President Obama’s “you didn’t build that” comment has become fodder for the Romney campaign, and sparked many emotional responses from small-business owners. (File photos/AFP/Getty Images)

The response by GOP candidate Mitt Romney and by small-business owners to President Obama’s now infamous “you didn’t build that” line by has been swift and, at times, emotional.

On Wednesday, the Romney campaign staged 24 “We did build this” events nationwide, including one that moved the owner of an equipment firm in Harrisburg, Pa. to tears, saying “I can tell you Mr. President, you have not talked to the spouses of business owners across this country, or you would not have made the incredible statement you made suggesting business owners have not worked hard.” (Never mind that the president did not actually say that business owners don’t work hard. The “you didn’t build that” line from a July 13 speech, however ineloquently made, was referring to roads and bridges.)

At another Romney event, an Ohio businessman said “To say I didn't build this, I take as a personal insult.” And in Raleigh, N.C., another entrepreneur spoke out, saying "It's almost like someone just slapped me in the face, it was me that built this company.”

What’s ironic to me in listening to these responses is how different the tone is from what you typically hear from CEOs and company owners. When they’re not talking politics, most business leaders are painfully careful, at least in public remarks, not to take too much credit for what they’ve achieved. “We couldn’t have done this without our most valuable asset: our employees,” is a common refrain. “We wouldn’t be where we were today if it weren’t for our loyal customers,” CEOs love to proclaim. “I wouldn’t be standing here today if it weren’t for the investors who took a risk on me” or the “mentors who paved the way.”

Sometimes all this modesty—real or false—reaches the point of absurdity. If you’ve ever tried to interview a media-trained CEO and get them to talk about their role in company achievements, he or she inevitably yammers on glowingly about the team, even when it comes to decisions that clearly were up to him or her. As we’ve all heard too many times, “there is no ‘I’ in team.” One of the most popular ideas in management circles today is servant leadership, or the idea that leaders achieve results by prioritizing the needs of their colleagues and those they serve over themselves.

I get that what rubbed these small-business owners the wrong way—even if some have still been on the receiving end of government assistance—is that Obama was referring to the help or services government has provided, rather than the employees or investors who’ve helped business builders along the way. Clearly, entrepreneurs have a right to be proud of their hard work, and the leading roles they played in creating their companies. Had the president added in a line about all the workers and customers who helped business owners create what they’ve established, or simply said public services played a role in these entrepreneurs’ success, he might have provided less ammunition for his opponent.

Still, the larger point of Obama’s speech is that no matter how hard you work, or how smart you are—and he does give credit to individual ambition—some things are better achieved through work done together. (Indeed, he said so explicitly in the same speech: “The point is, is that when we succeed, we succeed because of our individual initiative, but also because we do things together.”)

There may be no “I” in “team.” But there are apparently two of them in “politics.”


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