The Language of Leadership: When I Say WE and I Say I

I was talking with someone about the early days of church planting. We had not yet officially formed a core group and the initial staff members had not committed. As I told my story, I kept using words such as “our” and “we”. Towards the middle of the conversation the person stopped me and asked, “Who’s ‘we’?”

The fact is I was talking about me most of the time. But I confused him with my verbiage by using inclusive words. I wasn’t trying to be confusing. It’s simply a habit I’ve formed. Team vocabulary is a large part of encouraging healthy teams. 

I love team-building so much I’ve disciplined myself to talk in a collective sense whenever possible.

It always sounds so controlling, prideful, and even arrogant when I hear leaders use the words “I”, “me, and “my” when referring to their team, church or organization.

As an example, take a worship pastor. I have worked with some of the most talented people. When I refer to them, I don’t say “He/she is my worship leader”. They are “our worship leaders”. I don’t want to portray to them or others that they work for me. We work together as a team.

Semantics?

This may seem to just be semantics, but to me it’s an important issue for leaders to think through. If we truly want to create a team environment we must develop team vocabularies.

There are a few times when I use words referring to me, such as:

  • When making a specific request – “I am asking you to do this for the team.”
  • When offering a personal opinion, which may or may not be shared by others – “I think we should…”
  • When asking a question or stirring discussion – “I wonder if we could…”
  • When giving a specific, personal compliment – “I want to thank you for the incredible work you did.”

When I am speaking on behalf of the team or referring to team members, however, I try to use a collective term.

  • There are so many opportunities. Let me check with our team.
  • We have been stretched as a staff recently. We need to pace ourselves.
  • I am so proud of our team.
  • What do you think we should do? I really want to hear your opinion.
  • Our family ministries have had an exceptional summer.

Those are inclusive phrases. My advice is to default to words like “we” and “our” whenever possible – even if people have to ask you who the “we” is to whom you are referring.

The more we talk like a team the more our culture will feel like a team.

Have you had a leader who abused team vocabulary?  

(You may want to read my post on a leader’s vocabulary.)

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Ron Edmondson

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