The summer before I turned 30 was full of self-reflection. I was looking back on my 20s and noticing all the things I wanted to do differently in my 30s. I wanted to be healthier, happier, and more content, and I wanted to be less selfish. One of the changes I wanted to make was to say “I” less. One letter. One thin stick of a word in the ocean of tens of thousands of words. In a sentence, it hardly took up any room; but in my life, it took up a lot of space.
As a leader, it is hard to not constantly relate back to your own experiences and skills; after all, your experience and skill is what got you into a leadership position. But that is not what today’s workforce needs. They don’t care about the time you gave a killer proposal or how you convinced your previous boss to change a policy. It isn’t your journey that will motivate them on theirs; it is their own journey that will motivate them.
I found that when I removed myself and my ego from my leadership, a few things happened:
- I managed less and coached more.
- People felt more free to talk and share ideas.
- The company’s real problems were being discussed.
- Employees were empowered to solve problems beyond their scope of work.
- When I went to leadership trainings or read leadership books, I was thinking of ways to teach this to others instead of how to use it to advance my own career.
- I became a true servant leader.
PAY ATTENTION TO THE LANGUAGE YOU USE
Throughout the last few months of my 20s, I was paying a lot of attention to the language I used and realized how often I was inserting myself into my leadership conversations. When a team member would come to me with a problem, instead of helping them find the solution, I would explain to them how I solved a similar problem before. In planning meetings, I would often steer conversations to the outcomes I wanted and not what was best for the company. So I started keeping count. I realized that in one meeting, I had said “I” more than 30 times — in a 30-minute meeting that was not about me, but the company as a whole. There was no reason for that. The company had 40+ other people who were invested in its future. It wasn’t just about me.
COME UP WITH ALTERNATIVES
As I mentioned earlier, I had to start by paying attention. I listened to how I was speaking and started brainstorming more inclusive alternatives.
- “When this happened to me” became “Tell me more about your experiences up until this point.”
- “I faced a similar problem” became “What are some solutions you have thought of so far?”
- “I would do it this way” became “This could be a reasonable way to handle it.”
- “I did this cool thing” became “This is a really cool thing to do.”
- “I am confused” became “Please clarify.”
Now, this approach wasn’t necessarily applicable in every situation. I wasn’t referring to myself in the third person or coming up with creative ways to explain my after-work plans. But when possible, the “I” was absent.
FIND SOMEONE TO HOLD YOU ACCOUNTABLE
This change also had to be incredibly intentional, and I needed someone to hold me accountable. I told a co-worker about my plans and asked her to point out when I was inserting myself into situations unnecessarily. We would have short recaps after meetings where I could ask her how I did and she could offer feedback in a very safe space.
It is always awkward to ask someone to scrutinize your every word and then call you out when you make a mistake. But making it public in this way helps you focus on it and keep it top of mind.
Removing your ego from your leadership frees up so much mental and emotional space for the people you are leading to expand into. A leader should never be the smartest person in the room. They should never command attention when the focus isn’t on them. They are there to grow their people to be the most effective, creative, innovative employees they can possibly be. Read any reputable leadership book (Multipliers, Leaders Eat Last, or Entreleadership are great resources), and it will outline these concepts in much more concrete terms. But beyond that, it frees up so much mental and emotional space for you as a leader. And this all means that you have more time to focus on the things that really matter in your business instead of drowning in the day to day.
For new leaders especially, this can be an incredibly important experiment. But I challenge you to give it a try. Pay attention to the language you use, come up with alternatives, and find someone to hold you accountable. It is a small change with huge benefits.