Shifting the leader’s mindset from “me” to “we” - Smartblog on Leadership 9.12.2014

“Before you are a leader, success is all about growing yourself. When you become a leader, success is all about growing others.” — Jack Welch

The message didn’t really fit directly with the lesson that the professor was delivering. Perhaps that’s why I remember it most clearly from everything that he taught during that entire course.

In the late 1990s, I was taking a methodology class for teaching Social Studies at Roosevelt University in Schaumberg, Ill. The instructor did a wonderful job in helping his class understand the importance of making history come alive for students. We learned about engaging lessons with clear themes and plenty of opportunity for students’ creativity.

But where he really helped me as an educator was with a message that he shared following a conversation that he had with an executive at nearby Motorola. The topic of education had come up between the two men and the exec really laid into his professor friend. “You guys in education have it all wrong.” “How so?” asked the prof. “You teach everyone to work and think alone, that communicating and sharing ideas is cheating. Once these kids get into the workplace we need to completely deprogram and retrain them to cooperate and collaborate, to work together effectively.” The professor, duly humbled, shared this powerful message with us. It was a concept that I always remembered as I began my own journey in the field of education and school leadership.

Too many new leaders also “have it all wrong,” at least in terms of how they view their new roles. They think of leadership as the next step in their ascent, one that represents an increase in responsibility and authority but not one that necessarily demands change in their core thinking and approaches. In truth, to assume a leadership post is to enter into a whole new professional arena.

Before assuming this new position, accomplishment was all about you and your performance. You worked hard to achieve success and hoped that you would get noticed and promoted. Time and effort were invested in self-promotion, with the understanding that your success would translate into the next step that you desired. Once you become a leader, however, achievement is measured by your ability to grow others, to make the people who work for you more capable and more confident. The game is no longer about you winning. It’s your team that must win for your term as leader to be deemed a success.

No doubt, this can be much easier said than done. Since grade school, you have been encouraged to succeed as an individual. Sure, you were taught to be respectful of others and include them in social activities and school projects, but at the end it was about you. As you moved into the workplace you brought that “about me” attitude with you. Perhaps you were placed on a team and had to work with others to complete tasks. But were you genuinely invested in their success? If you are like most people, the answer is probably not.

As a leader, that old mindset needs to change, and in a hurry. In the words of the great industrialist Andrew Carnegie, “No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself, or to get all the credit for doing it.”

What can new leaders do to adjust their thinking and become more “we” oriented?

One primary consideration is to remember how your success will be measured. Keep a placard on your corkboard or a little stand on your desk that shares a message of cohesion and common goals. Choose something like:

  • “If everyone is moving forward together, then success takes care of itself.” Henry Ford
  • “Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” Helen Keller
  • “We cannot accomplish all that we need to do without working together.” Bill Richardson

Remember, a leader’s primary role is to advance her team and to engage their collective talents towards the goals that they have set. How she performs individually is of little consequence if the process falls behind schedule or comes in over budget. When the team wins she wins. When they stumble, the blame will find its way back to her. That alone should help motivate a leader to think more broadly than she has in the past.

Another strategy is to reflect upon the gift of leading. Leadership is not simply a better, more prestigious version of subordinate positions. Rather, it is an opportunity to make a much broader and deeper impact on others and the organization. Leaders who remember this blessing and come to work each day with the goal of helping others will find that they don’t have the time or the interest in thinking about themselves. They are simply too engrossed in the broader success of their endeavors to worry about the personal implications. As the adage goes, “focus on the process, forget the outcome.” If the process is strong that outcome will take care of itself.