,When I was a fellow one of the senior physicians at the children’s hospital where I trained approached me with a question:
“Dr. Callahan,” (she was always pretty formal). “Does your colleague Dr. Christopher have his own lab?”
“No ma’am” I replied (formal, too). “He works in the same labs we all do. Why do you ask?”
“Well in speaking with him he often refers to ‘his lab’ and I was just wondering whether the fellows actually had their own labs.”
We didn’t. I started to listen more carefully and noticed that Dr. Christopher (not his real name) had a tendency that afflicts many in leadership: the over-use of the first person (“I, me, my”). I acknowledge it is nowhere near as grating as referring to oneself in the third person (“Bo Jackson has to do what’s best for Bo Jackson”). But it is something I have noticed through the years, possibly a function of my own fear that I might sometimes lean in the same direction. Certainly positions of leadership can foster that way of thinking. People pay a great deal of attention to leaders wherever and whatever they are doing. They even notice and may comment on what the leader’s wearing (“Sir, I notice you wear Tom’s”). Perhaps that is why General George Patton said that leadership was theater. The leader is always on stage.
But it is too easy to succumb to the cult of the first person and increasingly cast our shadow over all we’re associated with: my team, my assistant, my hospital, my staff, my directorate, my lab. Pay attention to your own patterns of speech and see how many times you refer to yourself.
It would only be a bad habit if it weren’t for one thing. We may have bought into the traditional “heroic” model of leadership. The model is common in ancient literature. Leaders were known for their physical size, strength, or looks; individual personality traits or charisma. For example in Homer’s epic poem Achilles was a leader because of his demigod warrior status, Ajax as a result of his size and strength, and Hector because of his courage and dedication to his people. Early leadership theory focused on the leader and the leader’s persona.
Scottish writer Thomas Carlyle wrote in his book (the title is telling): On Heroes, Hero-worship, and the Heroic in history (1840), “For as I take it, Universal History, the history of what man has accomplished in this world, is at the bottom the History of the Great Men who have worked here.” His emphasis on the individual leader gave rise to the “Great Man” theory of leadership.
The problem is that we have entered an era of horizontal leadership where the best leaders are the best listeners; they are willing to relinquish power to accomplish goals, have the greatest ability to form and facilitate teams, and have the greatest emotional intelligence. The sun is setting on the great person theory (the traditional messianic or apocalyptic view we hold towards the occupant of the White House seems to be a persistent exception).
We should check ourselves. Excessive use of first person pronouns may reveal a tendency toward seeing ourselves in the “great man” or “great woman” spot light, to the potential detriment of our relationships with peers and subordinates who comprise the teams who really do the work.
The leader without a crowd following him; traveling and working with him, is simply taking a walk. We can too easily end up thinking “first person, singular” when we need the entire team – “first person, plural” – to get the job done.
Chuck Callahan Henry V 4.3 – Lead from the Front https://henryv43.wordpress.com/