Who You Callin’ “We?”

by  Mike Henry  |  Leadership Development

The more I think about character-based leadership and the leadership traits I want to model, I keep coming back to the gap between who you lead and who you serve.  Character-based leaders tend to line those up pretty closely.  The question seems to be:

How big is your “WE”?

You know what I ‘m talking about.  When you say “WE,” who’s included?  If it’s just the people who can sign your checks, that’s a pretty small group.  Maybe it’s just you.  Maybe it’s all of your friends or people you like?  Is it your whole organization?  What about your whole nation?

After thinking about it, I wonder if sometimes, our WE expands when we expect trouble and shrink when we expect gain?  That’s for another post.

Leadership at the Movies

I was struck by a couple of war movies that demonstrated my belief that character-based leaders develop or grow the size of their WE.  This post is about the examples provided in the 1955 version of Mister Roberts starring Henry Fonda, Jack Lemon and James Cagney.  James Cagney played Captain Morton, a man clearly obsessed with his record and reputation.  The ship won a palm tree for the amount of cargo they moved.  The palm became a symbol of everything the men didn’t like.

The captain stayed up in his quarters all day every day.  He insisted the men work long hours with their shirts on even when the heat was bitter.  Lt. JG Doug Roberts, play by Henry Fonda was always looking out for the men.  He would often do things to make the jobs easier for the men even at the expense of his relationship with the captain.  Doug consistently asks to be transferred to a battleship.  He doesn’t want to miss the war and the men of the crew join him in his pursuit of a transfer.  The key conflict  occurs when Doug agrees to stop submitting requests for transfer in exchange for a liberty for the men.  Its quite a sacrifice on Doug’s part, but he never shares it with the men.  The liberty goes bad and the captain is embarrassed when asked to leave port.

From Wikipedia: “The men of the ship are mystified by Roberts’ new strict attitude. Morton falsely hints to them that Roberts is interested in promotion. When a crew member informs Roberts of a new policy which might assist him in getting a transfer despite the captain’s opposition, Roberts responds sharply and refuses to take advantage of it. Roberts’ friendly rapport with the crew is affected.”

Two interchanges between Doug and the Captain and one between the Captain and the crew, demonstrate a key difference between a character-based leader and a position-based one.  The captain refers to the palm tree as his even though the crew sacrificed so the ship could win the award.  He speaks of how his reputation was tarnished by the crew’s behavior on liberty.  He also states his opinions about Doug, “college boys” and the crew in reference to himself.  “I’m not going to stand for that any more.”  The captain is clearly in the center of his own world.

Doug is no angel.  He experiences anger with his situation, toward the leader and to some degree he even resists the temptation to be angry toward the men.  He does look out for the crew, the people actually doing the work.  He knows the effort is theirs and the rewards should be too.  He holds them accountable for their work and for their behavior on liberty, but in the end, he’s for the men.  Doug’s WE includes the men.  The captain’s WE does not.

Who are you FOR?

A character-based leader is for people, helping them make the most of their life as they help the organization reach it’s goals and objectives.  Those people need to be working for the organization’s goals, which I’ll cover in another post.

Examine your WE. Who makes up the community of people you serve?  It should at least be your team.  Even if you’re the low man on the org chart, you gain influence and authority as you demonstrate to others that you’re for them; that your WE includes them.  The more people in your WE, the greater potential impact your leadership will have.

What’s Next? Please leave a comment below to join the conversation…

About The Author

Articles By mike-henry
Chief Instigator (Founder) of Lead Change Group and VP of IT for a mid sized technology company. Passionate about character-based leadership and making a positive difference.  »  View Profile

What People Are Saying

anna smith  |  10 Jun 2010  |  Reply

I was always turned off by the Waffle House manager who said, “I’m out of tomatoes; I’m open on Thanksgiving; Do you like my new menus…?”

John Gies  |  10 Jun 2010  |  Reply


Interesting thoughts about a great concept and one of my favorite movies. I like the idea of how bis is WE. I think you hit a point when asking is the WE shrinking or growing depending upon gain and loss. I think we have all seen less than ideal behavior in this respect.

What is encouraging is the conversations taking place at Leadchange and other groups that are all about expanding the WE and leading the way.

Keep up the good work,

.-= John Gies´s last blog ..Are Your Employees Under Attack?…From Whom? =-.

Mike Henry  |  13 Jun 2010  |  Reply

Thanks for the kind words John. I appreciate it. Mike…

Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach  |  10 Jun 2010  |  Reply

A very interesting slant on leadership Mike. The WE is a discussion that deeply affects morale.There is often an underlying struggle between team members (aka “the followers) who want more voice in setting direction and leaders who set the bigger picture direction.

Yet, when the leaders sincerely engage the team members in the “how” to reach the ultimate goal, the WE becomes quite real and inspirational.

However, when as you say “the WE expands when we expect trouble and shrink when we expect gain”, team members replace inspiration for achievement with skepticism and resentment.

Thanks for raising this issue – it is critical to the heart/soul of an org. and its teams.

Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach
.-= Kate Nasser, The People-Skills Coach´s last blog ..Outsourced Call Centers – Training to Satisfy USA Customers =-.

Mike Henry  |  13 Jun 2010  |  Reply

Thanks for the great comment Kate. My comment about the WE expanding was more about our nature than our desired objective. Everyone want’s to be in a WE when that group is experiencing success. It’s a natural motivator for team members, as well as peers and even people who watch sporting events on TV.

Thanks again, Mike…

Frode H  |  12 Jun 2010  |  Reply

WE are in trouble, YOU are great, WE can make it, YOU rock, WE fight togheter, YOU won. I try to use WE about negative stuff and challenges, and YOU to the group if there is success and good stuff going on. Great post! I will never be a better leader than the people I am leading, this is why leadership is all about people. :)
.-= Frode H´s last blog ..I hate my co-worker Fight night at the Office! =-.

Mike Henry  |  13 Jun 2010  |  Reply

Frode, you’re right on. Thanks for the great comment. That’s another dimension of the WE discussion, taking credit. I agree wholeheartedly with you that leaders should us YOU for praise. Otherwise it sounds self-focused and selfish.

Thanks, Mike…

David M. Kasprzak  |  13 Jun 2010  |  Reply

HI, Mike,

Great thought on this post. I have to wonder, however, about the last comment: “Even if you’re the low man on the org chart, you gain influence and authority as you demonstrate to others that you’re for them; that your WE includes them.”

It presupposes that the team is doing the right things. Otherwise, you’d end up supporting a team you believe is unethical, or simply going in the wrong direction.

There are times when supporting the team is the wrong thing to do. In order to lead, you have to be willing to go off in another direction at times, especially when your beliefs and values are at odds with the rest of the group.

Mike Henry  |  13 Jun 2010  |  Reply

David, thanks for the great addition. I agree there are times when supporting the team is the wrong thing to do, but I’m not sure there are many of them. I’ve worked for over 10 different employers and more that twice that many supervisors. When I was younger, I thought they were wrong. Now that I’m a bit more senior, I realize they were just different. Often in helping them do what they’re trying to do, you gain influence. If they’re compromising your future, yes, you probably should look for another team. Thanks again, Mike…

Marty Caise  |  13 Jun 2010  |  Reply

Aside from the fact that this happens to be one of my favorite movies, I seem to relate to Doug Robert’s character everyday. Always willing to go to bat for his crew at some personal expense and sometimes it is challenging to take the what is given and pass it along knowing the outcome can be detrimental to he team.
.-= Marty Caise´s last blog ..SOW’s answer questions before they are asked =-.

Mike Henry  |  14 Jun 2010  |  Reply

Marty, thanks for the comment. I was struck by how Doug Roberts made a difference in the lives of those 60 other men by simply standing up for them and putting them first. He didn’t have to be someone special, but he was one because of what (or who) he valued. Thanks again, Mike…

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