We’ve all heard the adage “There’s no ‘I’ in team!” – but there can sometimes be a lot of “I” in leadership! (And I mean more than just the little one that is the second last letter!)
Of course, leadership by definition is often an individual or solo task. It’s the act of being ‘out in front’; the front bird in the geese formation, the pointy end of the arrow, the cutting edge, the trailblazer, the pioneer – all of these aspects of leadership are true and right. But more often than not, we find that our leadership plays out in teams and groups. There’s limited value in being the trailblazer if no one is actually then walking on that trail – and if you’re flying out the front of the geese formation and there’s no one else in the geese formation? You know what that makes you? That’s right, a goose!
The purpose of leadership is to take others somewhere they wouldn’t otherwise go. It’s to see things that are not yet and paint a picture in the imagination of others to inspire them towards future possibilities. It’s to champion gifts, skills and capacity in people that they might otherwise not have known they possessed and to lead them into actions, thought and influence that they might otherwise not have explored or experienced.
How we speak as leaders shapes the culture of our teams and contexts.
Here are some things that can happen when we use “we” instead of “I“.
- We draw people in to realising their part in a broader movement; a greater purpose. We reinforce a culture of collaboration and team work. We allow others to feel part of activity and outcomes that they may not have even had direct involvement in. It generates energy and excitement around the bigger picture and grander vision.
- We indicate that we’ve included other voices in our thought processes and decision making. It may be our spouse, parent or friend (as opposed to someone within our organisation or team) but it demonstrates a willingness to listen to other opinions and allow accountability to external input to refine and shape our actions.
- We demonstrate the humility to share successes (that might actually be wholly ours) with our team. The idea might have been ours, the hours of preparation might have been ours, dealing with the obstacles and opposition might have been ours, but the win is the team’s. We also communicate an expectation of humility in others.
- We create a culture that handles failure in healthy ways. When we communicate a loss in the language of ‘we’, we show our teams that they can explore, innovate and experiment with confidence because we will all share in the loss. They don’t need to fear public correction or embarrassment. Review and recovery will be handled in a shared and sensitive way.
- We keep a separation between policy, processes and decisions, and people and emotions. The language of ‘we’ draws on a corporate code; our agreed methods of working and interacting. It reminds others of the decisions we’ve made as an organisation that are guiding our choices rather than making it about personality.
- We reduce the need for personal defensiveness – from ourselves and the team member. This is not me against you. No one is fighting for themselves in this conflict, process or project – we are on the same team.
It’s really important to note – this is not about deflecting personal responsibility when the responsibility is ours. It’s not an ‘out’ for taking ownership of decisions that are difficult for others to process or avoiding ownership of personal mistakes and shortfall. “I” is also necessary sometimes. But our tendency towards that language first can be unnecessarily distancing, hierarchical, and contrary to building healthy team culture.