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Brand Me Versus Brand We

Monday, Sep. 3rd 2018

In a world that seems to be obsessed with branding, it is no surprise that leadership is yet another area where branding comes into play. Each of us, we are told, should identify what we want our leadership brand to be, and work to build and reinforce that brand.

It seems to me that one way of thinking about our leadership brand is to consider a continuum, along which we decide where we will authentically act.

On one side of the continuum is “brand me”.  At the other side is “brand we”.

The far end of the “brand me” side of the continuum is easy to identify when we observe leaders. The news is full of images and stories of me-focused leaders who are obsessed with how people see them and do all that they can to re-craft their brand in the image that they want. They tend to over-emphasize their personal successes and de-emphasize weaknesses or mistakes.

Leaders at this side of the continuum may spend significant time managing their personal image to management, stockholders, customers, or the public.  Leaders like this may obsess over presentations and events, ensuring that these things convey a certain image for them. You might find leaders focused on the far extreme of  “brand me” taking credit for successes that aren’t fully theirs, or blaming their mistakes on others.

“Brand me” leaders at the extreme end of the spectrum tend to be spin-masters, regularly crafting stories that reflect positively on them, and lowering the image of those that they view as potential rivals. These leaders may tend to attack those that disagree or could be seen as negatively impacting their “brand me” image.

The legacy desired by “brand me” leaders is to be recognized for their personal contributions.

For some leaders,  focusing on “brand me” has been a successful strategy. “Brand me” leaders may be extremely driven, make things happen, and get results. They may receive the spotlight because in our culture today “self-made” heroes are respected and elevated.   There are many examples of “brand me” leaders who have grown quickly in their careers, and with that growth corresponding pay and recognition. Some cultures reinforce “brand me” leaders, particularly those that are very competitive and regularly pit employees against each other for promotions or pay.

These types of leaders seem to be found in many places. Politics is a natural place to find them, but they are also in small and large organizations, established organizations and start-ups, profits and not-for profits.

Organizations may hire or promote “brand me” leaders for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the stockholders think that a celebrity “brand me” CEO is what is needed to drive results, to elevate the entire company brand, or to make difficult changes. Maybe the media coverage that tends to follow “brand me” leaders is what is wanted.  Or maybe the downsides of “brand me” individuals have flown under the radar because they delivered on results that were desired and the negative impact of their behavior has been ignored.

Regardless, the risks of hiring or promoting people very high on the “brand me” continuum are real.   The toxic cultures, the sexual harassment, the bullying, the lawsuits, the depression and anxiety caused by those leaders are significant.  One needs only to read or watch the news to see countless examples of “brand me” leaders causing havoc in organizations.

To be fair, there are “brand me” leaders who are not at the far end of the spectrum.  These might be leaders who are intensely driven and want to be seen as being personally successful by the organization but are willing to do so by working effectively with others and recognize when they are wrong.

On the other side of the leadership brand continuum are leaders who tend to follow the “brand we” model.  On this side of the continuum we are more likely to see leaders who are all about the team.

At the far end of this “brand we” spectrum, you might see leaders who will only do things that the team wants or votes for. Some of the newer organizational models that are arising now are in this vein, where teams and groups of teams make business and organization decisions rather than managers.  Decisions tend to be made more by democracy or consensus, or what is viewed as being more popular.

In cultures where leaders focus on “brand we”, you’d probably see more team recognition, and leaders who are more focused on giving their employees opportunities for the spotlight and credit for their work and not as worried about personal recognition for themselves.

The legacy desired by strong “brand we” leaders is recognition for their team’s contributions.

There are downsides to the far side of the “brand we” continuum, however. Sometimes hard decisions have to be made that no one would vote for.  Sometimes teams prefer to work with people just like themselves, so in some cases teams might become increasingly homogenous and less diverse without leaders requiring a focus on diversity.

Sometimes, “brand we” leaders don’t want to have hard conversations with employees who are struggling with performance or want something that is just not realistic.  Or perhaps they struggle in helping the team prioritize when everyone has their own favorite project. In some cases, “brand we” leaders spend so much money on outings or benefits or rewards that it is difficult to be profitable.  Another potentially negative outcome for those leaders overly focusing on “brand we” is creating a culture of entitlement.

Also, in the reality of our workplaces, sometimes leaders just need to make sure that they themselves personally are viewed as delivering results. There are times, places, and cultures where the leader personally needs to shine.

At the end of the day, we will decide what we want our leadership brand to be. One way of thinking about this is determining what kind of legacy we want to leave. Do we want to be known for our personal contribution? If so, somewhere along the “brand me” side of the continuum is where we should focus.

If, instead, we want to be known for the contributions of the teams we work with, we would focus our leadership brand more along the “brand we” side of the continuum.

Keep in mind that our decision here is more about where along the continuum we want to act, so we can choose to be slightly “brand me” but mostly “brand we”. Or the opposite.

Once we have made that fundamental decision, we have the opportunity to behave in ways that reinforce that desired brand. If we really want to be a “brand we” leader, for example, what behavior do we need to demonstrate? Behaving consistently with our desired brand is what makes us authentic.

And now a reminder. You may find that during different stages of your career that your focus may shift. For example, you may find that earlier in your career you tended to focus on “brand me” in an effort to be seen as personally driving results and to advance. Later in your career, as you move up in the organization, or become older, you may desire to focus more on “brand we”.

Or perhaps when you join a new organization you feel compelled to focus on “brand me” more to ensure that you set a certain tone or expectation about you in the new organization and evolve more into the “brand me” leadership brand as you spend more time in the organization.

Regardless, the most important thing to remember is that you have a choice about where you focus your leadership brand.

Choose well.


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Leading People Partners

Leading People Partners, LLC
Email: todd@leadingpeoplepartners.com