At first, I wasn’t paying attention to the speaker – a stout little guy who said he was running for supervisor. Instead, I was looking at a crowd, several hundred strong, who had come to hear him and others spin their yarns about a better road ahead. The stout guy got my attention because of the abundance of first person pronouns – I, me, my, and mine – tumbling out of his mouth.
The candidate spoke about his accomplishments, what he had invented, built, or conceived. He called himself a problem solver and dropped names of special friends and the many good times he had had with the city’s go-to crowd. At a certain point, members of the audience made eye contact with one another. Had this gentleman lost track of place and time? To take his word for it, he had done it all, done it alone, and done it better than any of the other candidates we would hear from (though he respected their contributions). He spoke for about ten minutes – five more than his allocation – and served up himself as a universe-of-one justified and deserving of a fat check – which he asked for without flinching.
Amazing. I am glad that beer was free that night.
I found myself wanting to chime in a few clarifying facts would have helped him to be less wasteful of other people’s time:
- First, even King Arthur had a round table so it is not news that going it alone is a recipe for loneliness, not leadership.
- Second, unilateral accomplishments and great deeds done all on one’s own are the stuff of myths. Great deeds have their antecedents even if the ambition of the protagonist blinds him to their existence.
- Third, working with (and for others) indicates an implicit benefit to one’s actions. People, like animals, can often sense the man who is not a team player and, once spotted, these individuals are rejected as nuisances or threats to the good of the whole.
In spite of a few thousand bushel bags of myths about the go-it-alone hero, the better fit for our times will favor pronouns such as ‘we’ and ‘our’. Proof of leadership comes from shared, not individual results.
Dana Theus, in her recent post “3 reasons innovative ideas aren’t enough (and what to do about it)” says it well:
“Many would-be leaders shy away from building support for their wacky, cool or even incrementally innovative ideas. The fire walk through the politics, pettiness, competition and ego seems overwhelming and wasteful after all the energy and intelligence that went into the idea. But that’s why those people are would-be leaders. Real leaders recognize that the business politics of getting a good idea through are part of the process.”
For me, leadership and vulnerability have become synonymous. My friend, Joe Weston, talks about leadership by tapping his chest to show where we need to open and how we need to become available. When others can touch us where we abide, we have shown them (not told them) what we are made of. In these moments, an initial spark spreads to others, and first person singular becomes a vanishing abstraction.