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'Me' to 'We': A Leadership Transformation Milestone

Have you noticed that many corporate ecosystems develop around the tenet that people are “born” to be a leader and others are “pegged” as team players? Based on my personal experience, leadership is a skill people can develop and grow. People may choose to intentionally prepare a learning path; or, in the case of my friend Jay Coakley -- SURPRISE!!! Serendipity happens and someone who always considered themselves a team player finds themself wearing a leadership hat. Jay is one of those solid, salt of the earth people who never thought of himself as a leader. He always considered himself a team player. And then, one day he met a bright-eyed five year old and before he knew it, he was heading up a six figure non-profit organization.

I had the honor to meet Jay soon after he transformed into the leader I know today. I wonder what does that one moment look like when a hardworking, unassuming person such as Jay becomes a leader? I’ve come to think about this moment as when a person’s mindset shifts from “Me” to “We”. A “Me” mindset does not signify an ego-centric attitude. “Me” and “We” mindsets are more about the complexity of the criteria you use to make decisions. Our mindset influences how we react to challenges, manage risks, and adapt to change. When a decision is made based on a “Me” mindset the criteria is relatively straightforward which might show up as a gift purchase or restaurant order. A “We” type of decision criteria addresses a variety of perspectives, and the impact possible outcomes can have on others.

I’ve learned from my work with relatively new managers that it is difficult to make the mental transition from subject expert to strong manager. Up until their promotion, they were measured by how sharply they honed their technical skills. They had a “Me” perspective because their performance was the primary criteria for their annual review. When an expert is promoted to management their perspective needs to shift to “We” and how they can help their teams achieve high performance.

Sometimes this transformational “Me” to “We” moment happens in a crisis instant; or as in Jay’s story, the transformation occurs over a course of serendipitous events. Jay was a middle school gym teacher for his entire career. He was a kind and supportive gym teacher who we all wish we had had in middle school. He got bored in retirement and took a position as a part-time elementary school gym teacher. One of his students was a five year old kindergartener named Ellie who was undergoing chemotherapy. She always wore a hat and a big smile. Jay went home and told his wife he would like to give her a hat. They ordered a cute, knitted cap from a website. A few of their friends heard about the hat for Ellie and wanted to contribute more hats. Then, a knitting circle at his church heard about Ellie and wanted to donate hats. Knitting circles from as far away as New Jersey and South Africa began sending hats. Suddenly, there was a huge pile of hats that one little girl could not possibly wear. He contacted Ellie’s mother who put him in touch with INOVA Fairfax Hospital. They decided the annual holiday party for more than 100 patients would be a good place to distribute the hats. Each child left with at least two new hats.

Word spread. Sports teams began donating hats. Requests started coming in from all over the country for hats for pediatric cancer patients. To pay the mounting postage costs, a local restaurant helped him sponsor a fundraiser. He received several large checks from people who wanted to help and did not knit or crochet. He used these donations to provide iPads to the INOVA pediatric cancer patients. Jay’s story and good works continued to spread; more donations were made. Suddenly he was the founder of a non-profit organization he named “Ellie’s Hats”.

One day there was a request he did not know how to honor. A very ill little boy wanted his parents to order a pediatric cancer license plate. When his parents discovered there was none, they appealed to Jay. He knew nothing about the lobbying process to create a new license plate category. However, he knew people who he thought might know. He called them and asked for their help. Suddenly, Jay was a lobbyist. And yes, the Commonwealth of Virginia now offers a Childhood Cancer Awareness license plate. In only 18 months, Jay Coakley who never considered becoming a manager became a leader heading up a 501C3 non-profit group. To think it all started with the purchase of a single hat.

Reading Jay’s story, the first hat was purchased using a “Me” mindset decision criteria. Did you notice any easily identified pivotal points that signified a moment when Jay’s mindset transformed to a “We” decision criteria? Perhaps it was when he received the request from the South African knitting circle to participate that he realized he had created something bigger than himself. Or, when he partnered with INOVA hospital to distribute the hats. It could have been when the restaurant owner helped him raise funds. Or perhaps it was when his political contacts helped navigate the license plate system. Once the logistics became more complicated and Jay needed to reach out to build relationships, his “We” mindset transition began.

Leaders who lack a “We” mindset are found in very large companies and the smallest of startups.

When leaders get stuck in their “Me” mindset, they have difficulty building relationships needed to sustain their business or grow it to the next level. It truly takes a connected community of people to create and maintain sustainable growth.

Jay Coakley’s story demonstrates the power of a “We” mindset that provides people a springboard to build relationships and create strong collaborative teams. When organizations invest in on-going professional development programs that support “Me” to “We” transformation, they are taking the first steps toward developing an engaging workplace culture that assures aspiring manages will succeed.

When coaching individual subject matter experts to hone their delegation, meeting management, and relationship building skills, I have seen this pivotal moment when they expand their focus from how they, personally, will succeed to how the entire team can succeed. The coaching process takes on a different energy with this newly gained perspective. I also have seen pivotal “Me” to “We” moments occur when I facilitate a workshop, Using Your Emotional Intelligence to Build Amazing Teams for team leaders and department managers. This interactive session provides participants with simple Emotionally Intelligent tools for them to move from “Me” to “We” as they engage their teams to develop trusting, respectful, and productive workplaces.

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