Bosses: Check the Wiring

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I took a big step for me on Sunday, leading up. Next week, I’ll share why it wasn’t so easy, and why it might shed a little light for you, as you lead up.

Today I want to tell the story and extract two lessons for people in positions of authority.

My wife Jennifer and I (see below if you need background on her*) were driving to a (progressive) community conversation for which she had been asked to kick things off by talking about “what gave her hope” after November. She asked if she could kick some ideas off me, a role we serve for each other on a frequent basis. We are complements and value what each typically offer: She sees out, goes broadly and strategically, and she finishes.  I tend to go in, go deep and theoretical, and open new possibilities (Myers-Briggs aficionados might see an ENTJ and INFP).

Without any premeditation I pushed back on her request for me to play sounding board. With an edge in my voice that surprised and confused me, I said, please don’t take offense but I might have as much or even more to say on the topic than you do, so would you consider introducing me to comment publicly?  How about if we “lead by two?” I asked, referring to my intellectual passion and coaching pursuit, about which she is well aware.) I added – not liking myself as I did so, and stinging her – that after all, she was one of the progressive politicians who missed out on fully grasping the American scene.  Might it not be good to hear from someone who had a perspective that was different than the prevailing right-left quagmire, I asked?  There was tension hovering in our new Ford C-Max Energi as we headed towards Sonoma.

I want to make two points about this, then tell you what happened.

Point 1: Roles are ridiculously powerful in how they shape our interactions. We are over-wired with deference to authority. Though Jennifer and I are radically and blessedly equal and respectful towards each other, it was incredibly hard for me to ask that we lead by two. Even as I sounded rebellious, I felt disrespectful, arrogant, like “who-elected-you, who-invited-you, hot shot?”  To put it differently:  submissiveness is built into our authority structures. “Followers” — even when they are respected staff members at the table, or in my case, a spouse, are wired for deference, whether that is beneficial or, quite frequently:  not. Therefore:

Point 2: Authorities need to promote others, to make it safe, to encourage them to come forward.  For example, I invited a young associate two weeks ago to present part of a big public speech I had been hired to give in San Diego. He did and he killed it. Afterwards, more people wanted to talk to him than to me. If I had only seen things like age, roles (I was the professor, he’d been “just” a student of mine), experience, etc., and if I could not get past my ego-identification with being The Big Speaker, I would never have let him do that. But which of us was more likely to be compelling on the topic of Millennials – a 59-year old or a 30-year old?

If you’re the boss, do you really need to chair every staff meeting? If you’re the pastor, do you really need to preach at the main service every week? A quick and positive story:  I was “onboarding” a new CEO three weeks ago with the CEO’s #2 (who had been the other finalist for the CEO job). #2 made it clear that they were 100% comfortable being the support to #1!  And in the course of our 2-day retreat, #2 shared a few stories about the organization that inspired #1 and me close to the edge of tears. Man, was #2 compelling!  I was so impressed when #1 said, “You have to tell these stories. People have to hear these stories!” #1 did not allow his position (or his ego) to trump #2’s extraordinary personal passion and persuasiveness. What a brilliant and confident leader to enable and empower their “follower.”

Conclusion to my story: My wife readily agreed to share the stage. Her ego is so solid and balanced.  She is generous sharing power.  And she saw the value of my yin to her yang.  The sponsors and a number of others said they greatly appreciated hearing my view as well as Jen’s.

Yes, there is a HUGE place for a single orienting leader, but such leaders do well to model the work of my client #1 and my #1 person in the world, Jennifer. As Kouzes and Posner write, “Credible leaders accept and act on the paradox of power. We become more powerful when we give our power away.”

If you’re a Boss, how might you empower # 2 (and 3 and 4) this week, today?

Next week, I will reflect more on leading from the #2 position in hopes that it may help you to

Lead with your best self.

*Jennifer (Granholm) was two-term governor of the State of Michigan (2002-2010).