Who Authorized You?


I am in the middle of an experiment in the course I am teaching to Masters in Public Policy students at Berkeley. I share this for two reasons that I hope you will find value in, and which I will explain in the 2 numbered paragraphs below. First, the experiments: I have long subscribed to Kouzes & Posner’s foundational statement that “credible leaders accept and act on the paradox of power: we become more powerful when we give our power away.”* I think I give away a lot more power than the average prof, but I am pushing the envelope nearly off the table this Fall. I invited the 5 small groups that comprise my class to each craft an engaging 25-minute presentation on one of Kouzes and Posner’s “five practices of exemplary leaders.” The first two rocked the lecture hall this past Thursday.

I have taught “inspiring a shared vision” to well over 100 groups over the past 10 years. But I still learned important nuances when 6 students presented on it. Equally important, I was more inspired by their presentation than I inspired myself, even on my most energized and compelling days. They moved both MY head and heart, and I am certain they were more effective communicating the concepts to their peers than I possibly could have been.

The week before I had experimented in a similar way — inviting them to probe and present Ronald Heifetz’ idea that leaders can sometimes solve problems with the combination of their power and a smart, technical solution (imagine a wall that solves everything). BUT many problems are not technical and instead require adaptive answers. These adaptations, Heifetz argues, cannot be given from above, but must be invented, struggled after, built by those who are part of (understanding) the problem and must be part of the solution if it is to work. One of the student participants who is in a joint MD/MPP program grabbed everyone’s attention. She explained that her MD cohort (which I imagined to be about 15 students) would remain in tact while different MD and/or PhD profs rotated through. She described in vivid detail how their group had established values and norms, e.g., students will rotate the task of deeply reading the preparatory materials, so profs should not “cold call” others but should address their questions to the appointed students. She proceeded to explain how the students would then politely but very firmly explain to a professor if the prof was violating their consciously created class learning norms. I was cheering inside at their proactivity, unity and courage.

Here are the two points I promised to extract from my own experiment:

    1. Organize your team of your peers and be responsible like those med students. What if ALL the reports said to their manager, “We are not going to tolerate name-calling,” or “We are all in disagreement with this personnel decision.” What would happen? Isn’t it amazing that we don’t even ask this question, don’t even imagine using OUR power? So…Would the boss discipline everyone? Wouldn’t it be fun watching him or her explain that to their boss? “Ms. Manager, my team is in complete rebellion, so I’d like to write them all up. Are you okay with that?” Imagine if everyone in the English Department went to the principal together, if everyone under the foreman said, “nope,” then what? What is key to such rebellions, of course, is that we talk as (everyday) leaders ought to — about mission, vision, values. If the manager is not attending to this leadership duty, then we should cherish it, and use it and our solidarity as leverage for necessary change. Heck if med students can do it . . .

    2. What if we owned our democracy in the same way as those med students? In other words, we talked to each other. What will OUR rules be for this “classroom” a.k.a, the ever-changing experiment called American democracy? Candidly, Trump as president terrifies me. I know others are terrified of Hillary. But what about US? Upon what will we insist? In a campaign that Trump’s name-calling (of Republicans, Democrats, immigrants, etc) has brought to a new low, how will we insist on an upward turnaround? I suggest we agree among ourselves that we will hold ourselves and our candidates to key principles: Transparency (on foundations, emails, taxes, holdings, etc., the whole bit). Civility: We will inquire and debate the ideas, not the human beings’ character and not name-calling. Seek win-win — in our arguments with each other, and in our policies. Act like adults, act together, and

    Lead with our best selves,

    * I highly recommend Kouzes & Posner’s The Leadership Challenge and
    Ronald Heifetz, Leadership Without Easy Answers.