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Rotary Thought Spot The WE in Me: Cooperative Leadership

June 29th, 2009



“Honor bespeaks worth. Confindence begets trust. Service brings satisfaction. And cooperation proves the quality of leadership”

– James Cash Penney, Missouri-born entrepreneur

“Every exit is an entrance somewhere else.”

-Tom Stoppard, Czech-born playwright

In college I was one of three seniors chosen by the theater department to direct and produce a one-act play for a two-week run at the cabaret theater. I was excited – after assisting and acting in a string of productions I finally had my own play!

I chose a one-act farce by George Bernard Shaw. In preparation I walked the stage floorboards imagining how my play would come to life. I could see how the actors would say their lines, how they would move, how it would all come together. And I could call the shots! I spent almost a week painstakingly laying out every detail.

My play had three characters and I cast classmates in two of the roles. For the male lead I chose one of my literature professors who also directed and acted in the college’s theater productions. Tom was tall and beanpole lean. He had silver grey hair that frizzled as it reached and refused to stay behind his ears. His long face was interrupted by a bushy grey mustache. Behind Woody Allen glasses his eyes were backlit with perpetual amusement. He was perfect for comedy, the perfect model for a cartoon character.

At the first rehearsal I told the cast and crew about my vision for the play and went over every line and movement for each character. They nodded and obediently and followed the script book I had prepared. They seemed subdued but I decided that they were concentrating on learning all the details of their parts. The next rehearsal went pretty much the same. I couldn’t put my finger on it but something was missing. Why weren’t they as on fire as I was?

After rehearsal Tom stayed to help put away the stage props. While we moved a Victorian couch and table offstage I puzzled out loud. “Something’s not right. It’s my play and I have to fix it but I don’t know how.” With his quirky smile he said simply, “Come to class tomorrow.”

Instead of taking notes I watched Tom closely in class the next day. He was teaching James Joyce, one of his passions, and he knew the work inside and out. Yet for the first time I noticed how little he spoke about himself or used the word “I.”

He asked  questions. When he made comments he referred to “we” – himself and us, the class. He encouraged two or three points of view about the meanings of specific passages or literary techniques. He joked about the obscure. He made complicated Joyce seem easy.

It was a slow revelation but finally it came to me. Tom wasn’t trying to lead or direct us. He was aiming for cooperation. He was staying behind the scenes; that was how he made space for us to join him.

At the next rehearsal I put aside the script book and started asking questions and exploring alternatives to the details I had laid out. The cast and crew suggested improvements that I had never considered and we incorporated them into the production. I joked about the costume pieces we hadn’t found yet and the sound cue glitches.

Like Tom in class, I tried to talk in terms of WE instead of me. Soon we found space for everyone’s enthusiasm. And when the curtain went up on opening night, we all knew that we had created something none of us could have created alone.

Tom had taught me the most important word in the language of cooperative leadership: WE. When I’ve failed to achieve cooperation with others, it’s usually because I haven’t intentionally brought out the WE within me.

Sometimes we as individual Rotarians can become so attached to a project or service activity that we do it all ourselves, rather than set a stage that allows our club members, our community or our global partners to play a role. Or we get so focused on working out the details that we overlook the points of view of others. And when a project is run by one of us for years and years, we can easily lose sight of the WE within us.

In Rotary, leadership truly is “cooperaship.” It brings out our best selves in service to others, and makes space for others to do the same. As we approach a new Rotary year, we have an opportunity to begin again – and to find that WE in each of us that can do so much collective good in the world.


(soon to be) PDG Elizabeth

Ways for Us to Find the WE in Me

Listen for the WE (or lack of it): At your next business, sales or civic organization meeting, listen for evidence of cooperation. Do people speak in terms of I and you, or do they build cooperation? Are they intentionally, inclusively using WE? I recently attended a fundraising meeting conducted by the board of a not-for-profit. The board chairman addressed the organization’s members as “you” and referred to the board as “WE.” The result was more passive resistance than cooperation from the members. It made me wonder how much more effective his fundraising efforts would have been if he had included the organization’s members in his use of ‘WE.”

Practice thinking in terms of WE:  Consider trying to find the WE in daily internactions with others by intentionally substituting WE for I.  An interim step is simply to phrase your thougths without using the word “I” and gradually move to WE. Try it in a low-risk situation first – with a friend, a cashier, or with a customer service representative – and explore the results.

Examine the WE within Me in club projects: Have you run a club project for multiple years? Consider passing on your expertise to another club member.  Make space for them in the project by speaking in terms of an inclusive WE – and respond to others’use of “I” by using “WE.”  Watch what happens over time to your interactions with others and the impact it has on the project.

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