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Leading from the Bottom: Conversations that Empower Leaders to Empower You

The Bottom Line: We complain when we don’t feel like our leaders are empowering us, but we either don’t realize or don’t remember that leaders are most empowering when the people accountable to them empower up.

I was having lunch with a friend a couple of weeks ago. He’s in sales and he’s great at his job and doing well with the company he’s with. But when I asked him about his life, he said he’s been considering moving on because, “things are a little weird with the company right now.”

It turns out they recently lost a sales manager that the team loved and the company was looking outside to bring in someone new. Actually, they were looking outside for the second time because the first person they brought in didn’t stick around too long. “He just came in like he knew everything and started shaking up the way we do things, but we know the market and products way better than he did, so he got no buy in and it didn’t work.”

Hearing my friend didn’t really want to look for a new opportunity but also wanted to be on a cohesive, happy team with a supportive manager, we kept talking and exploring what he could do to make the environment better. At some point he said something really instructive that made it crystal clear to me that he and his team were – without even realizing it – completely undermining that possibility.

“I’m willing to keep an open mind and be receptive,” he said, “but at the same time, you’ve got to prove yourself.” Right there I could see that, when they brought the next person in, he and his team were in line for more of the similar, if not more of the same.

A person’s words provide a window into their view of the world, and a person’s view of the world shape their attitudes, actions, and ways of being. Often, in work teams, these points of view aren’t personal. People talk about how the world “is” and reinforce each other’s ways of looking at things.

What we forget is that, when we see the world, we aren’t looking at the world as it is. “Seeing the world” is actually something that our bodies and brains do and, in doing it, provide a distorted reflection of reality that, to us, looks like crystal clear realities. Said another way, we’re so used to our own view of the world that we forget it is, in fact, just a view. It isn’t so much a reflection of reality as it is a projection onto it.

What I imagined when I heard him say, “prove it,” is a room full of distrustful sales-people, arms crossed, just waiting for the new leader to make a mistake. In other words, a whole group of people with the “beingness” of “prove it.” In the face of that group, it isn’t weird that a new leader would act a little weird. It isn’t weird they wouldn’t last long. For them, they’re operating in a dangerous environment, and those kinds of environments tend to bring out the worst in people. And then, we complain about dealing with the worst people.

But there are ways to empower your leaders such that they empower you. If you think about it, any interactions is like two mirrors facing each other. One person is reflected in the other, back to the other, and back again infinitely. The key to being powerful – in that everyone is empowered (i.e., don’t collapse power with dominance) – is to be and act in ways that give the other power such th