To look a leader in the eye and credibly deliver unpalatable observations or sharply differing opinions requires an internal sense of equal worth. Metaphorically, a pygmy cannot look a giant in the eye. Followers usually cannot match up to a leader’s external qualities, such as the trappings of formal power, and must find their equal footing on intellectual, moral, or spiritual ground. How can we do this?
If we remember and speak to our common humanity, we need not be seduced, dazzled, or intimidated by the symbols of higher office. Neither we nor the leaders we support are our titles, whether this be secretary, boss, president, or emperor. We are human beings who pass through this existence with gifts and needs, anxieties and dreams, strengths and vulnerabilities. If we, as leaders and followers, remember our common nature, we will deal with each other out of mutual respect, not out of disdain or awe.
We need to closely observe ourselves in the presence of power to see how we behave. If we find ourselves speaking or acting with exaggerated deference, we are relating to the title, not to the person carrying it. If we observe ourselves being even subtly obsequious toward a leader, we should try to look past the title, trappings, and power of office to see the human being occupying the office. Who is the leader outside of this specific role?
Where has he come from?
What are his values?
Does his private persona differ from his professional one?
Does he feel supported or lonely?
Is he genuinely confident or perhaps masking insecurity?
Can he be playful?
Does he have a sense of serving a higher ideal or power?
Can we envision him as a parent, a son, a husband?
What failures and tragedies has he experienced?
What are his fears?
What are his aspirations?
Depending on how private the leader is, we may not be able to answer all these questions. And the answers are not as important as our ability to touch the leader’s humanity. We need to demythologize leaders, to see them holistically, to be able to identify with their pain and joy so we can talk to them as one human being to another. We need to be able to comfortably ask ourselves, “How can I help this fellow human being whose lot has been cast together with mine?” As we answer this, we affirm the worth we bring to the relationship and find our equal footing.