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Learning to Lean

Two years ago, I wrote a few blog posts on Learning to Lead, pertaining to leadership styles and the importance of developing yourself to be someone that people wanted to follow. Depending on which leadership gurus you follow, there are multiple theories on the best leadership style for success.

That is not my intention today.

I utilize a compilation of different leadership styles depending upon who I am leading. Different people need different things. In some aspects of my life, I focus on Servant Leadership. On other aspects of my life, I might lead as a visionary, an Influencer or a Persuader. I do think we shouldn't box ourselves up, nailing a lid on our creative ability to engage with others and achieve good things.

Again, maybe a great area for debate. But not my intention today.

Today I want to impart some simple wisdom born of decades of being in a position of authority. Ready for this earth shattering revelation?


So many leaders, especially those in higher positions of authority, believe that asking for help, guidance or even just admitting that there are having struggles, means that they are weak and bad leaders. I have seen this behavior multiple times when dealing with some people in authority.

As a fledgling social worker, 35 years ago, my unit members and I would watch every morning for the entrance of our supervisor with anticipation to see the condition of her hair and make-up. (I can see your eyebrows rise, but it was a real thing). When she came to work properly coiffed and made up, we had an easy day. Her interactions with the unit were stable and supportive. When she entered the office looking like she had just exited a wind tunnel, we scattered to our offices and turned off the lights. (OK, that WAS a bit of exaggeration). But we inwardly cringed with the knowledge that we would have a rough day. On the messy hair days she always had to be right, entertained no other ideas that were not her own and chastised any of us who colored outside of the lines. Years later, and much experience behind me, I recognize that she was struggling. Whether in her life or her career, her struggles propelled her towards authoritarian leadership, demanding blind obedience and loyalty. I suppose that gave her a feeling of control, which she otherwise did not feel.

Throughout my career, I have seen similar scenarios play out when those in Leadership positions insulate themselves from their team, believing that to lean meant to fall. That is what I want to address today. When I directed a large county agency, there were days I knew I would have to make decisions that would be unpopular. I made sure to reach out to colleagues, my leadership team and even some subordinates to see if there were other options that could be employed to solve a particular problem in a different way. There was no doubt that at the end of the day, I was responsible for the final decision. But even including alternate input and brainstorming, if the decision was unpopular, I had to stand by it. The old saying is true: "It's lonely at the top".

I was blessed, though. I developed such a strong support system. And guess what? Not all of them agreed with me and some, in fact had vastly different perspectives from my own. But I welcomed their thoughts, even when they contradicted my own. Their contributions resulted in forcing me to think beyond my own sphere and perhaps to get insight into a better way.

If you have read any of my blogs, you know how strongly I believe that we all need a tribe. Just to connect with others is so important to our sense of self-worth and will increase the positive thoughts and energy in our lives. That need doesn't magically stop when we are placed in a position of authority. We have an innate need for connection.

The analogy of the water vessel is also not new, so forgive me as I use it again. Imagine that you are a pitcher (an urn, a vessel of some kind). Because there is no such thing as a bottomless pitcher, you have, within your vessel, a finite amount of water (Wine, Sweet Tea your analogy...your choice). As you minister, guide, support or direct others, you are pouring your water unto others. Constantly. And without a specific intervention you will eventually become...


What is the specific intervention? Replenishment! You must replenish your water. How absurdly simply this concept is. Yet so many people walk around empty and wonder why they have such a profound thirst.

There are multiple ways to replenish your vessel (exercise, self-care, meditation etc.) But for the sake of today's topic, I am including learning to lean. What do I mean by lean? To lean is to allow someone else to support you temporarily. Unlike the Tower of Pisa, which is in a constant state of leaning, you will take the support you need and then right yourself. Leaning means that you are admitting your lack of omniscience, and that you are willing to humble yourself and let someone (that you trust) inside. Colleagues who are in other leadership roles can provide a wealth of support and advice when you feel unsure about a situation or decision. Even if you just vent and have your support person listen, you will be surprised how often saying a puzzle out loud will also trigger the answer in your own mind. .Leaning does not mean giving your authority to someone else. It means you are willing to let go of the unrealistic expectations that as a leader you are supposed to have the answer to everything.

As you continue on your Leadership path...Try Leaning. Refresh your vessel and renew your mind. Then right yourself and keep on going.

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