Leaders are Cautious About Self-Reference

I used to espouse this as a general rule:

Successful leaders avoid saying “I,” “me,” and “myself” when offering thoughts and assigning tasks. Using team-oriented “we” language keeps the focus on others instead of the leader.


I’ve revised my general rule over time (see below) even though the original still has merit. Leaders have role models like everyone else, and because great leaders are humble, they usually don’t realize how much impact they have on others. So, in order to be assertive, these leaders may feel they need to constantly start with “I think…,” “I know…,” or my least favorite “I need you to…”

On both subconscious and conscious levels, others begin to notice the influx of “I” language, and credibility can be damaged because of this accidental appearance of arrogance.

There is, though, a time and a place for assertive “I” language. When a leader needs to express a personal need, “I” language is appropriate. Here are some examples:

  • I need to step back and think about this.
  • I have to have the TPS reports on my desk no later than noon on Thursdays.
  • I need to move the meeting to Wednesday.

Team-oriented language, on the other hand, is necessary for when a leader wants to express a team or company need. For example:

  • We need to remain within the allotted budget.
  • Everyone seems stressed; maybe we need to take a break and revisit this tomorrow.
  • We’re doing a great job hitting our marketing goals this quarter!

Language revisions for smart leaders.

Smart leaders tend to speak last in discussions, so they don’t sway the outcome unduly. This is a good habit, and I like that as a general rule. When you keep the focus on others, good things happen.

A revision: Many leaders are like me–extraverted, assertive, and loud. We really need to embrace the above rules. But some leaders are more cautious, introverted, and quiet. In those cases, role power can be less pronounced, and they’re already in a habit of putting the focus on others. Those leaders can create some powerful moments when they assert themselves.

What do you think?

Thanks for reading,

Alan Feirer

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *