The Language of Leaders Part 1 – We versus I

spotlight3by Jason Questor
Founding and Managing Partner
EVP Learning Systems

Every day you reveal the truth of who you are, in everything you do or say — or don’t do or say. This is particularly true for those of us in leadership positions.  The most profound revelations happen in the “small moments”, with offhand remarks or the way you phrase a statement or question, as opposed to when you see yourself as being “on stage”. It is also when your personal brand is most exposed, especially with regards to your opinion about yourself and regarding your teams.  This starts with when and where you say “I” versus “we”, and indelibly marks you as either a leader or a narcissist.

As a leader, you represent and are a critical part of your team, not someone apart from it. Accomplishments are team accomplishments and your language must consistently express that as team spokesperson. While there is nothing wrong with using the word “I” to describe something that was truly an individual effort, how often does that actually happen?  With a narcissist, you are far more likely to hear self-promotional language like “I created”, “I built”, “I sold”, “I designed”, and so on.  In extreme cases, I have heard executives taking credit for the accomplishments of others long after their professional association ended – “I gave him that idea”, “That exists because, when she worked for me, I made sure she learned how to succeed”, “That would never have happened if I hadn’t . . . “.   This bombast reveals basic insecurity that can border on pathology, and completely undermines credibility as a leader.

Ben Lichtenwalner uses the wonderful phrase “Modern Servant Leader” to express how people in leadership positions need to view themselves. He describes how self promotional language from those in leadership roles not only demoralizes the team but encourages them to “follow the leader” by adopting self-promotional language and strategies as a defense. Ultimately, this will result in an organizational culture typified by internal competition, no sharing of ideas and disengagement. Gary Burnison suggests the “Me-O-Meter” as an informal assessment tool —  “Listen to so-called leaders speak — if “I,” “ME” and “MY” are used (versus “WE,” “US” and “OUR”) more than once in 15 minutes, they are egotists not selfless leaders.”

The next time your everyday business conversation calls for describing an accomplishment, pause to reflect on the work that others put into making it happen before you open your mouth. Just because you, in your role, were accountable for getting it done does not mean you were wholly responsible for doing the legwork and heavy lifting. And don’t shy away from stating whatever contribution you made yourself.  So instead of saying “I created the best customer satisfaction ratings in the company” you could say “My team has achieved the highest ratings in customer satisfaction for two years.” We call this Flashing the Trash Talk.  Try it yourself. Build your leadership brand in the process.

A leader lets their accomplishments speak for themselves. A narcissist must constantly speak of accomplishments.

From Alpha Guerilla:The Leadership Lessons ©2012 Jason Questor

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