “Have a great day!” Even the CEO signed his emails to me with “Cheers!”

Seduced by Enthusiasm

Now, as you might imagine, this irritated the hell out of me. I used to joke that exclamation points must be a company perk because people sprinkled them on their communications as liberally as salt on french fries. Then, the damndest thing started to happen. I found myself appreciating all the enthusiasm—all the parties, the internal campaigns, even the cake-decorating contest. Scariest of all, I found exclamation points creeping into my emails like ants at a picnic. How had I so quickly abandoned my cherished grammatical strictures? Was I that easily seduced by the louche side of punctuation?

I noticed, too, that my staff were just as easily seduced by the gushy enthusiasm of their new employer. For all their Yankee eye-rolling at the rah-rah celebrations, my team seldom missed an opportunity to pluck a gift envelope off the company Christmas tree, or show up for Free Food Fridays. It was as if something had been missing from their professional diet and the other company added it to the menu. Everyone seemed just the slightest bit happier; and though I can’t pin it on those exclamation points showing up everywhere, I’m certain they were a symptom of something bigger—in literature it’s called synecdoche, a figure of speech in which the part is made to represent the whole. You see? I can’t give up on the English-major references.

Enjoying the Ride

There was, in fact, an enthusiasm to the other company’s culture that made work feel more celebratory, more free-wheeling, less hung up on rules. They didn’t give a shit how many punctuation marks you’re allowed in life. Some of their sales people disregarded grammar altogether. Most instructive to me was how my staff—people I thought were reasonably content with our company culture—reacted when the leadership team showed greater excitement, even some goofiness. I guess they were hungry for a little exclamation-point leadership.

When I heard that old anecdote about my punctuation rules, I felt sheepish—as if it were a story about my not dancing at the holiday party. I sounded priggish and uptight. And, though I had celebrated often and threw my share of good office parties, I recognized there were times when I was more focused on wearing our seatbelts than on enjoying the ride. I eventually came around as a leader, I think, and appreciated the importance of visible enthusiasm among the leadership team. I also recognized that, if your natural leadership style is to focus on the punctuation, so to speak, you need colleagues around who remind you to “jeuge up” the message. Exclamation marks can’t do all the work,  but they represent something fundamental to good leadership—whatever your punctuation preferences may be.

3 thoughts on “Exclamation-Point Leadership

  1. I find this post insightful about life in general—about human nature, about what draws us to people as friends and/or as life partners, about how to be. Thanks, Jim!

  2. Great article. I remember that transition to Phoenix – in the first meeting when it was announced and we were presented you and you’re company. The whispers in the seated guests of the meeting were a kind of “Wow!!! – he seems so cool!!!” must have been constrained use of our beloved !!!’s.

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