When you’re building any kind of business, words matter. A part of leadership is celebrating your team for what you’re building together.
In a community business, not only should your internal team be celebrated and feel a part of what you’re building, but also your community members.
In an ideal community, we want members to feel ownership of the community and eventually grow into leadership roles. As leaders we can encourage that in subtle ways by using language that makes it clear that this is not about us.
The language you use can help your team and members feel more included. And more importantly, in my experience, it starts re-wiring our own brain towards more collective decision-making, instead of those who are just going to benefit you. That shift is powerful.
I’ve made 2 small changes to my language. And those little shifts have sparked really profound changes for me as a community leader.
Finding ways to not say “my community”
There are two potential meanings when you say “my community”. One is “the community I belong to” and the other is “the community I own”.
When you say “I shop in my local community”, you are not saying you own your neighborhood.
You can say my community to talk about the community you’re building in a way that signifies belonging or in a way that signifies ownership. Your intention matters.
When you’re building a community, you want to take every opportunity to spread out ownership. Your job is to spark leadership for others in the community.
So whenever possible, switch from saying my community to:
- The community I lead
- The community I’m building
- Our community
- This community
- [the name of the community]
It’s a subtle shift with strong impact for members and potential members.
Using “we” instead of “I”
You are the most important member of the community you’re building. But you’re not more important than everyone else put together.
When you talk about your community business, what if you substituted “we” for whenever you’d say “I”?
Here’s what it sounds like:
“I’ve been able to double membership this year”
“We’ve been able to double membership this year”
In this scenario, community leaders indeed do a lot of the work in bringing in new members. But do you do all of it? And more importantly, do you want to be doing all of it going forward?
I try to use “I” when I’m owning up to mistakes or talking about future plans I’m not sure about yet. It’s not perfect, I just try my best to take blame and share the credit.
This is not about scamming people into thinking you’re a huge corporation when it’s actually just you.
When I first started this business I was decidedly the only person working on it. I didn’t have a team and I hadn’t yet started a community. At that point, saying “we” when referring to something I had accomplished felt disingenuous. First, because it really was just me. And secondly because I was still trying and failing at a lot of things. So using “we” felt more like spreading out blame.
Once the business grew and the community launched, then it was the opposite. It felt disingenuous to say “I”. I still didn’t have employees, but I had learned from so many teachers, had clients who trusted me from very early on and was starting to build a community. If I zoomed out, there was no way I could take all the credit.
The way you speak effects the way you show up as a leader.
The thing about communication is that a very small part of it is about the words. People feel the intention behind what you’re communicating more than the words you’re saying or writing. And I’ve found that changing my vocabulary has deepened my intention.
In speaking differently, I’ve changed my outlook.
Here are some unexpected shifts that have happened as a result of changing my language and thinking of the business I’m building in this way:
- It’s been easier to quiet my ego and realize that it’s not about me.
- I don’t need as much credit for what I do. I feel appreciated and proud of my work.
- I’m more comfortable asking for help because I know it’s not just about me.
- I don’t feel as guilty when things don’t go as planned because it was never just on me to figure it out.
- And I feel more powerful. Not powerful over others, but comfortable in my own abilities to make decisions and stand in my truth.
Women and others underrepresented in leadership are often indirectly taught to minimize our accomplishments. What I’m suggesting is not about deflecting praise or not taking credit for hard work. It’s about being radically inclusive of those who were a part of getting you where you are. That doesn’t minimize what you’ve built, it amplifies it.
The opposite of patriarchal leadership is not about winning at all costs as a girl boss. Maybe it's about building real community and making decisions that benefit the collective.