Authentic Leadership from the Middle Seat in Coach
There is one thing in life that has always boggled my mind. Why is it we can have an in-depth conversation with a stranger on an airplane in coach and yet are unable to speak with the same candor and vulnerability with people we have known for years?
What happens in coach that allows us to have an exchange with a stranger that can be more captivating and intimate than the conversations we have had with a spouse, a boss or team member? I am so captivated by this life mystery that I have even thought about getting several rows of airline seats and placing them in the lobby at Root to facilitate authentic conversations based on a few memorable experiences.
I see the same kind of “special conversations” occurring around a campfire with friends and family – you can relate to people around a campfire in a way that is natural and authentic. Conversations seem to flow effortlessly – human to human.
One of the reasons these conversations don’t happen with the people we work with could be the barrier of real or perceived power.
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Power Impacts Empathy
There is now neuroscience research that helps us understand what is happening and why it is happening. Scientists now know a simple but powerful truth – when authority and power go to your head, it turns off your heart. It turns out that power diminishes all varieties of empathy in the brain.
Power changes how the brain operates in fundamental ways by affecting the mirror system of the brain. Power makes it very hard for us to feel and understand what other people feel and understand – the more powerful you become, the less authentic your leadership. It is a scientific reality. And the science tells us it is not just the CEO that is impacted by this power disease.
This problem can show up as a result of getting a few more direct reports, a promotion, a new desk space, a raise, your 10 minutes of fame, or just because you are the boss. You have heard that power corrupts – it looks like it also separates us from the connections that make us human.
Power makes it very hard for us to feel and understand what other people feel and understand – the more powerful you become, the less authentic your leadership.
We are all Equal
So, what is the mystique of the airplane seat and the magic of the conversations that can occur? One of the most universal places of shared vulnerability occurs in coach –where you get the same turbulence, same peanuts, same plastic cup of water, the same leg space, and the dreaded shared arm rest. It is a place where we are all equal.
Let’s make a distinction of power – there are really two kinds of power. Inauthentic power is all about status, rank, possessions, and authority. Here is the power differential that causes the problem…
A) I have more than you.
B) I know more than you.
C) I am more than you.
Compassion, vulnerability, and empathy are the foundation for authentic power and leadership.
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The boldest way to be an authentic leader is to be publicly vulnerable. You won’t find a power differential in the back of an airplane – remember the same armrest – and it rarely shows up at the campfire too. The challenge is that inauthentic power spurred on by our egos makes it hard for us to empathize with others.
Power also makes it especially hard for us to tell each other the truth about how we think and feel – and to hear it. Why? Because truth-telling is not a core competency of most companies, teams, or leaders. The powerful and the powerless are hopelessly out of touch with each other. In fact, most of us only tell the truth in three places – the bathroom, the hallway, and at the watercooler.
The boldest way to be an authentic leader is to be publicly vulnerable. The challenge is that inauthentic power spurred on by our egos makes it hard for us to empathize with others.
The good news is powerful people can be coached back into their compassionate and authentic selves. One way is through comedy, where you can create an emotional connection in 10 minutes that most leaders struggle to create in 10 years.
The best comedians can convey to you that they understand your predicament before you have to tell them; they know what it is like to be you. As a result, you are willing to follow them, and their stories. They make us vulnerable together.
Dilbert is a great example of this. With amazing relevance, he captures what people think and feel…so much so that his cartoons hang in cubicles all around the world. His drawing out how we feel can help validate feelings.
What if Dilbert-like pictures can take us back to coach class – to create a sense of shared public vulnerability or a “level-relating field.” This idea is realized through an exercise we call “watercooler sketches of authentic leadership”. I have watched it happen in real time from the boardroom of 50 billion dollar companies to the shop floor of a team of managers.
To be authentic we have to stop taking ourselves so seriously and start finding a way to rediscover the empathy that is essential to connect leadership with followership. The key is to sketch out how people feel to get to a place of shared public vulnerability. These sketches then set up an authentic conversation of truth telling and vulnerability.
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