How to Lead a Subordinate to Become a Partner – Part 2

Paired Leadership — 3rd in a series — 

This series is written for people who can imagine that creating a PARTNERSHIP with a key report (or child or student) might generate much better results and much more satisfying relationships than “managing down.”   What I call “Paired leadership” or partnership is mysterious, but when we take it apart, we can put it back together in amazing new ways.  The following paragraph is a summary-reminder of what I wrote about last week. If your memory is better than mine, just skip to the last sentence of that paragraph for the encapsulated summary.

In last week’s Reading for Leading, I wrote about my years of failure at empowering and partnering with my daughter Kate, from the time she was toddling until she was about 20.  In short, I described how I reacted to her challenging behavior in ways that only heightened the impasses and difficulties. I am writing about family — in a largely business oriented blog – because it not only mirrors our work-related top-down, hierarchical relationships, but because it actually forms the psychic foundation on which work-related relationships exist.  So, for instance, if you experienced authority at home as arbitrary and punitive, you will likely bring those expectations and guardedness into the workplace; whereas, if you were given great freedom and respect at home, you will likely expect something like that at work.  My point (confession) last week was that far from treating Kate like a partner and an equal, I responded to her challenges with defensiveness; against my best self, I “put down” her rebellions (only to have them arise again).  

The question I left you with was:  Why?  Why did I — and why do other parents, teachers, managers —  respond in such an unproductive, unsatisfying and sometimes bruising way?  What went so wrong?  Why was I not able to “lead with my best self?”  What was going on?!!!  Thanks to those who weighed in with comments last week: David, Jon, Kenny and Kevin (hmmm, no female commentators?).

I made four big mistakes, two of which, I will point to today:

  1. I grossly misunderstood the power I had.
  2. I took her behavior personally.

I grossly misunderstood my power.  It’s a wacky mystery, but people in power forget they have power, and they completely forget how powerless it can feel like for the kid or new employee!!!* They act — I act — like we have to demonstrate control, have to prove something.  Prove what?  It’s already proven!  Do we for a minute think a four-year-old, eight year-old, 12, 14, or 20 year-old does not know that we have the power?  As parent or boss, you have the checkbook, power to reward or punish, power to shine the spotlight of praise or embarrassment upon them.  Yet how often are we guilty of what Sundance sarcastically said to Butch Cassidy, “do you think you used enough dynamite there Butch?” when we correct, chastise, or give “the look.”  The lesson I continually learn:  Never forget the perceived feeling they rightly have, that they lack power.

The second lesson: don’t take it personally.  I began — very early on with Kate — to make the enduring and disastrous leadership mistake:  I took it personally.  I made it about me, not about her (though I said it was all about her).  A powerful part of my brain took her behavior personally. Some (over-active, not-quite-conscious) part of my brain said, “I feed her, I clothe her…and I get this?!”  A part of my brain said, “My parents wouldn’t have put up with this for 2 minutes; what kind of fool am I?” A part of my brain said, “The neighbors and relatives will think Jennifer and I are terrible parents, if our daughter keeps doing s— like this.”  And, “If I don’t show her who’s boss, she’ll never learn!” Further, this part of my brain catastrophized, saying “she will cause me (her family, and herself) pain and embarrassment for her whole life.”  Then, when she had a sister and brother, a new voice chimed in: “This can’t be my fault, because the other kids don’t push back like this all the time.”

I took it personally, and the story I told was exceedingly simple, four words long:  I, victim.  Kate, attacker.

Note that every one of those lines my brain fed me has a corollary in the manager-direct report relationship:  “Does she forget that I hired her and gave her a chance.”  “I would never talk to my boss the way he talks to me.” “She’s going to embarrass our whole division.” “He goes into meetings and acts like he’s the boss.”  Look at how we turn ourselves into the victim!

I felt attacked (though I did not see this at the time).  I felt threatened.  By this toddler, child, adolescent?  Well, it felt that way, but the real fuel that was used to ignite my brain cells into a 4-alarm fire came from an inner character.  Kate’s behavior was just the spark, the flint.  The part of my brain that she lit up was my own inner critic, exploding beneath the surface of my awareness, “You’ve lost control. You’re worse than your own parents. You suck at this.”

Kate was NOT trying to attack me.  (And your challenging employees are not interested in attacking you.) Kate was trying to be seen, understood, accepted.  But I turned her into a threat.  Made it about me.

My “inner critic” took her challenges as proof of my ineptness, shortcomings, defectiveness, and hypocrisy as the “leadership expert.”  I wrote every week about “leading with your best self,” but I managed to lead with my worst self in the most important role I had.  In the worst trick of my human nature — unable to deal with my inner critic and self-loathing — I neither saw Kate’s behavior as a plea for understanding and acceptance, nor, did I see my reaction as my inner critic going wild on me, and in turn her.  Instead, I created a story that Kate was the attacker . . . and I only attacked back.  I was (in the) “right,” — a terrible addiction that blinded me to what was really happening.


So, how in partnership do we “lead with our best self?”  Recognize the power you do have.  And recognize the challenge isn’t personal, but you almost certainly will make it personal!  Your real battle is not with the challenger-partner, but with your own inner critic.

Maybe this week we can NOT take it personally.  Not create a story that’s “all about me.”  But instead look to see their needs, hopes, ideas, striving, as we

Lead with our best self.


*Sadly, our president-elect seems a poster child for this type of insecurity-of-the-authority figure run amok.  He takes everything personally, as if he hasn’t yet realized he is elected to be President of the United States of America.  I say this not so much to criticize Trump, but to say, “I get it.”  I’ve felt attacked too, despite having way more relative power than a child, student, or employee.

**Next week I will discuss the other two major errors I made and lessons I learned:

  1. I created a story about Kate and stopped seeing the person.
  2. I completely underestimated what Kate referred to in a recent analysis as “the habitual dance steps that are really just muscle memory.”  She pointed out “that we can be more conscious of moving away from” them, but first you have to see them for what they are — really bad habits, as quick as muscle memory.


  • Fascinating today…from a parent perspective and that of a subordinate. I would be blessed to know more about Kate’s “recent analysis as “the habitual dance steps that are really just muscle memory.” She pointed out “that we can be more conscious of moving away from” them, but first you have to see them for what they are — really bad habits, as quick as muscle memory.” if it was available to share.

    Thank you for your transparency and helping us all lead, from where ever God has placed us!

  • An interesting blog – thank you, Dan! My own lesson on not realizing how much power I had was linguistic – what I said as an administrator was heeded far more than I would have anticipated, especially coming from a faculty role where everyone talks and, at least in functional departments, consensus is highly valued! It took a while to learn to weigh every comment since I had become, like it or not, the voice of authority.

  • Dan, I found the past two blogs very interesting and definitely applicable down here in Panama, particularly the part about how our own self doubt can manifest into behaviors that are truly detrimental to relationships. Luckily so far that has not happened but it is something I am constantly aware of. People in my community look to me for answers and solutions but I, nor anybody else on the planet has ALL the answers. The second I feel that I am receiving any form of advice or constructive criticism, I am immediately thinking “these men are older than me, they have lived here longer, my Spanish isn’t any good, who thought I was qualified for this job because I don’t know all the answers to their questions” and those thoughts very quickly lead to reclusiveness, defensiveness, a general bad attitude, and to the “shutting out” of members of the community. With the nature of my work I rely heavily upon partnerships because while I may have the engineering degree, I have never lived in the campo before. I can crunch the numbers but if I’m just going to get lost in the jungle trying to find the water tank, what good am I? Both of these things, the insecurities and the reliance on partnerships had pushed me to try and enter every conversation/meeting/work day with my work partners with a whole lot of honesty about what I do and do not know and what I can and can not do. It makes me feel like I am being more useful to them and it makes me 1000 times more relaxed. I can’t speak as a parent but I definitely felt at times when I was younger, instead of honesty in regards to what they knew and did not know, my parents simply didn’t have the conversation. “Because I said so…” was a phrase used pretty often. In those instances, a lot of times I feel like their would have been the opportunity to have an honest discussion but instead the lack of transparency just fueled my rebellion.

  • Hi Dan,
    What a powerful blog (I missed the previous one and will go back and read it now). The reminder to not take things personally is so important. I am sorting through the muck I’ve been walking through as I’ve tried to build bridges with Trump supporters in my family. It’s hard not to take things personally when so many derogatory things Trump said were directed toward woman (like me) and others I love and work to support. AND taking things personally has NOT allowed me to have civil conversations. My anger flares, my body shakes, my blood pressure spikes…all things that are not helpful. I am trying hard to stand in the place of not taking it personally and have been unsuccessful so far. Knowing it my head and feeling it in my heart are two different things. Any tips or suggestions?

    • Mary,
      Thanks for sharing this real scenario about trying to “partner” with people when there are HUGE differences.
      First, good for you for recognizing what’s going on. I think it’s important to honor — yet not get swept away — in your feelings. The sense that you (and your tribes, and your strongly felt values, which constitute you) have been hurt and offended. Almost all progressives I know feel this way, and feel it on this day. These are legitimate feelings. Let yourself have them! And let others support you in your grief or sadness or righteous indignation. These are the (wonderful) burdens of being you and caring.
      Second, recognize that these feelings that are very hard for Trump supporters to understand and accept. This is so because (a) THEY feel like victims, “I victim, Dems attackers.” So, it’s hard for them to hear your feelings as not repudiating their feelings, values and beliefs. All too often, whether father-daughter or dem-republican, we feel a zero-sum and feel that others thoughts and feelings are a direct attack on us. It’s hard for us to be humble and admit this; that we FEEL attacked, scared, hurt or angry. It’s easier to say, “she’s an idiot,” or “he’s an asshole.” (b) I don’t mean to DEmean R’s, but many of my conservative friends tend to want to deny the emotional aspect of things. So, they really BELIEVE their arguments, and really believe there is a zero-sum. They find it especially hard to step back and admit that they have feelings of guilt (e.g, about race issue) or fear (about losing control).
      So, what is one to do, Mary? Feel your feelings. Share your feelings. Inquire about theirs. Let them know you hear them. Appreciate their view. Ask them if they can ADD a different perspective, a different angle, and that you’re not asking them to give up their whiteness, maleness, right-ness, Christianity, or what other parts of them seem caught up in the struggle. Ask them what they hear in what you’re saying.
      I don’t know if it helps YOU at all, but it helps me as I keep trying to think about how to partner with those who are different. I know I have to give up the illusion that people will fall to their knees and thank me and repent and become just like me :-). That’s exaggerated, of course, but not hard from the childish or child-like illusions that are harbored deep in my unconscious.
      Best to you!

      • Dan,
        Thanks for taking time to respond to my message. I appreciate the validation of my feelings and the suggestions on ways to move forward. I’m going to be doing a lot of breathing and self care…and I really want to learn how to listen and respond when the stakes are high. Thanks for your help. Mary

  • Dan, I hope that you and yours are having a wonderful New Years! I’m sorry I have been neglecting Reading For Leading, I have been listening to the audio just not commenting. Great that you and your daughter’s relationship have improved. It’s nice to see families who are close because so many are not.
    I resented my dad bc I watched him beat on my mom growing up and also he would french kiss me when I kiss him.
    I admire you and your wife. You two are successful, intelligent, and kind hearted. You two are beautiful people. (You have beautiful kids too.) Whenever I seen you and the governor in person you were very kind to me but I damaged that on Twitter because I’m an idiot. I be more like a republican than a democrat. A spoiled republican. I have been trying to stay off of social media don’t want to be like a Trump. It is very hard to think of this man as my president.
    My son, he was a handful at age four every Sunday trying to get him out of the vehicle and take him Inside of the local church. OMG. I would always be thinking why me this is embarrasing, kicking and screaming-him not me. He was fine once inside and the pastor would tell me it was okay if someone don’t like it don’t worry about it.
    I’ll end here, I hope that you all have a great year, Dan! Tell the governor congratulations on the CNN move. P

  • You’re rolling along really well . . .I’m taking note . . . thinking of the people I can send this to . . . and then . . . you attack our nation’s president???? You need to stick to leadership and leave the political comments off. I had almost forgotten your left leaning. As Jeff Daniels clearly stated while playing Will McAvoy, “You know why people don’t like liberals? Because they loose.” and to expand on that . . . they are poor loosers. They talk about love and peace and then when they loose they burn limousines and smash windows of liberally owned businesses. Stick to leadership, Dan. Leave your political views out of your dialogue.

    • I appreciate that you appreciate some of what I’ve written.

      As far as attacking the President in my footnote, let’s talk about it.

      One explanation is I’m a liberal looser (loser). I’ll have to keep asking myself if that is true. Another explanation is that I write about leadership, and he occupies a very visible place from which we can all see leadership — good and bad. If you don’t believe as I wrote, that he, like I, gets defensive at times, then you and I don’t agree about what we are seeing. If you don’t agree that he seems to be the poster-child for defensive behavior, then how do you explain his behavior through his spokesperon on his very first day in office? He took it personally. He took personal offense that the factual reporting of turnout numbers was not to his liking. Heck, he takes SNL personally, and it’s comedy, a joke.
      And this is EXACTLY the point I’m making.

      Do you think Reagan, Bush(es), or Nixon would react so defensively? I don’t think so. As Mario Cuomo once told me in an interview, when you are governor, you are “wearing a suit. People aren’t asking for your autograph big nose [his name for himself]. They’re asking for the autograph of the Governor of New York. And as long as you’re governor, as long as you’re wearing that suit, it’s your duty to give them your autograph.” [closely paraphrased from an interview] So, in good times — with adulation — and in bad — when criticized — a leader is cautioned to not take things personally. President Trump could be so much more effective if he could see this.
      My point is that we can see with bright lights in Trump’s defensiveness our own tendency to feel attacked. That’s valuable to see — as long as we don’t think it’s only his problem.

      After all, maybe with this reply I am guilty of just what I’m accusing him of — taking your comment personally :-). That’s humorous to be sure and probably more true than I’d like to admit.

      But why, as a student of leadership, would I not make this obvious point? It’s beautiful in our democracy that I have absolutely NO FEAR of making a political point. This is a great country, isn’t it?!!

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