Have you ever listened carefully to the language your leaders use when they talk about their plans and accomplishments? It can be very revealing, if you listen to the subtlety of their speech. There are leaders who are all about themselves and there are leaders who are all about their team, or their dream, and these two types of leaders sound entirely different from each other.
A few weeks ago, I was talking with a group of executives from a large company and I was struck by how often they used "I" in their speech. These leaders even took personal credit and responsibility for accomplishments made by their respective companies, simply inserting "I" or "my" into their statements. Two different people said "my shareholders," and "I have set expectations at XYZ." Both executives implied that they were "the man" (and neither were the CEO!).
Revealing isn't it? For example, there is a huge difference in how you think about a business unit or project leader based on whether they say "my customers" or "our customers." "My customers" sounds ego-driven and possessive, yet "our customers" sounds supportive and amplifies that the leader has a team behind her. Or consider "my strategy" vs. "our strategy"--there is a different set of implications between the two.
So here are five things to watch out for when using "I" in your speech:
1. Give your team all the credit.
When a project goes well, you win a customer or hire a great person; giving credit to your team for the win will earn you their loyalty. In this case, deflecting the attention away from yourself and shining the spotlight on the team doing the real work, will not go unnoticed. Saying, "The R&D team truly raised our quality over the last six months," or saying, "Julie went above and beyond to help our customer," will be so much more appreciated by your team and over time they will become loyal to you knowing you are going to make sure they are given credit where credit is due.
2. The future is shared.
You don't own the future and you certainly can't create it without your team. You can create a strong sense of shared destiny if you use "we" or "our" for your future plans. Try saying something along the lines of, "We are planning a new, magical set of features which we will release in beta this June," or, "We are committed to turning a profit by the end of the year." Your team will know they are part of your vision for the future.
3. No one admires a boaster.
It's so transparent, and yet so many mediocre leaders do this: they boast about their accomplishments, name drop, remind you about their education, and some even feel a need to tell you how smart or important they are. It's boring and it means nothing to the listener, so don't do it. The only exception is when someone specifically asks you to tell your story. Otherwise keep your mouth shut and win their support based on the merit of your ideas and your work.
4. Don't cross the line by over sharing.
Yes, a certain amount of sharing is OK, it makes you human. However, "I did this and I did that" again and again gets boring fast. If someone asks you how your weekend was, a short, amusing answer should suffice. I find this one hard because I enjoy sharing and I enjoy entertaining, but I am learning to keep it short. It is very easy to cross the line between the level of detail that is office-appropriate and what can be shared at a later time with friends.
5. A leader should take all of the blame.
This is one of the few places that the word "I" should be used. Don't be too proud to admit that "I made an error in judgment when I hired Joe," or "I misjudged the rate at which the market was going to change," etc. When there is a major problem, you want to take as much responsibility for it as you can. In private you may vent to a friend that so-and-so dropped the ball and you're paying the price for it, but never in public, never in front of your team. A good leader doesn't make excuses.
The exception to the rule here is when a very visible leader, such as a large company CEO needs to share vision. "I believe" is powerful and can be inspiring when your deeply held belief helps your team to see the future, or fills them with a sense of optimism about the path you are going to take together. "We believe" feels weaker. So when visioning, go ahead and say I, but when talking about your operations and your projects say we.