Your Reactions Speak Louder Than Words


  1. Though “actions speak louder than words,” reactions can make or break your leadership potential.  

  1. You can increase self-awareness (and improve your reactions) with practice.  

What happens when something doesn’t go your way? Perhaps it was something you were really counting on. If you’re alone, do you react differently than you would if you were with another person (or in front of a group)? Consider how you normally show reactions. Can your family, friends, co-workers, or the people you lead (or manage or teach) predict how you usually react, whether the news is bad or good? More importantly, can you predict how you will react to the ups and downs of everyday work and life?  

We’ve all heard that actions speak louder than words. But reactions tell the real story, and they can make or break your leadership potential.  

If you pause for a moment, you can likely recall a time when you watched someone in a leadership position react poorly to a negative event. Maybe it was during a crisis situation. But events also occur when we’re disappointed, betrayed, or rejected in some way. Perhaps we’ve experienced a loss, or have some unmet expectation. Criticism, even when merited and constructive, can be seen by some as a negative event.  

So how do we react? Some yell at the messenger. Some storm out of the room. Some attempt to appear calm, but facial expressions and body language tell everyone that they are steaming inside. 

Think for a moment more. Can you recall a time with really bad news, but the leader calmly accepted it and actually underreacted? An underreaction can, in certain events, prevent panic. In other instances, it can create space for people in the room (or on your team) to pause, reflect, and make more informed responses as opposed to knee-jerk reactions.  

Here’s the key point: our reactions expose what’s actually going on inside our heads. Our reactions tell the rest of the story. The opportunity to underreact happens only in that first moment when the unexpected event occurs. So as leaders, how can we improve our underreactions? Here are three key approaches:  

  1. Expect the unexpected. The key here is to focus on increasing your self-awareness when unexpected events happen. How do you normally react? How might you improve your response?  

  2. Practice the strategic underreaction. Andy Stanley (2022) suggests thinking about something that happens on a regular basis that really upsets you or gets on your nerves. Then think about your normal reaction. With that in mind, imagine yourself remaining calm, underreacting. Covey (1989) called it being proactive. In short, if we push pause between the stimulus and response, the outcome is likely improved. Self-awareness, again, is key.  

  3. Get honest with yourself. Check your EQ, emotional intelligence (Shanahan, 2020). Step outside your body and try to see how you appear to others. Then ask: What would amazing look like? How can I show leadership in this event?   

Ultimately, we should not react to anything unless it’s life-threatening. Reacting is a baser instinct. Instead, we should engage our executive brain and respond. In The Success Principles (2004), Jack Canfield provided a simple formula for success in life:  E+R=O.  An Event occurs, we Respond, and the Outcome happens. Events happen every day, every hour. But the only thing we can control is the “R” factor. It’s in our power to either react or respond, setting the correct tone for the situation.  

In summary, if we hone self-awareness, and practice responding (or underreacting), we’ll exhibit strong leadership in difficult situations. Actions speak louder than words. The underreaction can be a game changer. Give it a try.  


Andy Stanley (2022). Reactions Speak Louder Than Words, Part 1: Cause and Defect. Available at:  

Jen Knox Shanahan (2020). Emotional Intelligence and Emotional Manipulation. Available at:  

Jack Canfield (2004). The Success Formula that Puts You in Control of Your Destiny. Available at:  

Stephen Covey (1989). 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Free Press.  

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Here at Lead Read Today, we endeavor to take an objective (rational, scientific) approach to analyzing leaders and leadership. All opinion pieces will be reviewed for appropriateness, and the opinions shared are solely of the author and not representative of The Ohio State University or any of its affiliates.