Anna Led With Her Best Self


I told my students in the very first week of January:  “I am not THE leader in here.  Anyone and everyone can lead. This is, a class about leadership, so lead.” In my crazy view, life itself should be that class where we strive to get everyone – to lead – to invite, inspire, encourage, and enable others to do the things that only they can do.*

So I begin with a question:  Do you explicitly tell your students, staff, children, congregants who “report” to you that you want them to lead?  It’s darned hard, because most have been profoundly socialized to think:  “that’s your job.”

I also told my law students:  This is a laboratory to observe how leadership and authority work; so experiment and observe! They observed and most experienced genuine confusion when I didn’t clarify everything perfectly as their teachers have done for most of their 17-20 years in school. Like prisoners who stay in their cell even when the door has been opened, they ventured out slowly.  But like fish thrown back from the boat, most looked stunned for a time, but then found their natural strength. By the end last week, I was thrilled at the output: students reviewing each other’s papers, online posts with awesome links to YouTube and leadership articles, and even a class-wide charitable giving project. Think of what  a waste of resources it would have been – given my class with young lawyers from Australia, Turkey, Japan, Greece, Mexico, Germany, Denmark, and Georgia — if had played the Shell Answer Man, the Oracle, the Font of wisdom.  Can you imagine the richness when we talked about the intersection between the market and governments, given this array of international experience!   None of us wanted the class to end – me least of all, as follower every bit as much as leader.

Then there was Anna from Australia.  From ten minutes into that first class in January, she leaped out of the confining role of follower-student. She volunteered to do the lecture on leadership and the free market. She changed the course of classroom conversations as though she were the teacher. She unabashedly queried the class, “Why are the online forums such a flop?” and then she convinced me to alter the grade/reward system in order to heighten the participation and quality of those online discussions. Other students built an accountability system and discussions skyrocketed. Why was she so motivated, so comfortable throwing away “the” leader and instead leading?

This to me is THE most important leadership question:  How do we unleash the Anna in all of our followers?  They need not show up as BIG, bold a–kicking leadership like Anna did.  (Indeed, I may write about Jackie next week whose leadership was so quiet, some might think it wasn’t leadership at all.)  Here are some of my thoughts – to prime your thoughts, actions and comments — on how it happens:

  1. You acknowledge the heck out of each individual for their “small” wins.
  2. You publicly celebrate their initiative and leader-like accomplishments.
  3. You constantly – until you’re sick of it – invite and expect people to reach beyond!
  4. You help people set goals that push them to reach beyond.
  5. In every way you can you let them know it’s safe to try and to fall short.
  6. You believe they can lead and continually build your faith in them.
  7. You continually create and point out opportunities for them to lead.

What do you think is most important?  I invite you to think about someone on your team, in your family, or in your classroom who’s snug in the great vast and passive middle of the bell curve.  How might you nudge them to risk 

Leading with their best self?!


* Paraphrasing Ronald Heifetz of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

  • I often have a unique perspective on life, and some might say I’m a pessimist. However, I have found that many of these things are said out loud at my places of employment, but what actually is acknowledged/rewarded/celebrated is exactly the opposite. For example:

    “You acknowledge the heck out of each individual for their “small” wins.” – “Small” LOSSES are acknowledged with much greater frequency than “small” wins. I have been told that “small” wins are “why you get paid” and should not be celebrated.

    “In every way you can, you let them know it’s safe to try and to fall short.” – …if you are willing to justify why you wasted your time…if you are willing to accept less than meeting expectations because nothing “positive” came out of your risk…

    “You believe they can lead and continually build your faith in them.” – …but only if management agrees with your leadership style…

    I have repeatedly (and in retrospect, naively) taken these concepts at face value, and I have repeatedly found myself in trouble for working above my pay grade, challenging the people who should not be challenged, trying to show leadership/influence outside my department, etc. It is very frustrating because it feels like the message I hear is that I can lead as long as management tells me it is okay to do so. In my experience, being unique and being open to others’ perspectives is only celebrated if it is his perspective (and not “one of the other cooks in the kitchen”). It is also better to challenge folks who have less power than do you.

    Any thoughts or advice?

  • I appreciated the 7 points given to motivate people to lead. I intend to try some of them on myself– e.g. # 4, set goals that push me to reach beyond.

    But number 5, “let them know it’s safe to try and fall short” — that may be true in a classroom situation, but it seems like it’s not safe– or comfortable–anywhere to fall short if you are the leader or trying to be. It is probably a huge opportunity for growth, though.

    Also, I appreciate Otis’s comments above. Maybe you are talking about a paradigm shift, Dan, where encouraging leadership does not challenge (or threaten) the status quo. A company that encourages leadership would be a great company to work for!

    • Veronica,

      Thanks for your comment. Yes, the paradigm shift you talked about is EXACTLY what I talked about. Sometimes things like this make so much sense, I forget I have to argue for them 🙂

      I have worked with firms that have “mistake of the month” awards and/or invite people to present on mistakes they have made. So often, as individuals and companies, our mistakes teach us more than our successes.

      Great people and great companies aren’t trying to prove they’re perfect, they’re working to get a little less imperfect :-).


  • Otis,
    Thanks for one of the most candid and unfortunately real comments I’ve read in this space. I’ve been stewing on it for a couple days. Here are my quick thoughts:
    1. I was writing for those in authority who believe, as Kouzes/Posner write about the paradox of power, “we become most powerful when we give our own power away.” I was suggesting ways that people in authority who understand this multiplier effect can promote it. Some authority figures, as you point out, just don’t get that. They think their job is to control, be smarter than everyone, maintain order, etc.
    2. As you develop your intuition and experience around how authority figures respond, I would recommend that you do everything you can to look for bosses who are secure enough in themselves and have a view of their organization through which they believe that candor, openness, and challenge are GOOD things. Regardless of that:
    3. Some of those frustrating features of authority discussed at the end of #1 above are necessary and in the right measure they are good. Things like order and clear boundaries CAN help people to work (and keep the tensions down among people). So, it’s important for you and me and others who follow to try to understand the pressures on authority figures (as well as their values and style). So, for instance, I could “yell” at my wife the governor that she should tell x, y or z to go-to-you-know-where, but she had pressures on her that made that impossible. She had to live with those adversaries (or pressuring friend) and live with the fallout. So I had to try to anticipate and understand “where she was coming from.” Often the mistake people make in “managing up” is that they really don’t see the full systemic picture, e.g., budget constraints, legal constraints, political give and take, all of which make it hard for authorities to throw open the doors to input. Similarly, some authorities really need control (yet they can speak as though they are an open book); so it’s important to test the waters before you go diving in.
    I hope these thoughts help to extend your thinking. It sounds like you really come wanting to make a difference and contribute. Stay at it!!!

  • Dan,

    What about the oft used maxim “put your money where your mouth is”? If Anna leads/teaches the class does she either receive a tuition reduction or a bit of your salary?

    Just kidding cuz, very interesting article, especially in the light of Governor Brown asking the press for suggestions in making his budget cuts (including state university tuition rises).

    Could people in power/authority be more wider in chosing their advisors and include a devil’s advocate who reminds him/her that they are NOT the sole font of knowledge?

    Love to all

  • Dan,

    I want to thank you for writing each and every Monday!!! Each Reading for Leading has inspired me to constantly seek ways to jump out of my comfort zone and try new ways to be a leader in my work, social and personal lives!!!! I want to congratulate Anna for taking the challenge and the leap seriously and exceling as a natural born leader!!!! I hope her efforts and the efforts of every student in your class were well recognized and help to inspire other classmates and readers to never give up on Leading with Their BEST Self!!!!

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