Pronouns and Leadership: What’s Your Default Leadership Language?

by Dec 17, 20193Plus, 3Plus online e-Gazine for professional women, Communication, Conversations about leadership, Leadership

Are you conscious of your default leadership language?

When you present your team’s work, do you think about what your default leadership language is? Do you purposefully choose certain pronouns? Or do you end up presenting your work any old how?

The question was innocuous enough, but the response was telling. “How’s work?”

Typically, I’ll either get a nothing response that suggests that we should find another topic or I’ll get some scoop. Scoop too can take two different paths: Awesome or Awful.

It’s when the scoop comes out that I learn the most about someone’s leadership.

This time I asked and got an earful of awesome. Still, as the story went on, it was clear that one person was more remarkable than the rest: my friend.

Now, I too think that they’re amazing and capable of great things but to listen to them, you’d think that they worked alone. In truth, it was kind of annoying. I had insight into the work they were doing and let me assure you their effort was essential, but not paramount to the contribution of others.

Pronouns and Your Leadership Language

When we talk about ourselves and our colleagues, without giving it much thought, we use pronouns to identify the relevant parties. The pronouns we choose also recognize a contribution and define relationships. It’s our default leadership language that gives the biggest ah-has.

default leadership language

Here’s when I invite you to imagine two scenarios: 

  1. You’re invited into the CEO’s office to present an update – you go alone
  2. Your team comes with you when you head to the CEO’s office for the update


Is there a difference in your leadership language?

Does it matter if your team is there with you or you’re flying solo?

What if you’re talking about a win vs. a loss? How does your language change?

What leadership language does your boss use as their default?

Do you actively think about your work and career, or just set yourself to default mode? Take the time to think about it with our FREE Career Reflection Worksheet.

They Leadership 

“They got it done.” 

This leader loves to give credit to the team. In fact, often they’ll take a back seat even when explicitly asked about their contribution. They are humble to the max.

Working for a “They Leader”

Positive: You feel like your contribution is valued and acknowledged.

Negative: Senior leadership may underestimate their contribution and value.

Negative: Especially when things go wrong, “They Leaders” create distance between the leader and the contribution of the team. (It was them, not me)

I Leadership

“I did this” 

“I couldn’t have done it without them.” 

This leader may or may not realize that their “I” is making the team and their contribution fade into the background. Even when there’s an acknowledgement of the team, the “I Leader” stands as primary in importance and contribution. This leadership language suggests a need to be validated as the hero.

Working for an “I Leader

Positive: They are often confident and hopefully equally competent.

Positive: When things go wrong, the “I Leader” takes responsibility and also protects the team.

Negative: There’s often limited credit where credit is due, which negatively impacts morale and employee engagement.

We Leadership

“We did this.” 

We’re in it together, and everyone’s contribution matters. “We Leaders” don’t hold themselves as above the team but as part of the team.

Working for a “We Leader

Positive: Team and leader are a single unit, working together.

Negative: In challenging times, some leaders default to “we” to hide or minimize their personal contribution to the team’s struggles.

Negative: Sometimes, the leader’s contribution was worthless, and they use “we” to take credit for success where not much credit is due.

There is not one, perfect, “always use this,” solution to your leadership language when it comes to “I”, “We” or “They”. All have positives and negatives depending on the circumstances. Super insight, right? Not really.

Here’s what matters: The best leaders have self-awareness and are intentional about the words they choose.

Defaults are the problem. An issue? “They” is the go-to. Great success? All “I.” That’s the problem.

Be a person who elevates others and their contributions AND takes responsibility for the way you position yourself too. It’s ok to acknowledge your extraordinary effort, just don’t forget about the others who did outstanding work as well.

Oh, and when the “how’s work?” question isn’t so awesome, and is veering towards the awful, don’t forget to be honest and intentional with your leadership language then too.

Alli Polin Contributor
Alli Polin, CPCC, ACC, is a former senior executive with deep experience in leadership, change management, and organization development. Now a writer, coach, and speaker, she is driven to help people create a full life and achieve professional success. She has an award-winning blog, Break the Frame, writing on the intersection of life and leadership.
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