What You Don’t Say Defines You: The Leadership Case Against “My”

Our new world puts a new focus on you as a leader. Does your startup or company offer an arcade-style game room, full kitchen, crystal ping pong table with robotic opponent, and a Fun Friday office happy hour? No. No it doesn’t. Not anymore anyway at least.

It only offers you, your vision, and your leadership. And if you are all about just you, you won’t find many people willing to follow your lead for long. We’re in this together, more than ever before.

I’ve been fortunate as a former journalist to meet and interview leaders from the Dalai Lama to iconic U.S. Senators like Arlen Specter, dozens of CEOs from across industries and report live from presidential events. These rare moment with great leaders serves me now working with the next generation of leaders. Helping to found a small PR and communications firm working at the front edge of innovation, we most often work directly with CEOs of all stripes.

I’ve found that leadership at its most successful is an exercise in inclusion and driving personal investment — really making people care.

Now enter the word “my.” I hear it bubble up as “my team” or “my company” or “my headcount” and I bristle. It’s part of the occupational hazard of working it the alchemy of words. You can’t not scrutinize, analyze, and process words and their order.

I know, at best, no harm is intended, but it’s ultimately a weak statement. It can undercut and discount the people you rely on the most at a time in our history when you need good people more than ever. At worst, claiming a degree of professional ownership over people reduces them to commodities.

Even the claim that “you own your own success” is fractional at best. You were fortunate to be born in this time, to your family, in this country, and the list continues. No success, let alone the success of a company, team, or headcount, can really be solely yours. And yep, you work hard. And you’re smart.

But we’re more chosen by our place and time, than we define them. Only a handful of leaders throughout history can claim otherwise, and we’re all beneficiaries of their leadership.

Leaders today mostly get all that. They appreciate the fragility of their role and it keeps them grounded. (And notice I didn’t say humble? Because if you’re part of a great team and great company doing great work, well then, get out the loud speaker and let people know.)

There are quick fixes if you find yourself making some extraordinary claims containing ‘my’ in them.

Problem: You’re saying MY too much

Solution: say OUR instead

You’ll start building stronger personal connections and see greater output from your colleagues. It’s also a practice that transitions the command and control of your organization. Instead of you knowing best, everyone owns outcomes and how best to achieve the most favorable outcome. Sometime using ‘our’ means the whole team is successful in ways you haven’t envisioned.

I remember as a TV reporter covering a fire in a small Wisconsin town. The blaze kept spreading building to building, slowly consuming the downtown. Thankfully no one was seriously hurt as I remember.

We were a two-person news team. I asked the camera person to climb an unstable ladder (I offered to hold), to the top of the rickety building to capture an aerial view of the approaching inferno. Despite all my work on building a team, and working on inclusion, and talking about ‘our’ story, and ‘our’ deadline, to his credit he decided against the option.

Instead, we discussed how best to reach the outcome we needed, which was video that told the whole story. We came up with a new plan together that worked for both us. Then we essentially commandeered a small plane. The pilot was willing of course (with a little convincing). We captured video from 5,000ft that told the whole story.

When you surrender your sense of complete ownership, and you’re building strength in your collective team, you’re building strength, flexibility and decision-making that doesn’t put you on a roof in the middle of a fire.