The Privilege of Authority is You Can Let Them Stretch You

Dang it was a hard week.  On the last day of the prior week, at the end of a wonderful time at Lake Michigan, I threw out my back (doing yoga, of all things). Crooked, bent and thus more than a little irritable, I returned to Berkeley to welcome and teach forty-two 30-and-40 year old Masters in Public Administration students.  They came from India, China, Brazil, Argentina, Iceland, Uganda, Spain, Paraguay, Nigeria, and numerous other countries. They came super-eager to learn and engage.

I threw open the classroom, because for leadership to emerge there must be space!

Differences appeared.  Some thought I was too wide open.  Others thought my behavior paternalistic. Some felt their classmates were disrespectful towards authority.  Some felt I was letting the class wander too much. Some loved the classroom-as-leadership-experiment.  Are you getting the picture?  I felt like elastic-man being stretched.

I offer three points about the relevance of this for “real life.”  First, I felt a personal and near-constant desire to impose order.  Second, because I was imbued or endowed with authority, I knew others besides me – and the very classroom system as a living organism – wanted me to create order (and quickly).  So, the pressure came from within and without me.  I don’t think there is a parent, teacher, boss, pastor, sergeant, etc., who does not feel these two powerful pulls to create order and assert authority to do so.  For example, we feel it with the impulse to call our child by their first, middle and last name, “Cecelia Granholm Mulhern, watch your tongue.” As a manager, it’s that impulse to silence, demote, change the subject, take back the work, etc., as challenges come to the work we are trying to lead.

The third point?  This unforgettable line from a great Fast Company article by Tom Peters: “Great leaders honor the people who want to depose them, the assassins in their midst.”  Why? Why honor the assassins? Peters argues compellingly that organizations must innovate, change, challenge and disrupt. And that seldom will come from the authority figure(s) charged with maintaining an often complicated status quo.

I would give a second reason to honor the assassins.  They are the ones who stretch the leader, and that is the leader’s amazing privilege!   I learned so much this past week from having to really think through a feminist lens, then a new (technological) student lens, a Japanese and Chinese and African lens. We will all have to work to integrate all this wisdom, but what a treat simply to be exposed to so much richness.

It’s not easy, but we can set aside the need to be in control, we can find a deeper security, and then invite the stretch of challenge to

lead with our best self!


* Tom Peters, Leadership is Confusing as Hell, Fast Company, 2/28/01,