I was talking to my sister Sheila a trained social worker, about the cover of this week’s TIME: “Why Mom Liked You Best: The Science of Favoritism.” I asked her what she thought it meant for leadership. “Everything,” she said. “I think it’s present in every workplace, as people vie to be ‘closest to daddy.’” I was surprised by the swiftness and wide sweep of her reply. I didn’t disagree. It got me to thinking about something I’d wanted to re-educate myself on, so I went online to check it out.
In Genesis, Chapters 1, 2 and 3 each describe an event: God creates the world, then creates Adam and Eve, then they mess up and God banishes them. The story I sought begins Chapter 4, a terse, tragic, and peculiar account. Eve gives birth to Cain, then later to Abel. The older works the field; the younger tends flocks. When they bring their gifts of sacrifice, God chooses Abel’s. Cain was “angry” and his face “downcast.” God tells him not to worry, just to do what’s right (warning that if he doesn’t, sin will be out to get him). Cain promptly invites brother Able for a walk to the field where he kills him. Yeesh! The first kids, first story, and first murder – all wrapped up in 200 words.
Sheila, TIME, and Genesis can’t all be wrong. This sibling rivalry stuff is big. “So, what are the implications for leadership?” I asked Sheila again. She said “leaders need to emphasize collaboration over competition.” I liked that. Jennifer weighed in that she didn’t see such fierce competition on her team. Sheila suggested it would be hard for her to know, because if the hypothesis was right, they’d all be on their best behavior “in front of mom.” Jen nodded, and Sheila added, “A leader needs to keep their finger on the pulse.” Jen agreed, adding, “Yes, you need a good deputy.” My niece Isabelle opined, “A leader needs good spies in the field.” All good ideas, given the ubiquity of sibling rivalry: Be sure your data sources are good and rich, and stress collaboration.
To me, it’s more radical, however. Because I don’t see Adam and Eve, Sheila’s boss, Jennifer, or your boss as “the leader.” In our world I believe we need to reshape our view and instead expect that everyone can and must lead. The only way we become adult, complete humans is that we take responsibility for others, moving out of parent-child relationships to adult-adult relationships. In other words: We lead. We are all leaders. In China, Hu Jintao may be able to say, “this is what we’re all going to do,” but in our country, freedoms, checks and balances, and critical thinkers and media all mean that power will not easily flow top-down. And if we’re going to compete, it can’t be top-down; instead we need everyone’s talent, creativity, commitment, passion, collaboration and follow-through. In my humble opinion, the only way this country competes is that we stop expecting Barack, Rick Snyder, Warren Buffet or Steve Jobs to fix things. Mom and Dad DIDN’T fix everything, and neither will they.
Sure, those in authority have tools to release or thwart the universal leadership I’m talking about, but the responsibility and opportunity essentially belongs to each of us. Bosses can vigilantly watch for and diminish sibling rivalry, expressed as boss-pleasing behavior or fratricidal politics. But maybe it’s more important that everyday leaders – the siblings themselves – act to empower each other and quit trying to please “mom” or “dad.” Instead each of us can and ought build up a new generation of leaders to meet the challenges all about us.
You’ve got to lead side-to-side if you’re going to
Lead with your best self,