POWER in Leading by Two: A breakthrough story – Part 1

When I first began writing about dyads – a phenomenon we describe as “leading by two” or LX2 – I was particularly focused on the what, i.e., special pairs who lead a whole organization. I have coached tens of these pairs: e.g., co-founders, CEO/COO, school president/principal, etc. And, in our work, we have realized that LX2 is not just a what, but also a how, or a way in which all successful pairs work. This “how …to be great” applies whether the dyad is a short or long term pair, and whether or not the pair are at the top – or any other place – in a hierarchy.  

And hierarchy always factors in.  

In the massive percentage of cases of LX2 pairs, the two people are not true equals. Instead, one is above the other in the system. Hierarchy is almost never discussed by these pairs. Instead, hierarchy is the mouse that skitters across the floor, and all too often, is the elephant sitting – or doing something worse – in the room. For example, the power of giving grades as a professor, is almost never discussed, but that power shadows every meeting in office hours, every email a student thinks to send, and every moment of classroom interaction.*  

Consider this illustrative story. In academia, tenured profs have enormous power over their grad students’ current research and teaching as well as their future job prospects. One of my grad student colleagues, let’s call her Dolores, is a scientist. In the sciences, the professor totally controls the lab as well as classroom teaching assignments. I found out quickly that Dolores now in her final year and well into her PhD dissertation, is a respectful and assertive “woman in STEM.” Months ago, she asked her head prof to allow her to have one of the two slots to teach the undergrad course in her core, specialized area of academic interest. The prof told her thanks and said it should work out. She and he had done research and published papers together. He later reneged. Through an email (cowardly and one-way) told her he had assigned the class to two other grad students (both women, by the way). 

The next day, Dolores told me she was furious. Because Dolores was my leadership teaching assistant, she and I had been talking a lot about coaching and management. She said she wanted to confront him, but she was concerned about all the power he still had over her. She decided to take the risk and asked him to explain how he had not honored his word. Though she knew he had serious power over her, in the heat of the discussion, she nevertheless told him what he did was “f-ed up” (she used this shorthand and not the f-word). When he said he was sorry that she would not have another semester to teach this class, she then asked why she hadn’t been given the opportunity before.  

The plot thickens in real life, as much as it does in the theater. 

He said that he had given the role to “Sam” the last time the course was taught, because he knew that she and Sam had broken up and they (he and another, male, prof) didn’t want to make it stressful for her to have to work with Sam. Imagine how she felt then!  

I stop to make three observations. First, this is what unconscious bias looks like! Where a man thinks a woman can’t handle (either professionally and/or personally) potentially charged situations. He patronizes her with his assumptions. Second, cringeworthy moments like this are, unfortunately, sometimes the only way people in power can learn. The learning is real, experiential and concerns them. And believe me, she learned him good! Third, it takes a LOT of courage to do what she did. Hierarchy looms over relationships, and she had so much at stake. This is courageous everyday leadership. This is LX2, where the one “below” has so much to lose and, simultaneously, so much to teach.  

Next week, I’ll tell you what Paul Harvey used to call, “the rest of the story.” Because this was only the beginning! But let it remind us to  

Respect and protect such powerful voices “from below,” who  

Lead with their best self.