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In a hurry? Skip to the last three paragraphs, however, know that this column heads in one direction before it turns down Linda Lane, where I profile an everyday leader and what I consider to be her extraordinary approach to leading people.
In my courses at Berkeley I teach the heart of everyday leadership. Students come into my classes thinking that authority and leadership are the same thing. They think that:
Having a position = Being a leader; and, by extension:
The higher the position…The greater the leader.
The majority write final papers that profess a different understanding:
Leadership is not a position but an activity.
It is the activity of engaging (with) people to solve problems and/or seize opportunities.
They leave as leaders. They see that despite their lack of position, or despite their introversion or their gentleness, their youth, immigrant status, IQ, or any other seeming mark of leadership, they can, will and do lead! They re-enter their worlds energized by a broader and deeper sense of purpose.
Linda Dishman was about as far as you could get from what these students used to consider a leader. She was born in the late 1930s to immigrant parents in the unenviable position as #3 daughter, and just ahead of #1 son, and with 3 more siblings to follow. She got no degree. In life, her titles commanded little respect and even less power; she was “mother,” “school secretary,” “grandma,” and, to me and 25 other lucky ones, she was “Aunt.”
When my wife ran for governor of Michigan, Aunt Linda sported a white t-shirt on which she had ironed-on Jennifer’s photo and the words “Vote for my niece.” Unbeknownst to her, all of Jen’s core strategy and comms team learned that everything we did should make sense to “Aunt Linda from Warren.” She was our avatar for the “average Michigan citizen” who cared about jobs, her grandkids’ schools, health care.
She died last month, beaten down by dementia.
At her memorial this past weekend, however, Aunt Linda from Warren, shone. Her five siblings, inlaws, friends, kids and grandkids, unaccustomed to speaking to crowds through a raspy microphone, rose to fete her. And every testimonial was sewn with the same one or two threads, borne out by words like, “Uncle Frank, you stole my line,” or “Rose, you said exactly what I was going to say!”
Everyday Leaders: Here were the two threads sewn through Aunt Linda’s amazing life and leadership. She was For Real. No airs. No faking. She shared her bawdy jokes indiscriminately. And shared her powdered almond cookies with janitor as well as the priest. She neither hid a worry, nor irritation, nor held back her jokes about Pollocks or her own people “us Dagos.” She wasn’t so real because she’d watched TED Talks on authenticity! She was real, because she knew she belonged. If I’m not mistaken, she told self-doubting little ones in the principal’s office, “God made you and God don’t make junk.” I am pretty sure that like all of us she had days or longer stretches when she deeply wondered whether she did belong or just where she fit in. Yet all the memories spun glowed with this silver thread of her unabashed uniqueness.
The second and golden thread in her leadership shawl, was this:
Linda led like God.* Really. Every single person who spoke at her memorial said, in one way or another, that Linda’s behavior called out to them: “I’m glad you’re here.”** I’m glad you’re here. Does Elon Musk say that? Does Donald Trump say that? Does the president of your school? The general manager of your office? Do you? Do you say it to the “middle child,” the wheelchair bound, the street dweller, the LatinX laborer, or…your spouse?
I find it a miraculous honor that people read my writing – which is half as good and three times as pretentious – as Aunt Linda’s pies. So, I say to you, as you might say to others,
“I’m so glad you’re here!”
*When I write of God, “mine” is a personal God, a Father, Brother, Mother, Sister. Living in California and long-exposed to other spiritual traditions, however, I also imagine G-d in other ways. Perhaps you do as well. I consider Aunt Linda being god-like in these varieties: Love always says, “I’m glad you’re here.” The sun in the morning on a beach in Florida, says, “I’m glad you’re here.” A cool breeze says, “I’m glad you’re here.” The Zen in-breath whispers “I’m glad you’re here.” The Zen out-breath says to the world, “I’m glad you’re here.”
**The quote-idea of “I’m glad you’re here” is not mine. In my older age and internet exposure to so many ideas, I cannot with certainty attribute it. But I believe it was from a meditation by Tara Brach, whom I heartily recommend for her body, mind and heart-opening meditations. You can find them at www.tarabrach.com
I agree that Linda is a leader, loved, and was loved. A question I have is why can Polish and Italians be called offensive terms but not other groups. One might think it is offensive to all groups because the treatment is not the same to all groups. Being called names has hurt my feelings and self-esteem. Maybe it toughened me up. It might be better not to be too protected.
I hear what you are saying. It’s not appropriate to label people, whatever their background. I didn’t mean to laud Aunt Linda’s choice of words; my point was that she was unvarnished (and also that she labeled her own people). There was a time when we valued informality, candor, and humor – especially when it was self-deprecating. Today, we are much more sensitive to the (mostly unintended) consequences of name-calling and stereotyping. In today’s context, Linda’s words were “politically incorrect” at best and hurtful at worst. As a society we are mostly choosing to err on the side of deference and care (and that seems right to me, as it does to you). I’m glad you raised the issue.
Lovely tribute. You forgot one thread – Aunt Linda loved to have fun! Something I am struggling to remember to do!
Good point! I guess someone needs to write a book (no! not another leadership book): Leadership and Laughter! Linda would be example one.
By the way, our friend Patricia Montemurri of Free Presss fame also noted in an email to me that Linda sounded like a social media maven before there was such a thing! She was a Connector in the Gladwell world.
Thanks for writing!
Beautiful Words, Danny. Made me cry.
That touched me. I try to live my life based on a bookmark my mom gave me – probably when I was a crabby teenager – “Make where you are better because you are there.” So, I realize that is half of it. The other half is being glad of the people you are “there” with. And making sure they feel that from me.
I just wrote done “I’m glad you are here.” At this stage at the endish of in my career with state government, I want my staff to know I’m glad they are here. Thanks for helping me be a better leader. I’m glad you’re here.
P.S. Tara Brach rocks.
I hope you’ll keep inspiring and encouraging your team. I will never forget facilitating a “vision and values” session with about 350 people from DHS. When I invited reactions to the governor’s vision, one gentleman stood up, and said, “My vision is me on a golf course,” and then asked, “Will your wife be giving early out’s?” I told him no, as Governor Engler had already incentivized so many senior employees to take a buyout. On reflection I thought, “It’s a little sad that his vision is to leave!” I recall that he looked to be in his early 60s. I think my dad’s last years were his BEST years at Ford. He had attained some wisdom and found great value in mentoring (as well as learning from) the younger people who were taking over. I hope you, too, have that great spirit – as indeed your message suggests you do!
Thanks for sharing you memory of your mom, which I am reading on Mothers Day!