Leadership is its own love language, when you work from “we” not “I” constructs.

Photo by Hudson Hintze on Unsplash

Dear Nilofer,

I read last week’s column about finding my path of power and I thought, well, I’m not trying to write a book (right now) or figure out whether I have enough authority to do so. I have authority — I have a team at work that I have to manage and motivate — and I have to help them find their own authority.

What’s not important to me right now is not if I become a “star” in the company or in my industry. Rather, I want my small team to become the stars — the go-to people that get the job done and are looked to as heroes. We are a small group, a little ragtag, and a little green, but we’ve been given a big goal by the company. I know this team is dedicated and motivated, but they are churning a little bit right now. How do I take the chains off their work, inspire them to go beyond their limits and chase down the dreams we have for our project and make them into reality? And — important caveat — how do I do all of this while keeping them coloring within the lines, and making sure their efforts and output remain aligned with our common goals? How do I groom them into superstars while also making it clear they have to be part of the team?



Hey there Selfless

Your question reminds me of some beautiful vignettes in Adrienne Maree Brown’s book, Emergent Strategy

Her work offers up an alternative formulation of leadership than is normally valued. Instead of telling a David & Goliath story of losers and winners, she talks of how fungi thrive and grow by working with whatever is in their local earth. Instead of telling the story of how “only the paranoid survive” she corrects a common understanding of how natural selection isn’t individual but mutual. How species really only survive if they learn how to be in community.

But one particular story is why I bring her up now. 

She wrote of how birds flock, navigating to faraway places and back, always in synch. She offered up these three components to the art of flocking…

  • Birds stay separate with a certain perimeter always maintained. Which means no accidents in mid-air.  
  • How they take turns to lead so no one bird carries the whole load. 
  • Yet, they are always moving towards each other, knowing that this is how they stay aligned and go in one direction. 

Each bird doing their part, even leading. But they never act separate from the whole, because they must move towards each other if they’re going to get to where they need to go. 

As I share that vignette, I see a story of us, of we. Not a story of I.


Which is why I bring it up. 

When you describe your team, you use the most powerful word a leader can use: we. “We are a small group, a little ragtag, and a little green” and, “we’ve been given a big goal…” Yet, as you describe your own leadership work, you switch to “I.” “How do I take the chains off,” and “How do I keep them coloring within the lines,” and even, “How do I groom them.” 

But what if .. you don’t need to do this work all alone? Maybe, even, you can’t do this work alone. If that were true, you would do this work by moving towards your team. 

Instead of “How do I take the chains off their work, inspire them to go beyond their limits and chase down the dreams we have for our project and make them into reality?”…. Ask: What are your dreams, and how are your dreams achieved in this project?

Instead of, “how do I do all of this while keeping them coloring within the lines …” Ask your team, “How do we get and stay aligned to our common goals?” 

Instead of, “How do I groom them into superstars while also making it clear they have to be part of the team,” Ask, “Do you know what Shine Theory is… Would you like to, because our success is tied to one another…?” Maybe even do a developmental exercise (I can lead this for you, FYI) to have each person name what others can lean on them for…


So much of what we’ve been taught about how work works is antiquated. 

We are asked to measure and manage individuals when it’s a collaboration that turns nascent ideas into new outcomes. We are asked to measure and manage productivity when we know that it takes time and patience to cultivate the trust necessary for teams to do big things together. We are asked to keep our people drawing “within the lines” when we know — and by know I mean absolutely f’n know deep in our bones — how boundless the capacities are of our own people. 

We accept the antiquated ideas because we’re told those are the rules of business. But then you have the lived experience of actual leadership. And so find ourselves in an invisible bind.

And that’s why someone like you writes the questions you did. Stating both things as equally true. Not seeing, not naming the inherent conflict. So, I hope I’m helping. To name the tension. So we can rework things. So, yes, we’re told, managed, even measured by the siloed view, when our work is so deeply interwoven. 

And actually, Selfless, you already know that. Because you started with it.


This is not saying you don’t need to lead. Or, that you don’t have a leadership role to play here. Just the opposite.

I mention this because some could read the story of fungi and birds and think I’m arguing against hierarchy or denying that each of us has a specific job to do. I’m not. I’m not saying we’re all equal and somehow interchangeable. I’m saying we’re each distinctly ourselves but equally worthy to one another. (Useful: a beautiful paper on when and why hierarchy works)

So, funny enough, your leadership does not require you to be “Selfless” as you described yourself. You do not need to defer yourself for their needs to get met. 

Again, just the opposite. 

So many of us have had enough awful relationships at work or with our parents that we steer clear of these moments of interdependency. We think okay, I’ll be the “nice” leader who makes sure the teams’ needs are met. Or the alternative, “dude, this place is a place of work and so just suck it up.” We go either doormat or dominant. 

But it doesn’t have to be about you or them. 

For example, you can be super clear about what you offer people as they join the team. So you can say listen, we love writers on this team, but this role requires being able to file something daily, not weekly. So that people can match that up with what you’re offering with what they seek, and act accordingly. And that’s not mean or demanding, it’s just facts. 

Equally, you need to be super clear when things don’t work. “Here’s what I expected to happen,” you might say, and ask what you might be missing. Listen to understand the gap, so you see things clearly but also know you stating when you need better from people — this candor and truthfulness —  is a sign of respect. Equally, if you’ve made a mistake in communicating what was needed, make amends in the way you know will heal. And then figure out the next steps together. 

The path is how you, Selfless, live into the “we”. 

Leadership requires what only you have to offer, so we don’t need less of yourself, we need all of you. Your fullness, your voice, your aliveness. That’s how things change. Not by being “self-less” but by standing fully and entirely in that spot in the world only one stands.  



The person who asked if they had “enough authority” to write a book was quietly wondering what outside measure they needed to meet rather than be their highest expression. 

She wanted to be bigger than she was because she didn’t love herself as is.

And this is what we need our leaders to address. To show each of us how to stand up as ourselves and be counted. 

Leadership is its own language of love. To see each person as counting. Not by being bigger or puffed up than they are. Nor is it making someone smaller than you already are. To love as a leader is simply to celebrate that which already is. To see what is already valuable. You as the leader show us how to honor all of it. Not to feel bad if someone can know more of something, or have a higher IQ or EQ, or is better at making money. But to see and value what each one of us brings to the table. 

In a way, the answer to your question is the very essence of what love looks like at work; not deferring to someone else or not wanting to have conflict, but instead willing to have the hard conversations, to ask for what you need, to show up fully. Will everyone be a good match for our needs? No. But we must be clear, daring enough to imagine a work where we can each be ourselves, whole, able. 

As we start to do that, it’ll be as the song goes, a brand new day. 

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