Bosses: Check the Wiring

I took a big step for me on Sunday, leading up. Next week, I’ll share why it wasn’t so easy, and why it might shed a little light for you, as you lead up.

Today I want to tell the story and extract two lessons for people in positions of authority.

My wife Jennifer and I (see below if you need background on her*) were driving to a (progressive) community conversation for which she had been asked to kick things off by talking about “what gave her hope” after November. She asked if she could kick some ideas off me, a role we serve for each other on a frequent basis. We are complements and value what each typically offer: She sees out, goes broadly and strategically, and she finishes.  I tend to go in, go deep and theoretical, and open new possibilities (Myers-Briggs aficionados might see an ENTJ and INFP).

Without any premeditation I pushed back on her request for me to play sounding board. With an edge in my voice that surprised and confused me, I said, please don’t take offense but I might have as much or even more to say on the topic than you do, so would you consider introducing me to comment publicly?  How about if we “lead by two?” I asked, referring to my intellectual passion and coaching pursuit, about which she is well aware.) I added – not liking myself as I did so, and stinging her – that after all, she was one of the progressive politicians who missed out on fully grasping the American scene.  Might it not be good to hear from someone who had a perspective that was different than the prevailing right-left quagmire, I asked?  There was tension hovering in our new Ford C-Max Energi as we headed towards Sonoma.

I want to make two points about this, then tell you what happened.

Point 1: Roles are ridiculously powerful in how they shape our interactions. We are over-wired with deference to authority. Though Jennifer and I are radically and blessedly equal and respectful towards each other, it was incredibly hard for me to ask that we lead by two. Even as I sounded rebellious, I felt disrespectful, arrogant, like “who-elected-you, who-invited-you, hot shot?”  To put it differently:  submissiveness is built into our authority structures. “Followers” — even when they are respected staff members at the table, or in my case, a spouse, are wired for deference, whether that is beneficial or, quite frequently:  not. Therefore:

Point 2: Authorities need to promote others, to make it safe, to encourage them to come forward.  For example, I invited a young associate two weeks ago to present part of a big public speech I had been hired to give in San Diego. He did and he killed it. Afterwards, more people wanted to talk to him than to me. If I had only seen things like age, roles (I was the professor, he’d been “just” a student of mine), experience, etc., and if I could not get past my ego-identification with being The Big Speaker, I would never have let him do that. But which of us was more likely to be compelling on the topic of Millennials – a 59-year old or a 30-year old?

If you’re the boss, do you really need to chair every staff meeting? If you’re the pastor, do you really need to preach at the main service every week? A quick and positive story:  I was “onboarding” a new CEO three weeks ago with the CEO’s #2 (who had been the other finalist for the CEO job). #2 made it clear that they were 100% comfortable being the support to #1!  And in the course of our 2-day retreat, #2 shared a few stories about the organization that inspired #1 and me close to the edge of tears. Man, was #2 compelling!  I was so impressed when #1 said, “You have to tell these stories. People have to hear these stories!” #1 did not allow his position (or his ego) to trump #2’s extraordinary personal passion and persuasiveness. What a brilliant and confident leader to enable and empower their “follower.”

Conclusion to my story: My wife readily agreed to share the stage. Her ego is so solid and balanced.  She is generous sharing power.  And she saw the value of my yin to her yang.  The sponsors and a number of others said they greatly appreciated hearing my view as well as Jen’s.

Yes, there is a HUGE place for a single orienting leader, but such leaders do well to model the work of my client #1 and my #1 person in the world, Jennifer. As Kouzes and Posner write, “Credible leaders accept and act on the paradox of power. We become more powerful when we give our power away.”

If you’re a Boss, how might you empower # 2 (and 3 and 4) this week, today?

Next week, I will reflect more on leading from the #2 position in hopes that it may help you to

Lead with your best self.

*Jennifer (Granholm) was two-term governor of the State of Michigan (2002-2010).


  • Really good one.

    Ending was kind of a surprise. One could see this dialogue really going off the rails.

    • Paul,
      I hear you! In years gone by, it would likely have gone off the rails as you put it! The car would have gotten super quiet, uncomfortably so with each of us in some mixture of hurt/anger/fear/sadness and not wanting to make it worse. (Hippocrates was no dummy: First, do no harm. Or, stop the bleeding!) Yes, it could have gone off the rails.
      I’m curious about the phenomenon that happens when a person keeps a complaint down. There are multiple reasons why it’s kept down: First, because often we don’t even let ourselves know we’re upset. That was true in this case. When I started talking to Jen, I really didn’t know where it was going! Second, they/I may do so because I don’t want to hurt my student, colleague, or in this case spouse by being demanding. AND my silence is also caused by (perhaps more 🙁 ) my fear that if I get demanding or mad, they will either respond with FIGHT or may FLEE me. So…it gets clamped down within the iceberg.
      Then here’s the really weird thing that so often drives it off the rails: It takes so much effort to get one’s voice past one’s cautious censors that it ends up coming out like a geyser. The other person gets burned. But I’m also a huge mystery to myself: Where in the world, I think, did THAT come from?! But at the same time, it’s like, once I have opened up my wound, need, etc., that has been denied for all this time, well the Robin Williams genie is out of the lamp!!!
      I think a lot of our dads (from the 50s-70s) were like this. They held stuff down – their frustrations from work, fears about making ends meet, guilt about their wife doing so much of the hard work, and just exhaustion — and they held it down. And then they had a couple beers…
      We are such a mystery!
      Always love hearing from you!

  • Very good article, Dan. And, a leadership philosophy that I totally believe in – – I keep telling the young leaders that I’m here for them, and I’m ready to have them do the leading!

    • Jackie, from watching you from afar, I always had the sense that you were that kind of GREAT educator. One who “educed” learning, from the Latin (and earlier roots of “duc”) to lead OUT. To draw out!

  • What a powerful message for not only the professional, but personal areas of leadership. While Kouzes and Posner say it very well, another favorite of mine is that 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.”

    • Yes, Yes, Yes, Sally. Yet so much of our basic systems pull the leader to be the opposite of this Lao Tzu ideal. Trump is a near-caricature of this where everything seems to point to HIM! Jennifer and I laugh at this in ourselves, as we’ll say, “Okay, but let’s get to the part about me.” It’s so human, and yet we can rise above it. Great thanks to the Lao Tzu’s and K & P’s who help point us in that way.

  • I love this post, Dan. Especially after I finally read your book “A Governor’s Story.” I enjoyed reading about the ways you supported each other through some pretty incredible challenges.

    While I read your book, I wondered how you are processing the election results – and the rising to power of some of your former Nemesises. I would have treasured being at the talk you “lead by two”. (Did you record it?)

    I hear talk about how the Democratic Party hasn’t quite risen to the task of learning from the November defeat. I don’t know if that’s true – I DO know that transformation is a process. I also know that everyone in my world is being remade by the experience.

    The Paradox of Power. I love it.

    • Meryl,
      Maybe one day you and I WILL write a book together as we nearly did. What about calling it LISTEN Strong?
      I was so impressed when I was with Tom Perez, the new head of the DNC (and a former roommate in law school), as he listened to a group of millennials. I mean he LISTENED — the whole time. I am enthused that he is listening to the “Bernie wing” and that in fact he and Bernie — as well as he and Keith Ellison — are Leading by Two.
      That’s my biggest hope!

  • Dan,

    Thanks for sharing such an inspiring story. And thanks for reminding me to inlcude and develop my XO and other memebrs of the team. I remember the first time I was asked to lead a briefing. I was fearful, as I was such a rookie, but the experience helped me grow as a future leader. Thank you!

    • Raul,
      I, too, vividly remember when the County Executive asked me to handle all the media questions at a press briefing on juvenile policy. It was transformative in so many ways.

  • Loved this one, Dan – and I had no doubt of the ending before I read it. 🙂 This was very timely for me – thank you!!

  • I found this article very enlightening. It is sometimes tough to lead by example, but I try. Thank you for reminding us that real leaders do share the spot light and more than that, they encourage the taking of the reins.

  • On roles being powerful, when our kids were small and learning about the world by observation, they picked up from Star Trek the Next Generation that there were commanders and obeyers, it gets ingrained early.

    On Sally’s comment, a friend of mine describes leadership best as when people notice that good things happen when this person is around, the leadership is almost invisible.

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