Check the Wiring – Check Yourself

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Last week (Bosses: Check the Wiring) I wrote about how my wife Jennifer had been asked by a group to speak about the election and, how when she asked me to be a sounding board for her as we drove to the event, I (somewhat rudely) balked.  I instead asked her to consider letting me share my own thoughts with the group.  I held up her behavior to you as exemplary:  She wisely 🙂 acceded to my self-advancing request. In that column, I lauded her for welcoming my complementary and potentially contrary views – my yin to her yang.*  Sally Gatlin, a reader, appropriately referenced the ancient Chinese wisdom of Lao Tzu:

A leader is best when people barely know he exists. Not so good when people obey and acclaim him. Worse when they despise him. But of a good leader, who talks little. When his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say we did it ourselves. (emphasis added)

My invitation to you leaders-with-authority last week was to give your power away…so they feel the pride and power as they do it themselves.”

Yet if Jennifer’s response was courageous, I submit mine was even more so.  Consider Marvin, a family business owner. He was one of my first clients, while I was a very junior partner.  Our firm’s role was to help Marvin figure out how his three children could succeed and succeed him.  Our senior partner told him in front of them:  “You need to be willing to give the power away.” Wow, I thought: That’s damn smart.  Marvin quickly came back with a line I thought was even smarter, “Yes, but they need to want to take the power away.”  I had no idea then how HARD that was for them and is for us, how hard to ask for – let alone – grab the reins.  

Leaders-with-authority and followers leaders-who-have-lesser-authority (often referrred to as “followers”) both need to appreciate how our deep wiring makes this hard.  For this one assault on Jennifer’s power, there were 1000 times as many occurrences where I wouldn’t even let myself consider making such a request.  My unconscious wholly blocked me off.  Like every student I teach and every person who’s ever worked for me, we’re all wired for deference in two ways:

  1. The deference was wired-in through Parents, even the most egalitarian, who use their sticks, e.g., “go to your room” or even gentle scoldings and their carrots, e.g., “Dan never gives us any problems,” pat-pat to teach fear/respect. Then: TeachersBosses. Religious leaders. Police follow on with extra wiring. Like Pavlov’s famous dogs we are deeply conditioned and no longer need the bell to salivate, or for us to cower.  Jennifer is my wife but she was also a governor, so I had to respect her.  And the hosts of that event had power, too; they had not invited me; I owed them respect.
  2. Deference is also reinforced by the group.  From day one of every semester, I start telling my classroom of 60 how much I want to hear from them. I literally throw candy to contributors. I email them to commend them. I highlight rebel leaders – within and without organizations.  I stress the vital creative and ethical role of those leading-with-lesser-authority.  And yet the FEAR is palpable. Do you think they are afraid of me?  I don’t.  They are more afraid of each other, wired to not allow themselves to stick out from the tribe: whether as weird, arrogant, stupid, ignorant, unattractive, or brown-nosing.

What is the single greatest thing that can counter-balance this over-wiring towards deference?  I wish you were in my class, because I would stop here.  I’d try to get you to co-create, not be deferential, and passive.  I would – in fact, I do – invite you to jot an answer. I invite you to teach/lead by sharing the question and your thoughts with somebody else. In class, when I do this, after people have jotted, shared with a partner, they often then feel their ideas have been tested and potentially validated by peers, so that their fear of sharing with the larger class is diminished. SO, that’s my main answer:  Create a different, safe setting to practice letting people re-wire their usual neural patterns.

From a cognitive perspective, the most powerful thing to rewire and diminish undue deference is to vigilantly focus on vision and values.  Forget about status and safety – yours or your leader-with-lesser-authority – and always focus on purpose!

That, to lead with your best self!

* Wikipedia offers this lovely sense of the Chinese characters and their meaning:  “how seemingly opposite or contrary forces may actually be complementary, interconnected, and interdependent in the natural world, and how they may give rise to each other as they interrelate to one another.” The yin (me) is the more cloudy or dark, the yang energy brighter.