Follow the Leader

Leadership and followership

Leadership and followership

One of the strengths I’m only just now learning to love is Command. My Command strength explains why others have always both considered me bossy but simultaneously have turned to me for leadership, even when I was a shy girl with little confidence.

So to be consistently in a follower role now is like writing with my left hand.    Or maybe, more accurately, it’s like taking a different route to work, or putting my pants on starting with my right leg instead of my left.

It’s different.  It takes some adjustment.  It’s not necessarily better or worse, overall.

The main advantage of being a follower is that when I’m following a good leader, I don’t carry the weight of the responsibility of the project on my shoulders.   I love this.   I can focus on my more limited role than being responsible for the whole shebang.

However, given the follower role comes less naturally for me than leading, I do have a lot to learn about being a good follower.   Here is what I’ve  learned so far:

  1.  Stay engaged – Just because I’m following does not mean I abdicate responsibility for the overall outcome.  It’s still a team effort and I should keep an eye on the overall progress even if it’s not my primary responsibility.
  2. Communicate – It’s a bad idea to assume the leader or others have already anticipated the concern I’m struggling with.  Communicating my concerns or improvements will help the team be successful, even if that’s not necessarily “my responsibility.”  It’s also important to make sure I understand what my role is on the team.  If I don’t have a clear understanding of what I am supposed to do, my failure to uphold my responsibilities can have  a negative impact on the project.
  3. Timing and delivery – Though communication is important, when, how, and to whom I communicate are equally important. I have made the mistake of belaboring a point to the whole group, wasting everyone’s time and frustrating others, long after a decision has been made.    A good follower accepts and supports the  wisdom of the group after a  decision has been made.   To keep the project moving while considering a course correction, communication one on one to the appropriate individual (as opposed to the group as a whole) may be more appropriate.  Timing is also important.  Big decisions should not be forced in the heat of the moment.  Undermining the leader by challenging him during a chaotic situation is unlikely to help, though quiet suggestions at this time can be helpful.  Instead, leave the important discussions to quieter, calmer places and times.   This takes some patience, not my greatest virtue.
  4. Take the initiative – Being a follower does not equate with being passive, either in communication (above) or action.  It also doesn’t mean taking the project on tangents that are not agreed upon.  Again, communication with key individuals to make sure I, and the project as a whole, are on track improves the odds of a good outcome.
  5. Be supportive – Even if I disagree with the leader or the group, there is a time for discussion and disagreement, and another time for action.  It is important to recognize and respect those distinctions.  Challenging the leader, if necessary, should generally be done in private.  Gloating is also neither attractive nor helpful if, in the end, I was proven correct.   Followers should also remember that leading is difficult, and to be as supportive of the leader as possible, even during disagreements.

My take home lesson is that it is just as hard to be a good follower as it is a good leader.  As with many things, followership is a skill I did not know I needed but is hopefully not too late to start learning.

Tit-for-tat, Played Out



Reciprocity, whether returning either a favor or a bad deed, apparently is wired into the human psyche (see Jonathan Haidt, Happiness Hypothesis).  If someone gives us a gift or a favor, we are conditioned to reciprocate.  That’s why we get free address labels and greeting cards in the mail  from people who want our money.    There is also an upside to reciprocation that occurs when starting with a no-strings-attached good deed or compliment.  Good begets good, positivity begets more positivity, resulting in an upward spiral of emotional goodwill and gratitude. “I like your dress.” “Thanks, I like your shoes!” “And you’re so smart…” etc.

But what about reciprocity with regard to bad deeds?

Humans are also inclined to reciprocate insult or injury.   You say something bad about me and I say something bad about you.   In fact, to some degree, this kind of negative reciprocity helps maintain social order.  Wrong-doers are kept in line using reciprocity  (punishment or condemnation), which actually has enabled the growth of large, cooperative social groups.

So, is that always the right thing to do?  Eye for an eye since vengeance enables the existence of our social order?

The problem with reciprocity is that both slights and concessions alike can be subject to interpretation.  I might mistake someone’s comment for my “interesting” apparel as a compliment even if it was not intended as such.  However,  if I return a compliment instead of another insult, I am not creating harm.  I may even be creating goodwill where there was once cynicism or contempt. 

Conversely, I may mistake a benign or generous gesture as an insult or injury.  My sister may offer to loan me money.  I might take offense if I believe she’s implying I can’t take care of myself, when her intent was to make sure I didn’t have financial worries.  In this case I’m creating animosity out of nothing, or worse, out of a good intention.   If I get angry, I may even tell her I know her intentions better than she knows them herself.  I get extra points for being particularly obnoxious and arrogant.

I could feel so certain of the fact that “she started it” and feel justified in my actions.  I might even be right.  But this argument evokes memories of playground politics for which I can’t help but feel embarrassed by on my own behalf.  Additionally, every situation tends to have many possible interpretations, and  the consequences and possible repercussions cannot always be completely identified.  For example, I tend to make decisions based on what I think (Myers-Briggs J type), but sometimes a feeling-type approach (F type) is actually a better choice.  I might get into a huge argument with an F about a decision, and we can both be right. It’s a matter of interpretation and priority.

Misunderstandings can easily occur between loved ones with regards to our five love languages.  My partner may show love by giving gifts, but I may perceive love by how much time we spend together.  Neither of us is right. We have different perceptions and perspectives.  These differences can be used to create blame and conflict when there is nothing but good intentions and love from both parties.

I have also written recently about how it is also human nature to be hypocritical.    So, imagine now that I am the recipient of a slight or insult that I myself am guilty of (hypocrisy) and now I indulge my tendency to reciprocate and take revenge on the other.  For example, I might view my partner’s gifts as indulgent and unloving and then withdraw and withhold what makes him feel loved.  I might feel perfectly justified and certain that he’s intentionally neglecting me but simultaneously blind to how I am purposefully now neglecting him.   Therefore, I misinterpreted (or had a different perception of) what was actually a good intention and converted it into blame, anger, and conflict.  How am I doin’?  Sad to say, I’m in good company.

As logical as this may seem in the blogosphere, unfortunately it is our unconscious nature to be hypocrites and then exacerbate our hypocrisy by reciprocating perceived wrongdoing.  So, we can maybe just give into our base tendencies and indulge in contempt, gossip, judgment, and lack of forgiveness while blaming the other.  Or we can try to have self-awareness and forgiveness of our shared imperfect human nature. 

It’s impossible to completely avoid hypocrisy or feelings of vengeance and judgment.  But I can be more aware of these normally unconscious tendencies and make a choice about which direction to take them.  For me, a huge red flag is certainty.  The more certain I feel, the more likely I am to be indulging in hypocrisy and the less likely I am to be open to someone else’s perspective.

I do feel this hypocrisy awareness has allowed me though to use reciprocation differently:  I am more likely to choose a forgiving interpretation of others’ behavior since I hope they will reciprocate and choose a forgiving interpretation of mine.  This, dear friend, is a gift worth giving.

Events That Are Torture (But Really Aren’t)

Painful dentist visit - LIttle Shop of Horrors

Painful dentist visit – LIttle Shop of Horrors

I’ve noticed another trend in my behavior when writing my last blog.  No, not creating multiple grammatical and typographical errors, I don’t tend to notice them (give me a break, I majored in science and my parents are immigrants.)  I realized that I don’t tend to find events that are supposed to be torture to necessarily be torture.  Quite the opposite.

In my last blog I wrote about how great moving can be when that event is commonly (and rightfully) viewed as painful and awful.  I realized that this is a recurring theme for me regarding supposedly tortuous events.  I won’t go so far to say I’d recommend them to anyone, or would want to do an encore of any of them either, but I found these so-called painful experiences to be far more positive than I had anticipated.

For example, most people hate going to the dentist.  I don’t love it per se, and don’t go when I don’t have to, but relaxing in that comfy chair with someone attending to me, no interruptions, is in it’s own way a mini-refuge.  A very scaled down version of going to the spa, so to speak.  My smile does look great when I leave.  Plus I love the staff there.  They are like family to me and I look forward to them brightening my day.  (BTW I don’t feel the same way about going to the gynecologist though he’s pretty awesome too.)

I loved changing diapers (no I won’t change the diaper on your baby!)  We chose to use cloth diapers with the babies while I was at home with them, so they had to be changed frequently.  Yes it was stinky sometimes, but I loved being able to see my sons in their naked glory, get them clean and fresh once again, several times a day.  I had to be completely present during the experience or I might miss something (phew!) or get soaked.  The number of days one’s kids allow them to be undressed by a parent are limited and fleeting.

I also found my oral comprehensive exam (the formative, 3 hour oral exam with your committee of 5 faculty for the doctorate degree) to be a really great experience as well.  I don’t know about other programs, but we generally had the luxury of taking 3-4 weeks to do nothing but prepare for the exam.  During that time, I read anything and everything I wanted regarding my dissertation.  It was pretty much focused and uninterrupted (except by the 1989 San Francisco earthquake) and I luxuriated in the once-in-a-lifetime freedom to just learn about whatever I wanted.  During the exam itself I enjoyed giving the presentation (another thing I enjoy doing that others hate) and the Q&A session felt empowering to me because I did a good job answering the questions.

I would even go so far as to say the divorce fell into this category.  No, I wouldn’t have chosen a divorce for me or anyone else compared to a successful marriage, but for a troubled marriage it was the right thing to do.  I’m also very proud of my ex and me for how amicably we parted, and so the divorce was a positive, not devastating experience for our two teenaged sons (I realize there may be some rationalization on our part here).    The post-separation period, though literally terrifying, was a liberating experience for me filled with growth and discovery.

Maybe such traumatic events are really only traumatic if we believe them to be.    We can “horribilize” them and make them worse than they are, or we can find the opportunity and turn the event into a neutral, if not positive and enhancing experience.

My younger son started college this summer and he talks about how much “fun” exams are.  I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

Moving Is Not Fun

Moving paralysis

Moving paralysis

But.  Parts of it are

First of all, this move has been a piece of cake compared to the last one where we were buying/selling with two preschool children at home.  That was a nightmare, and it took me more than 10 years to get over that trauma.

Second of all, this one hasn’t been easy in the same respect that every move is fraught with expense, headache, worry, stress, and just plain old hard work.

But.  There is something delightful in the exploration that is a move.

  • Cleaning out 16 years of accumulation – I started this 6 months in advance of putting the house on the market and worked on one area of the house at a time every weekend.  I sorted through the range of treasured mementos to pieces of junk.  I walked down memory lane with almost every item, and the purge was liberating.  Thousands of items donated to Goodwill (my tax write-off made it even better) and I’m sure thousands more into the trash or recycling.
  • Packing – We downsized to a house 1/3 smaller than the old one, so eliminating what wasn’t strictly necessary was important.  Here was an opportunity to prioritize and decide whether I’m keeping that old XX because I need it or for sentimental purposes when I have never used it.
  • Unpacking –Putting my old stuff into the new space requires that the context for every item is now new.  This vase used to decorate the bathroom; now it’s under a light on a bookcase in the family room.  Now my dirty laundry will have to be lugged down two flights of stairs – maybe I should put my closet in the basement?
  • New neighborhood – It’s not like we’ve moved 1000 miles away, we’re just in a different part of town.  But it’s the city.  Not the suburbs.  It has a completely different feel here.  Plus it’s by the river.  City by the river.  That rings so nicely.  Finding a grocery store with the stuff we want, good sushi and Indian food (forget the good Chinese food), a strong cup of coffee, the hardware store, all of it an adventure involving a new route, a new store/restaurant, and different clientele.    My ideation strength is singing.
  • New view – My commute is now less than 3 miles compared to 12.  I drive through the prettiest parts of the city instead of the freeway.  Each time, I deeply exhale.
  • Doggie homecoming – Being out of the house we’re showing means I get the dogs back.  They won’t be able to manage the stairs in the new house most likely due to age and logistics of the Walker hound and greyhound, respectively, so they won’t be sleeping with us for the first time.  They will have an adjustment too but the walks by the river will hopefully compensate.
  • Feeling different – We left behind a 1997 transitional home and are now in a 1940’s cottage.   Old wood floors, thick walls, wood paneling, musty basement.  It’s been too busy to really feel settled in yet, but I believe our new surroundings will make me feel like a different person.   I can’t wait to find out.

Benefits of Being Wrong

Admitting fault

Admitting fault

It just sucks to be wrong and eating crow.  You lose face.  The other gloats and you are embarrassed for being inadequate, stupid, incompetent.  And that’s just when you’re mistaken.  If I thought the play started at 8 pm but it started at 7 pm, then I’m mistaken.  This kind of mistake is fairly irrefutable and black-and-white.  We might’ve argued about it before we missed the play, but likely not after.

Then there’s the type of wrong where you did something that was hurtful, offensive, insensitive, humiliating or rude.  Classic Susanna is to assume someone else in the house misplaced something, left trash on the countertop, or left the milk out of the fridge.  Couldn’t be me.  It’s then hurtful when I accuse someone else of losing something that I didn’t put away.  But even worse  – this one hasn’t happened for a while – is to accuse someone of unloving or selfish motives only to find out I was completely wrong (“you forgot my birthday!” when an elaborate party was in the works for example).

These scenarios, though greyer than simply being mistaken about an easily proven fact, are still relatively cut-and-dry compared to the really subjective missteps we all make on occasion.   For example, I could engage in the same obnoxious behavior accusing someone of being selfish or unloving, but now based on a he said-she said scenario.  We cannot necessarily prove either of us right or wrong, one way or another.  Yet we may engage in an escalating conflict until we have World War III in the middle of Home Depot.    Given that the vast majority of conflicts take two (even the so-called victim or martyr in an argument has culpability too), the entire dynamic is simply harmful and counter-productive to the relationship.

In addition to the strong likelihood that we both have fault, being able and willing to acknowledge one’s own role in the dynamic can have surprisingly positive outcomes.   If I’m willing to acknowledge that I got upset prematurely (sensitive people can sense this even if I say nothing), used a judgmental or harsh tone, chose a wounding word, picked an argued about something inconsequential, then I am taking responsibility for my actions.  Paradoxically, when I acknowledge my role, even if it’s slight, I then develop a sense of honor from my actions, especially if I acknowledge my role to my sparring partner.

Honor is not the only benefit from finding my own culpability. I also am diminishing my hypocrisy and judgment, both tendencies of human nature.  Perhaps most importantly, I am also mitigating the damage to the relationship in which I have carefully invested in until the moment that I just lost it.  Finally, because it is also human nature to reciprocate, most people are subsequently willing to find their own fault in the argument.  Both parties can walk away feeling like they were treated fairly.

Honor.  Avoiding hypocrisy and judgment.  Restoring a relationship.  Reciprocity.  Sounds like a win-win-win-win to me.

Your Own Worst Enemy

Self-defeating behavior

Self-defeating behavior

I imagine most of us have felt, at one time or more, that we are our own worst enemy.  We engage in self-defeating behavior that may be apparent to everyone but ourselves.  Often we can actually see the same problem in someone else, and easily solve their issue but are blind as a bat when it comes to solving our own.

Though it is our human nature to be hypocrites in this respect, it is also true that these issues are often hard to fix.  First of all, we often have an awareness problem.  We have a tendency to blame someone else as being difficult, critical, or passive, rather than examine our own role.    Second, even if we are aware of the problem, we may not be conscious of our assumptions, beliefs, and core values (ABCs, I made that up) that underlie the self-defeatist behavior and which can be wrong and harmful.

The root of human hypocrisy, according to Jonathan Haidt in the Happiness Hypothesis, is justifying our opinions, rooted in emotion, by using logic.  It seems to me, then, that our sometimes unconscious ABCs cause these emotions which produce our opinions, self-image and world view.  We then back up that view by finding justifying statements, like “I really need those steel grey suede pumps since my three other pairs are just not the right shade for my designer dress.  Plus they’re on sale”… while complaining that I spend too much money.  An unconscious ABC is driving my emotional spending, then I find rationalizations to justify my hypocritical behavior.

So it makes sense that becoming aware of our unconscious ABCs and examining them might help us resolve self-defeating behavior (or maybe this is driven by my unconscious emotions. I’m stuck in a logic loop).   For example, if your BFF tells you about how his wife declares that he’s a failure, he’s not good enough, he’s a bad person, or he’s not a real man, how would you react (after jokingly telling him that she’s right)?  As a somewhat objective but loving third party, you would probably tell him some version of “that’s completely untrue.”  That’s not to say your BFF is perfect.  It just means your BFF has flaws and struggles, yet has many good qualities, otherwise you would not love him.  Yet don’t we tell ourselves, and believe without challenge, the very same things as that mean wife? (I’ve actually never said “I’m not a real man” for obvious reasons.  Ironically, it’s a true statement.)  We may accept such declarations without question because they are either unconscious or unchallenged beliefs or assumptions.

I suppose there may be some that believe that there are actually people out there who are a complete failure, not good enough, a bad person or not a real man/woman.  I don’t believe that at all.  I believe everyone one of us has love, talent, and a contribution to make to this world.  In individuals where this is not apparent, I believe that they are struggling to unlock those qualities, or just do not display them to the viewer (or the viewer cannot see them).  Really.  Does anyone believe there are really people on this earth that have no value?  Has God put some people on this planet with no apparent purpose but to be a failure and a burden?

And though you might feel like you are the most miserable and worthless human being on this planet, this attribute of having no value does not apply to you either.  Nor do any of those other horribly abusive and unfair characterizations.

We come by these unconscious ABCs usually early in life.  Back then, they were probably helpful to us in some way and thus affirmed our faith in our ABCs.  But at some point, when these ABCs remain unconscious and are the illogical, self-defeating, hypocritical drivers of our views and decisions, they just simply become dysfunctional.

So, shed some light on those ABCs.  Question them.  Challenge them.  You don’t have to give them up completely, but perhaps realize that maybe they’re not so black and white as your inner demon will have you believe.   Don’t let the unrealistic and unfair standard of perfection stand in the way of self-appreciation and self-forgiveness.    Pretend that you are your own best friend.  No.  Actually BE your own best friend.  Now, really listen to him.