Just What Does it Mean to Lead With Your Best Self?

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I have been signing-off Reading for Leading for 15 years with the line “lead with your best self.” What do I mean by that? And, more importantly, what do you take from it?

Here is perhaps the acid test of leading with your best self. A story. I moved back to Detroit when I was 28. Ten years earlier, I had left for college, then run a neighborhood center in New Orleans, gone to law school, and returned, impassioned to make a difference in my home city. I really thought I knew a lot, and I  wanted to challenge the way things were running which, at the same, seemed abysmal. I got a great job in county government, got active in school board politics, and was reaching out to find out how I could contribute. Somebody told me I should meet with  Detroit’s director of parks and recreation; he was a minister, a great guy, I was told. And he agreed to have lunch with me.

I remember that I was confrontative. I wondered, perhaps rudely, how he could deal with the city’s seeming complacency, as more people moved out, racial animosities continued to divide us, schools were being closed, and crime was the only consistent thing going. He din’t take the bait, never got defensive. All he did was encourage me! All he did was ask me my thoughts and opinions. All he did was calmly explain what he and others were trying to accomplish and ask what I thought and how I could help. His kindness disarmed me. His intellectual curiosity kept me from maintaining my judgmental attitude and arrogance. That was in 1988.

I was lucky enough to have my life thread in and around Dan Krichbaum’s for the next 26 years. I am still terribly shook that he was hit by two strokes — and died last week. I honestly can’t imagine Detroit and Michigan and the world without him.

If you were lucky enough to know Dan, then you would have experienced the leadership litmus test in person. Dan “led with his best self.” And just what was that chemical-litmus effect that he seemed to always have? When you were exposed to Dan, you walked away closer to YOUR best self.

How did he do that? Lead in that way? I think Dan’s gift was two-fold: Kindness and genuine curiosity. He was a widower who had raised 4 young children on his own; I think that opened his heart, humbled him and gave him deep gratitude. After 30 years with his second wife Susan, he seemed around her like a newlywed. She seemed to lead with her best self and to uplift him in turn.

Dan did big stuff. Ran the Interfaith Roundtable. Was director of the State Department of Civil Rights, earned a PhD, was a pastor. He served as my wife’s chief operating officer when she was Governor. He did big stuff.

And while he did, he made you feel like you were big stuff. My last lunch with him a couple years ago he kept saying, “I think you have something really big in you. You’re on to something.”

Find somebody today, and be kind, and see their greatness, and you’ll — like Dan so often did — be

Leading with your best self.