Some advice fit for a king

I had the wonderful pleasure as the chair of the spouses of the National Governors Association to bring in my friend and mentor, Ronald Heifetz, who teaches leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.  I asked a few of the spouses what ideas from his speech they were going to share with their spouses.  Many said they were going to talk about his story about “the king.”  So, I’ll do my best to recite it here.
At a speech at the Kennedy School the young King Abdullah II of Jordan, who succeeded his father King Hussein in 1999 was asked by a mirthful student during Q & A: “Hey, what’s it like to be a king?”  King Abdullah answered that he had never expected to be king; he thought his uncle would succeed his father.  But as his father grew ill he told his son his intention.  And he gave the younger this advice: at the moment that you think you are king, you’re lost.  Heifetz takes from this the idea that those in authority – whether governor, first spouse, boss, teacher, or parent – would be wise to distinguish between their role and their self.  You are not the king, governor, principal, etc.  You are Joe, Mary, Bill who happens to be playing that role.
One might think that this is the point of the distinction:  be humble!  And there is something useful to that simple insight.  But Heifetz offers a more subtle and much more interesting implication.  He begins with this assumption:  much of the hard work that needs to be done can’t be done by the leader.  The leader-parent can’t grow up for the kid.  The coach can’t play for the team.  The CEO doesn’t assemble the car or sell it to a customer.  The lawyer can’t run the client’s business.  But, Heifetz says, at some profound but hidden level, people want “the king” to take care of all their problems.  And many of us who lead really want to solve all their problems!  We care about them, and we care about the work.  So there is a dangerous (largely unconscious) nexus:  they want you to solve their problems (or blame you if you can’t), and you want be the great and wise parent, boss, mayor, king!  So, they help make you think that you’re more than just your self — that you are your role.
So, if we think we are our role, we may lose our humility and think we have power, knowledge, or rights we really don’t.  And perhaps worse, we get tricked into failing to do the most important thing we need to do:  give the work back to the people who need to do it!  How much over-protecting are you doing to be the king of your family, team, or organization?  You’ve got to realize – and help them realize – that you’re not the king, if you’re going to:
Lead with your best self,

  • I think this is an excellent story. I think this happens all too often, where people in power forget who they are and only know themselves as their title. At the same time, I think many people also forget that leaders, managers, political leaders are only people as well. We associate so much with certain titles that we tend to forget that only people hold those jobs. All of us can only do so much, and remaining humble and having a sense of humility can do a lot to help us in our roles!

  • This column really resonated with me today, for a variety of reasons. 1) I have just returned from 2 weeks away from the office, working in an extremely different environment. To my delight, it appears that everyone “managed” just fine without me- which is not to say that I am not needed, but that people are able to manage their own work and don’t always need me to buffer them against other demands, internal and external. 2) As state government continues to shrink, through retirements and not filling positions of employees who move on, we must always be concerned about “transition planning”. How can leadership transitions ever occur if folks are not allowed to do their own work, to figure out how to take care of things, to have the opportunity to try different ways? Thanks for the reminder that becoming the role is not a becoming role.

    • Shelley,
      Great commment. In SOME — emphasis on SOME — corners of state government I think there has been a lack of openness and ability to just talk about how the work is going. It really does my heart so much good to read about someone who has their eyes wide open and is talking with candor about how we make things better and move things along. With many retirements coming you are dead-on: we need to build more and more capacity by enabling and empowering people to take on the varied tasks necessary to serve the people of the state. Thanks for your contributions.

  • Thank you for sharing these thoughts and comments. They are a wonderful way to start another work week which will be full of moments in which it would be easier to just do it rather that to facilitate a growing and learning experience for the people who need to do it. We not only need to provide opportunities for individuals and teams to participate but we must also ensure that each individual and team is fully empowered and fully engaged so that they may reach new heights of success. It is in the fully empowering and fully engaging that we must spend our time facilitating and nurturing. If we do this well, we build a strong and wider base of individuals who are primed and ready to make a difference. Thank you once again for information and comments worth spending the time to read, reflect upon and integrate into our work this week.

  • The young king understands that the work is done through the positive power of relationships, not position.

    Authentic leaders care, teach, affirm, champion, refine, stretch, lead, and love through personal example. They understand that leadership is a matter of influence, not position. People follow the leader because they want to, not because they have to. Positive leaders are excited, engaged, and intensely focused — they are passionate, and their passion is contagious.

    Winston Churchill said it well: “The key to your impact as a leader is your own sincerity. Before you can inspire with emotion, you must be swamped with it yourself. Before you can move their tears, your own must flow. To convince them, you must yourself believe.”

    Besides, people really do like their solutions better than your solutions and just need to be empowered to solve their own problems.

  • The king doesn’t have to be just an individual, the story also implies that our government…local, state, federal…can be considered “the king” too. Government at any level will fail its constituents if it assumes too much power, if it assumes it can handle everything. The citizens of the city, state, country must take encouraged and permitted to take responsibility…..for their own actions and lives.

    An example is Katrina. Everyone knew for 200 years that the levees would fail in a category 3 hurricane, but again and again repairs were ignored, money was diverted to other “more important” issues, homes were not insured, were built where they never should have been. New Orleans was a disaster waiting to happen, but everyone….local, state, federal….had their heads in the sand and EXPECTED that the federal government would bail them out IF anything ever happened.

    The city was built on a bayou and over the hundreds of years of its existence was slowly sinking and the levees were shrinking. Yet, no one did much about it, just kept living the good life thinking that a big hurricane would never hit them.

    Then….the blame game start and the rest is history.

  • And perhaps the nexus is that while they want you to solve their problems and you want to make things better, the reality is that when they solve the problmes themselves, those wishing for thier king are better off. We need kings far less than we want to admit. So the paradox is that if leaders help to much they cause more harm than good and if people rely on leadership to much, they cheat themselves adn the rest of us of an increbible gift of themselves.

  • You are so right Dan. As leaders, we can only lead if our team wishes to be led, and is willing to follow. Many is the time we must turn back to the group and say “this will be what you make of it”. However, the reality of our culture demands that we “make it happen” by sheer force of will. The price of leadership is to bear ultimate responsibility in the eyes of our community.

  • What a timely message for me this is, Dan. Our company recently doubled the size of our business through an acquistion of a competitor and my new Executive VP (who came in the deal and ran the competitor) is constantly reminding me that as CEO my job is to lead and empower others to accomplish but not to DO the job myself. As a person who has always been the “go-to” guy to get things done, this is a difficult role to learn. I will keep your message from this week and have no doubt will refer to it often.

  • I think this just proves the saying: I you give a person a fish he/she will eat for a day. If you teach him/her how to fish he/she will eat for a lifetime.


  • Another great one! I alwsys seem open these on days when I am really in need of inspiration (or a genle slap upside). Because we are all so busy, this one was a great reminder that labor can be wisely divided. And, the humility component is critical and often takes some reminding to remember. I really appreciate these messages and hope lots of Michigan leaders and aspiring leaders are reading and thinking about things like this.

  • Dan,

    Probably the best of your articles! I thought that not only will the king etc., not solve our problems but those of us who would want the king to solve our problems won’t take responsibility to solve problems, thus leading us down a path where nothing is solved. Then the problems multiply, and we’re left with the loudest voice instead of the correct one(s). So the other message is not only to lead, but to take responsibility for what you can, but not more than you can.

  • Wow! Dan… what an eye opener! Superintendents often think they are the ones who must make it happen. My best result occur when I LET it happen for others. Thanks for a GREAT reminder!

  • How To Make Money Online With The Clickbank Affiliate Program…

    Affiliate programs have been the backbone of the internet work from home industry since the beginning of the internet. One of the most popular affiliate programs online today is ClickBank….

  • >