Moving From “I” to “We”


by Dr. Kathy Miller Perkins

For in the final analysis, our most basic common link is that we all inhabit this small planet. We all breathe the same air. We all cherish our children’s futures. And we are all mortal.

John F. Kennedy 

Recap – January Blog

Last month Katrin discussed the “zero decade” – a term used by Naomi Klein to describe our dwindling opportunity to take action to keep human-created climate change in check.  Katrin conveyed how we might avoid an unmitigated global disaster.  She outlined three levels of global responsibility including the individual (I), the collective (we) and the societal (us).  She suggested focusing on how we might effectively occupy that middle space– the “we”.

Transatlantic Questions

When Katrin and I began this debate a year ago, we agreed to discuss the issues from our own differing cultural perspectives. Most of the time Katrin lives and works in Europe (primarily Switzerland) and I in the USA.  Our differing cultures have never failed to provide us with fodder for discussion! This month is different.  Last week I had the privilege of working side-by-side with Katrin at the Business School of Lausanne where we convened our DBA Academy. Our multi-national and multi-cultural doctoral students are all involved in research on some aspect of corporate sustainability within their own countries and industries.   My interactions with the group inspired my further pondering on what change from “I” to “we” might look like within and across our cultures. So let’s take another look at some urgent transatlantic issues!

Culture and Climate Change

As I reflected on my own cultural heritage, I recognized the importance of moving from my own rugged individualist and nationalist frame of references to one with a more inclusive commitment to the collective global “we”. To adequately (or even marginally) address climate change, each of us has to consider sacrificing our own short-term, narrow self-interest for the broad collective long-term good.  And since I come from an individualist rather than a collectivist culture, I do not underestimate the magnitude of the challenge.

Small Town America and the Cowboy

I grew up in a small town in the middle of America – sometimes referred to as the Bible Belt.  We valued the individual “hero”.   For example, one of our most enduring cultural icons is the American cowboy, like the ones I grew up watching in our beloved TV “Westerns”.  They demonstrated a clear moral code for determining right from wrong.  While they were willing to put their lives on the line to rid a community of outlaws, they tended to ride off into the sunset alone upon doing so. They were celebrated for their strong independence.  Compromise and consensus – let alone a focus on the long-term common good needed for a sustainable community – were not the foreground of the “horse opera” genre. The takeaway lessons they provided for our generation implied that real heroes are self-reliant with a steady focus on “I”. The rugged individualist could and should make unilateral decisions for the good of all.

Who is Included in the “We”?

Even though I loved my Saturday morning cowboy TV shows, I also felt a commitment to our small community.  This responsibility to neighbors and kin was a given within my cultural heritage.  However, at this point in my life, my definition of community was quite narrow.  After all, I am from a very small town in Indiana where all of the kids went to the same high school and everyone belonged to one of the two (both Protestant) churches. While I might have balanced my own self-interest with the needs of my neighbors, my concept of “we” did not extend much beyond the town limits.

From Rugged Individualist to Commitment to the Collective

My sense of “we” expanded when I became a foreign exchange student during high school.  I lived with a family in Thailand and experienced a more collectivist culture. I was uprooted from the cultural “givens” that I had never questioned heretofore.  For a short period of time, I became part of a family that did not share my religion, my language or any other part of my heritage. Yet I loved this family and they loved me.  When my exchange experience was over, I returned to the USA with an expanded sense of who and what “we” might include.  Additionally, I had a sense of what this expanded “we” might accomplish together.  That experience still nurtures my desire to continue broadening my sense of “we”.

Cultural Conversations Move us to “We”

In our world today the opportunities abound for exposure to other cultures with differing frames for viewing the world.  With widespread access to the Internet and to other technologies that enable cross-cultural communications, all persons in the USA can expand to a global level experience of who “we” are and what we owe each other.  My personal commitment is to take every opportunity to build personal global connections as a core strategy in our co-creating a “we” that means thinking and acting with a global ethic.

After all, we all breathe the same air.


  • Global problems aren’t solved with a rugged individualist mind-set.
  • Commitment to community is at the heart of the American culture.
  • To address our global realities, our definition of community must expand.
  • Cross-cultural conversations can lead to a broader sense of “we”.


Kathy MillerDr. Kathy Miller Perkins is a social psychologist and is the CEO and owner of Miller Consultants , a firm specializing in organizational development, executive coaching and change management. Her work involves helping companies create and sustain organizational cultures that are conducive to executing sustainable strategies. She has worked with companies such as Toyota, IBM, Kindred Health, Brown-Forman, Lexmark, Anthem, Ashland Chemical, the U.S. Military and BC Hydro.


4 thoughts on “Moving From “I” to “We”

  1. Of course we are morally obliged not to be selfish but to share the national assets with the whole community. But today the opposite attitude prevails amongst business people, particularly the upper management classes. Every corporation wants its own shareholders to receive greater dividends, but it gives no thought to what this is doing to everyone else. As a direct result the opportunities which they hold back from sharing, are either wasted or monopolized. What we seek is politically unsound although it is highly morally desirable. So the role of good government should be to reverse our present tendency, but if it even suggests that it might do so, it fails to get support from those who hold control, mostly financial. This is not democratic and sooner or later there will be a rebellion against the top 1% having so large a say in public affairs.

  2. Reblogged this on Dean Katrin Muff and commented:
    Insightful thoughts from my blog partner: What does it take to make the shift from an individualist “I” mindset to a collective “We”?

  3. A good question. In terms of the individual it requires a greater degree of faith in the nature of mankind to want to act in an ethical way. Considering the amount of cynicism that exists today, both in the media and in much social intercourse, there is a need for better teaching of a more optimistic future with less war and the better sharing of opportunities.

    Equally important is the attitudes of politicians within governments–they are our leaders and they miserably fail. The most significant means of making us as a country more ethical is to pass laws that eliminate and punish corruption, with prizes for those who seek it out and expose it. The taxation system is an example of the poor ability for government to recognize that huge changes could be enacted when a fairer system is introduced. However politically incorrect it appears and following the suggestion of Henry George in 1879 (“Progress and Poverty”), the use of taxation to level the distribution of work opportunity, namely to have more universal access to land (both rural and urban), is a must. A land-value tax (to replace other kinds) will allow those whose chances of work are presently controlled by management, to become entrepreneurs and employees of them, because more land and cheaper sites would then become available, as unused and speculated sites no longer would remain unused.

    We should tax land not people; we should collect (immoral) takings not makings!

  4. Pingback: Occupying the Collective Space | Building Sustainable Legacies

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