From “I” to “We” and from “Them to Us”

Knowing Thyself and Knowing Others

Reflection is both a virtue and a value

Reflection is a vital skill for leaders and is one of the skills that we promote as a major component of collective leadership.

The first step is to understand oneself before you can understand other people. Know thyself. And knowing himself, he may learn to use advances of knowledge to benefit, rather than destroy, the human species
Simon and Newell (1958:8)

The application of critical reflection is a process that is crucial to learning.   Individual reflection is an important precondition for organisational or network reflection. We learn how to go forward by looking backwards. Our approach to Applied Leadership is to engage in proactive reflection and reflexivity.  You can read more about this in the LINKS360 process.

Reflection is about thinking back on our actions (as either individual leaders or collective leadership). It can be defined as learning and development by reflecting on what you – as a leader – (or the collective leadership) were thinking at any point in time during a leadership challenge. It also involves giving thought to how you think others perceived the event and your leadership.  The reflective activity involves a detailed consideration of the events or situations beyond yourself. This can be an individual activity or supported by others. Ask intelligent leadership questions; what, why, when, how, where and who?

In this case, we are reflecting on the who – you and others.

Reflection is looking in the mirror – what actions did we take

Looking in the mirror
Looking in the Mirror

Reflexivity concerns thinking through our actions. Reflexivity looks forward with a view to finding ways in which you/we can proactively question our own processes of thinking in relation to both the situation and the relationships with others. We can ask the same six intelligent questions but, this time, in proactively seeking to increase influence over the leadership situation by questioning our own attitudes, values and behaviours and the impact that we had on others around us.

Again, we are thinking of the ‘who’ question but, in this instance, also asking ‘why?’
Reflexivity is looking through and beyond the mirror – what can we learn from the actions that we have taken.

Looking through the Mirror
Looking through the Mirror

I include my own reflection in recounting my personal journey on this web portal.


Simon, H. A. & Newell, A. (1958) Heuristic Problem Solving: The Next Advance in Operations Research. Operations Research, 6(1), 1-10.

Is it “I” as a Leader or “We” as a Leadership?

In earlier thoughts and studies of leadership, the individual nature predominated, just as social identity tended to focus on self. The collective emerged in social identity studies earlier than leadership studies as there was an increasing recognition that a person’s sense of unique identity differentiated from others.

Collective leadership is key to success
Collective leadership is key to success

In asking “Who is this We?” the authors concluded that changes in self-definition are associated with significant changes in salient values, beliefs and the ways in which individual views of the social world are changing. This is important in considering the distinction between the self-perception of leadership and the alternative collective view. We need to take full account of the variability within as well as between individuals.

The first step in leadership development is to understand who you are before you can even begin to understand who others are. You need to know thyself!

  • Who are you really?
  • What are your values and beliefs?
  • What do you stand for?
  • What do you want to achieve and for whom?

An interesting article in the Harvard Business Review tells us (based on research) that when people feel insecure, self-aware, or diminished, they are more likely to focus their thoughts, feelings, and behaviours inward and will use first-person singular pronouns (such as “I,” “my,” or “me”). Conversely, individuals using first-person plural and second-person (such as “we,” “us,” or “you”) ought to demonstrate an outward focus, considering the thoughts, feelings, and behaviours of others.

The cited research concluded that natural language use during group interaction suggests that status is associated with attentional biases, such that higher rank is linked with other-focus whereas lower rank is linked with self-focus.

The title of the HBR article …

“If You Want to Be the Boss,
Say “We” Not “I”

says it all!


Is it "I" or "We"?

Understanding the diversity of collective leadership

Collective leadership is wider than public leadership although it shares some common multisectoral and transdisciplinary challenges. The dynamics of leadership will often play out at multiple levels. Both top-down and bottom-up outcomes are likely to emerge across different levels.

In considering published literature, the stated need for collective leadership is diverse and includes visions, objectives, diffused powers and diversified workforces.  Leaders require different skills at different times and in different places.

As is often the case, context is therefore critical. Brookes defined collective leadership as a “form of leadership based on shared values, rather than individual leadership based on self-interest” (Brookes 2016) and, further, that a “collective leadership framework places (leadership) behaviours as a high-level outcome of shared values”.

As Brookes argued, “the term ‘leadership’ is a slippery eel. Just as you think you understand it, along comes another interpretation that deserves attention. In other words, the understanding that you have just seems to slip out of your grip as another … and then another one … comes along!


Slippery Leadership Eel1


Collective leadership is also concerned with building the collective capacity of individual leaders to act as guardians and steward change toward the greatest benefit for the greatest number.

Our approach to collective leadership considers this as a process of synergy, which complements the need to understand and consider the complex underpinning of the shared vision highlighted in the original definition. The purpose of collective leadership is threefold:

    1. To identify the challenges to leadership. A new way of thinking is called for in tackling not just the challenges that we know about but also in investing time in thinking about the challenges that we do not yet know about. It is about being proactive and not just reactive.
    2. Influencing others in tackling the leadership challenges. Similarly, in identifying the challenges that we do not know about as well as those we are aware of, we need to increase our circles of influence to reach beyond what we can currently control as individuals.
    3. Mobilising the collective in tackling outcomes that are socially desirable. This aim represents the essence of leading in the public interest as opposed to leading in individual or corporate interests which are often driven by ego’s (and, yes, organisations have egos!)

Collective leaders need to build more and better leaders. Building human capability and organisational and societal capacity for achieving socially desirable outcomes is essential.



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The Selfless Leader