“We” part of leadership?

I recently read Charles Lindbergh’s autobiography covering his life up to his historic flight across the Atlantic in May of 1927.  The tile of the book is two letters, “We.”  I found the title curious.  “Why such a title,” I wondered.  I figured by reading the book I’d find out.  After reading it, I found no direct references to who the “We” referred to.

I was fascinated by the book.  It is written as a person of Lindbergh’s time would have said it in a conversation.  Only the last chapter is written by a professional writer; the chapter recounting “Lucky Lindy’s” exuberant receptions in Europe and the US after his feat.  Lindbergh became an instant international super star in today’s terms (and maybe the biggest ever)!

From my reading, I gathered that the “We” were all the people who helped Lindbergh in learning to fly, assisting him in his quest and most importantly those who made aviation possible.  After reading the book I did some research and found that “We” referred to Lindbergh and his plane, the Spirit of St. Louis.  Was I ever wrong!  But I did find myself thinking about not only the history of aviation in the early days that Lindbergh gives insight to, but about leadership; just from that simple two letter title.

Many times we bring to a subject our perspectives and experiences.  The ability to work in a team and as a team is critical.  The old saying is, “There is no “I” in the word team.”  I fundamentally believe that while there are solo leadership activities, most leadership is in the context of more than one person.   Some are part of an identifiable “team;” others are those that help a person achieve goals and objectives.  These are the collective “We.”

I was seeing the “We” as the people who took the time to teach him to first fly.  Later, the Army flight instructors at Brooks and Kelly Fields near San Antonio, TX, the farmers and others who helped repair his planes that crashed or broke down in the cross country flights and barnstorming, as well as the builders of the Spirit of St. Louis.  While Lindbergh’s achievement was hugely significant for his time, he really did not get to that point alone.

That he had help does not diminish his achievement.  He put much time and effort into it.  He meticulously planned the flight and had prepared himself well.  And he handled the adulation of millions with humility and good manners (a little hard to find that from super stars today).

What I thought the “We” was, was not so.  But as I read it, Lindbergh had a lot of “We” help.  It was everywhere in his account.   I firmly believe that leaders to be effective over the long haul; to achieve great things, need to consider the “We.”  Aviation is not just the skill of flying, or command of something very technically complex–although leadership in aviation is inherently complex.  Great leaders understand the role of the “We” in their success.

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  • The individual’s best effort is often times the product of a chemistry that exists between that individual and the others with whom she or he is interacting with. The open-handed willingness to let others play an active role in one’s individual success is the sign of the kind of humility that makes “We” the powerful word that it truly is. Lindbergh held this understanding close to the heart.

    The phrase, “We the People,” for example, conveys a deeper sense of relationship and integrity than simply identifying “People” as a collective, bound in principle and obligation to one another. When Lindbergh says, “We” he is acknowledging that his own part is only a single link in the chain of events that led to the historic, and heroic, Transatlantic feat. Self-identifying with the collective effort is really where Lindbergh attributes his accomplishment; and his plane’s namesake illustrates the formula for Lindbergh’s success: the Spirit of St. Louis.

    This vehicle, Lindbergh’s famous airplane, is a symbol and metaphor for collective effort and the power of “We”; for though Lindbergh was piloting the aircraft, the Spirit of St. Louis (most specifically those who helped build the plane, prepare the flight, and support the mission) is the engine that carried his person over the Atlantic. In this sense, he was not flying alone in that plane. He was merely the pilot of a greater vision and effort, an action that surpasses the notion of self by absorbing and building upon the accumulation of each contributing member’s own ambitions and dreams.

    Your blog illustrates how important humility is for leadership; flying the record-setting airplane was an honor to be experienced by Lindbergh; but he well understood and communicated in gratitude to others, that his flight was made possible only by the will and cooperative efforts of others. One might even say he acknowledged to himself that Lindbergh didn’t fly over the Atlantic; the Spirit of St. Louis did.

    Clearly, Lindbergh knew that neither he nor his vehicle accomplished anything of value on their own, alone. He tells us, very simply, that “We” did it together.

    This is really what leadership is all about; and it remains one of the most profound discoveries that have come as a product of the engaging with the values and lessons embedded in the ERAU Worldwide MS in Leadership program.

    “We” is the first and last word in learning to be a leader. We have to live this principle, continually maintaining and acknowledging it as our guiding light.