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Bill George

Harvard Business School Professor, former Medtronic CEO

Huffington Post: Your Journey From I To We

From The Huffington Post, posted September 16, 2015

Are you the hero of your own journey? Or are you a servant-leader who empowers others?

All of us start out in this world as individual contributors. In our early years we are measured by our grades, test scores, and solo accomplishments. As we enter the world of work, many of us envision ourselves in the hero’s image who can change the world. This is a perfectly natural embarkation point for leaders. Today’s leaders like Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Google’s Larry Page have their own change-the-world narrative, yet as they matured, both have become outstanding leaders of others.

As we take on leadership responsibilities, our orientation must change. As GE’s Jamie Irick said in Discover Your True North, “If you want to be a leader, you’ve got to flip the switch and understand it’s about serving the folks on your team. This is a very simple concept, but one many people overlook. The sooner people realize it, the faster they become leaders.”

Irick captured the essence of servant-leadership. Robert Greenleaf, father of servant leadership, described servant leaders in 1970:

A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. The servant-leader shares power, puts the needs of others first, and helps people develop and perform.

We call this journey the “I to We” transformation, because it requires that you shift your focus from your success to the success of others. In our classes for MBAs and executives at Harvard Business School, we realize this transformation is the most important one leaders experience.

Some leaders never get there, as they envision amassing legions of followers whose roles are to support them. If you fall into that trap, you will never engender great loyalty or commitment from your teammates, nor will you become an authentic leader.

Nonetheless, some fear that focusing on others may sidetrack them from reaching their personal goals. However, the opposite is true: As a leader, you can only achieve great things by being a servant leader.

Research has demonstrated conclusively that “other-focused” leaders lead more effective teams. As Wharton psychologist Adam Grant explains, “They do so by bringing out the best in others.” As a result, givers rise to the top of their profession.

When leaders stop focusing on their needs, they are more effective in developing other leaders. By overcoming their need to control everything, they learn people are more interested in working with them. A light bulb turns on as they recognize the unlimited potential of empowered leaders working together toward a shared purpose.

The graphic below captures some differences between “I” leaders and “We” leaders.

At the core of these two approaches is the leader’s belief: “I” leaders believe they have the answers, and the best results will be achieved if others follow their direction. “We” leaders, on the other hand, believe that superior results result from teams of people exploring possibilities, debating options, and agreeing upon a course of action. Underlying their approach is the belief that “people support what they help create.”

It took me a long time to learn this. In my early leadership roles, I had a clear vision of what needed to be done. I spelled it out clearly to my team and invited them to challenge it, spending most of my time selling others on my ideas. When you’re the boss, you can be quite “persuasive”! As one confidant said to me, “Bill, you’re not getting the best out of your team because you’re so forceful that you shut out their ideas.” Advice well taken. After that, I tried my best to draw out others before asserting my opinions.

Making the transformation from I to We requires introspection and cognitive reframing of how you see your role as a leader, and how much you respect others’ ideas and their willing commitment. For some leaders this requires a mid-career crucible.

Steve Jobs faced such a time when he was fired by the Apple board. During his early years, Jobs was the classic “I” leader. Wildly charismatic and visionary, he bullied, cajoled, inspired, and ultimately exhausted everyone around him. The board determined the company simply couldn’t handle his domineering, though brilliant approach. He went on a journey to rethink his life and leadership. As he said,

I didn’t see it then, but getting fired from Apple was the best thing that ever happened to me. The heaviness of being successful was replaced by the lightness of being a beginner again, less sure about everything. It freed me to enter one of the most creative periods of my life.

As part of his journey, he purchased an animated movie company, which he renamed Pixar. There, he teamed up with two great innovation leaders, Ed Catmull and John Lassiter. From this experience, Jobs grew from a great innovator to a great innovation leader. That paved the way for him to return to Apple as much more of a “We” leader who knew how to use the talents of his teammates.

Where are you in your journey? Have you become a “We” leader? Or do you shift back into an “I” mode under pressure? How has this affected the results your team accomplishes?

As you make this transformation, you are growing into a “leader of leaders” who has unlimited potential to lead others to achieve great things. In so doing, you become a servant-leader. Isn’t this what leadership is all about?

The ideas in this article are drawn from Chapter 9 of Discover Your True North.