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Kings and CEOs
SEPTEMBER 2014 · Jan Ketil Arnulf
Keywords: leadership, collaboration, community

The king refers to himself as "we,” an interesting symbol as spokesperson for the nation's will. After the king, CEOs must be those who most frequently use the royal "we": The delivery of the end-of-year results is a speech from the throne where "we" achieved the results.

The use of the word "we" is a pretentious and binding word for a community where the individual is simultaneously both powerless and valued. New employees are greeted with the words "welcome to us". In return for submitting to the organization's interests, they are offered protection and respect. The transition from "you" to "we" indicates entry into all organizations, from teenage gangs through to churches to corporations. Can we trust this feeling of reciprocity? All forms of "we" exist in the tension of conflicts of interest between "I" and "you". 

The fall from "we" to "you" is tangible for CEOs as well. One moment, the boss presents the results in we-form, the next moment he is fired and addressed as "you". You are suddenly an outsider, reduced to a means that is no longer useful and can be removed. Worst of all is to become the "them" that we are talking about, not to, outside the community and with no voice to speak back. 

Research on leadership development suggests that mature leaders are characterized by a credible sense of "we". Immature managers think, "How can I get them to perform..." while mature leaders have a realistic sense of "we.” The “we” involves a limitation – we are only as strong as our weakest link – but also strength. We perform better when we are together and know our strengths. A leader's credibility rests on the validity of "we". 

The belief in "us" – the community, businesses and institutions – is our social capital. When we are reduced to contract workers, we are dangerously close to social disintegration. In the long run, "I" can’t win against "you".

Translated by SONG Hui, Edited by PAN Qi

Jan Ketil Arnulf
Associate Professor at BI Norwegian Business School and the Associate Dean of the BI-Fudan MBA program. His education is from the University of Oslo, Norway and the Freie Universität Berlin, Germany. His research on management team has been awarded a price, and he is at the editorial board of the scientific journal “The Leadership Quarterly”.
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