Leadership Lingo: It’s Not About You

I worked with a politician once who had a huge communications problem.

No matter how much I coached, repeated and coached some more, when this person spoke publicly — in the media or during a speech — the words spoken were littered with the words “I” and “me”. I did this, I did that, this happened because of me, me, me.

This person simply wouldn’t adjust to coaching. It turned people off. It sounds more like bragging and an inferiority complex than leading. So it was no surprise they didn’t last long in politics.

This happens more often than you think in leadership — especially in the corporate world. And, usually, those ‘leaders’ don’t last. The funny thing is they most often don’t even realize what they’re doing — speaking from a self-centered perspective.

The people listening to the message — whether it’s employees, shareholders, voters or stakeholders in general — may not pick up on exactly what they don’t like — they only know there’s a lack of connection. They’re not making mental notes of how many times the person says “I” or “me” — they only know the message is inherently self-centered and not inclusionary in any way. They process that as a negative.

I was reminded of this recently during both Donald Trump’s campaign and the fallout to the Brexit vote. Most of us are exhausted with the Donald and his bragging so let’s talk Brexit. After a vote that could very well send Great Britain into an economic turmoil, one of the key architects, Nigel Farage, announced he was leaving politics — that he “wants his life back”….a phrase that didn’t sit well with the public.

It was clear Farage didn’t want to take any ownership of the huge challenges ahead. Even people who didn’t know much about him formulated a negative opinion of him.

Farage’s message makes him look like a coward…not a leader.

And, this isn’t an approach exclusive to politicians.

Remember Tony Hayward? Oh yeah….you remember him. He was the head of BP Oil during the huge oil spill off the coast of the United States.

And, during a moment where he was to make a long overdue apology, Hayward appeared to go off-message briefly and make it all about him.

His words? Exactly what Farage said: “I want my life back”.

And, it landed horribly. Public outrage was incredible — Hayward was called the most hated man in the U.S — and in the end, he was forced to resign.

Look — it’s a simple guiding principle for you to follow: when you’re a leader — or if you want to become a leader — the message always needs to be about “we” and “us”.

Successes need to be shared. It’s not about you. Failures need to be shared as well….accountability needs to be accepted by the team.

I challenge you when speaking internally to your team or externally through the media or a speech, try to remove all references to “I” and “me” in your communication (the only exception being if you’re telling a first-person anecdote).

For example, instead of:

“My goal for this organization is to see it grow and create jobs and prosperity. That’s what I want to see moving forward. That’s my key goal.”

Go with something like this:

“Our goal is to see this organization grow and create jobs and prosperity. That is our focus as we move forward and upward.”

There is one exception to this rule — and it shows true leadership. The only time you should use “I” or “me” is when something goes wrong. You’re the boss and the buck stops with you — so, rather than throwing other people under the bus — own it — take responsibility as the organizational leader. For example:

“The company had a challenging year including not meeting projected sales. And, at the end of the day, as CEO, that is on me. It’s my job to lead the company and ensure we have the strategies and tactics in place to meet our objectives.”

Words matter. And, as is the case in engineering, sometimes just a slight modification can have huge ramifications — both positively and negatively.

If you want people to follow you, you need to communicate using inclusive words that inspire and create a sense of team and shared goals.

We. Us. We. Us.

Lather, rinse, repeat.