How to Lead a Subordinate to Become a Partner – Part 2


Paired Leadership — 3rd in a series — 

This series is written for people who can imagine that creating a PARTNERSHIP with a key report (or child or student) might generate much better results and much more satisfying relationships than “managing down.”   What I call “Paired leadership” or partnership is mysterious, but when we take it apart, we can put it back together in amazing new ways.  The following paragraph is a summary-reminder of what I wrote about last week. If your memory is better than mine, just skip to the last sentence of that paragraph for the encapsulated summary.

In last week’s Reading for Leading, I wrote about my years of failure at empowering and partnering with my daughter Kate, from the time she was toddling until she was about 20.  In short, I described how I reacted to her challenging behavior in ways that only heightened the impasses and difficulties. I am writing about family — in a largely business oriented blog – because it not only mirrors our work-related top-down, hierarchical relationships, but because it actually forms the psychic foundation on which work-related relationships exist.  So, for instance, if you experienced authority at home as arbitrary and punitive, you will likely bring those expectations and guardedness into the workplace; whereas, if you were given great freedom and respect at home, you will likely expect something like that at work.  My point (confession) last week was that far from treating Kate like a partner and an equal, I responded to her challenges with defensiveness; against my best self, I “put down” her rebellions (only to have them arise again).  

The question I left you with was:  Why?  Why did I — and why do other parents, teachers, managers —  respond in such an unproductive, unsatisfying and sometimes bruising way?  What went so wrong?  Why was I not able to “lead with my best self?”  What was going on?!!!  Thanks to those who weighed in with comments last week: David, Jon, Kenny and Kevin (hmmm, no female commentators?).

I made four big mistakes, two of which, I will point to today:

  1. I grossly misunderstood the power I had.
  2. I took her behavior personally.

I grossly misunderstood my power.  It’s a wacky mystery, but people in power forget they have power, and they completely forget how powerless it can feel like for the kid or new employee!!!* They act — I act — like we have to demonstrate control, have to prove something.  Prove what?  It’s already proven!  Do we for a minute think a four-year-old, eight year-old, 12, 14, or 20 year-old does not know that we have the power?  As parent or boss, you have the checkbook, power to reward or punish, power to shine the spotlight of praise or embarrassment upon them.  Yet how often are we guilty of what Sundance sarcastically said to Butch Cassidy, “do you think you used enough dynamite there Butch?” when we correct, chastise, or give “the look.”  The lesson I continually learn:  Never forget the perceived feeling they rightly have, that they lack power.

The second lesson: don’t take it personally.  I began — very early on with Kate — to make the enduring and disastrous leadership mistake:  I took it personally.  I made it about me, not about her (though I said it was all about her).  A powerful part of my brain took her behavior personally. Some (over-active, not-quite-conscious) part of my brain said, “I feed her, I clothe her…and I get this?!”  A part of my brain said, “My parents wouldn’t have put up with this for 2 minutes; what kind of fool am I?” A part of my brain said, “The neighbors and relatives will think Jennifer and I are terrible parents, if our daughter keeps doing s— like this.”  And, “If I don’t show her who’s boss, she’ll never learn!” Further, this part of my brain catastrophized, saying “she will cause me (her family, and herself) pain and embarrassment for her whole life.”  Then, when she had a sister and brother, a new voice chimed in: “This can’t be my fault, because the other kids don’t push back like this all the time.”

I took it personally, and the story I told was exceedingly simple, four words long:  I, victim.  Kate, attacker.

Note that every one of those lines my brain fed me has a corollary in the manager-direct report relationship:  “Does she forget that I hired her and gave her a chance.”  “I would never talk to my boss the way he talks to me.” “She’s going to embarrass our whole division.” “He goes into meetings and acts like he’s the boss.”  Look at how we turn ourselves into the victim!

I felt attacked (though I did not see this at the time).  I felt threatened.  By this toddler, child, adolescent?  Well, it felt that way, but the real fuel that was used to ignite my brain cells into a 4-alarm fire came from an inner character.  Kate’s behavior was just the spark, the flint.  The part of my brain that she lit up was my own inner critic, exploding beneath the surface of my awareness, “You’ve lost control. You’re worse than your own parents. You suck at this.”

Kate was NOT trying to attack me.  (And your challenging employees are not interested in attacking you.) Kate was trying to be seen, understood, accepted.  But I turned her into a threat.  Made it about me.

My “inner critic” took her challenges as proof of my ineptness, shortcomings, defectiveness, and hypocrisy as the “leadership expert.”  I wrote every week about “leading with your best self,” but I managed to lead with my worst self in the most important role I had.  In the worst trick of my human nature — unable to deal with my inner critic and self-loathing — I neither saw Kate’s behavior as a plea for understanding and acceptance, nor, did I see my reaction as my inner critic going wild on me, and in turn her.  Instead, I created a story that Kate was the attacker . . . and I only attacked back.  I was (in the) “right,” — a terrible addiction that blinded me to what was really happening.


So, how in partnership do we “lead with our best self?”  Recognize the power you do have.  And recognize the challenge isn’t personal, but you almost certainly will make it personal!  Your real battle is not with the challenger-partner, but with your own inner critic.

Maybe this week we can NOT take it personally.  Not create a story that’s “all about me.”  But instead look to see their needs, hopes, ideas, striving, as we

Lead with our best self.


*Sadly, our president-elect seems a poster child for this type of insecurity-of-the-authority figure run amok.  He takes everything personally, as if he hasn’t yet realized he is elected to be President of the United States of America.  I say this not so much to criticize Trump, but to say, “I get it.”  I’ve felt attacked too, despite having way more relative power than a child, student, or employee.

**Next week I will discuss the other two major errors I made and lessons I learned:

  1. I created a story about Kate and stopped seeing the person.
  2. I completely underestimated what Kate referred to in a recent analysis as “the habitual dance steps that are really just muscle memory.”  She pointed out “that we can be more conscious of moving away from” them, but first you have to see them for what they are — really bad habits, as quick as muscle memory.