Wednesday, May 04, 2011

A Special Thanks to Dan

I'll be the first to admit that I have a hard time relating to Dan Mulhern's world. I'm not a guy. I'm not married, I don't have kids. He comes from a traditional, middle-class, big family; I'm an only child of divorce who always lived on the edge. Dan is all about leadership, and I never wanted to be a leader. He is goal-oriented towards success, outgoing, enjoying life on the stage; I'm rather scattered, introverted, a happy-go-lucky dreamer who hates the spotlight. He's religious, I'm not. And so on. If one of us were a minority, we'd probably have the perfect dichotomy of experience growing up in modern America during the last half of the last century.

Despite all these differences, I've always found this curious identification with his writing at his web site on Everyday Leadership. I tune in every Sunday to see where his head is at this week, because I know I can find comfort in his ability to put words to the human condition, and provide thoughtful suggestions on how to overcome the various trials that we all face, regardless of our position in life. It's almost a spiritual connection that seeks to move beyond the categories that we put ourselves in, and therefore gets right down to the heart of any matter. And I find myself wanting to quibble with him too, probably out of fear of moving out of that comfort zone, because it easier to resist than accept the growth he offers.

In a world where it seems people are always trying to tear each other down, Dan focuses on the very noble endeavor of trying to lift people up, whether it be in the workplace, family life, or even bringing a touch of humanity and realism to the very public life he was (is) living. His ability to be emotionally honest in a business - and a gender role - that almost demands that you put on traditional airs fascinates and inspires me. It gave me the strength to keep being emotionally honest in my writing when I was on that stage, and that was difficult when it felt like the crowd was just waiting for me to slip and fall. I silently thanked him for it all the time, and was cheering him on, whether he knew that or not.

This week, he did it again, and he got up on the national platform to do it. I'm happy to feature a couple parts of it here; be sure and go read the whole thing. Dan wrote a great letter to his son Jack that was featured in the "My Turn" page in Newsweek. Entitled "How to Be a Real Man", he displays a perfect example of that emotional honesty that I'm talking about.

I always thought that I would become governor, and then I’d “be the man.” But the train tracks got switched, and instead Mom pulled into that station. I came to wonder about my strength. Do you remember when I took you along to my speech about leadership to some Cisco executives in Chicago, where you ran the PowerPoint slides? During the Q&A someone asked you why your dad was a great leader. You told them that I faithfully visited the young man I mentor in the Big Brother program, even when he was frustrating and difficult. Then someone asked, “Why is your mom a great leader?” and you said, “Wow, my mom—where do I even start?” I felt my armor pierced by that contrast—Mom’s obvious, overwhelming heroism, and my leadership, such as it was, smaller, humbler.

I always sensed that Dan was struggling with this role-reversal, but in being honest about the struggle, he portrays a very definite strength in simply allowing himself to be vulnerable. While the governor always seemed to be carry a shield of armor around her as she carefully chose her words (understandable, given the position she was in), Dan would put himself right out there and speak his truth. Sometimes that got him into trouble - but sometimes it also helped to facilitate a more honest conversation about whatever issue it was we were facing at the time. It forces you to go deeper, and the people who are living in a fear-based world tend to get uncomfortable with that. Dan's ability to be open makes it easier to move beyond the walls we all want to put up in those difficult situations of conflict.

Dan's moving on now to being a Berkeley professor that focuses and educates on gender. Gender roles, for me, always related to the side of women. And even then I always believed in equality, having a strong, hard-working "liberated" Mom myself, so I would tend to dismiss distinctions of "first woman" or "first man" to be governor or first gentleman or whatever as trivial - until an injustice occurs, and forces me to look at the inequality that still exists. Dan's writing lately flips my female experience on its head, and makes me consider the other side of the coin. That's not easy to do in a world where I've witnessed push-back against every stride that women have made for equality. Now, I have to realize that guys face it, too. More growth.

My dad, like so many men of his generation, could tell his wife what to do. He could tell his staff. And his boss could tell him. You and I need a more nimble strength. For example, you will have to stand up to your woman. You will honor her when you treat her as an equal, neither unduly backing down nor asking her to give up her principles and experience. You won’t have clear social roles to inherit. Instead, you’ll have to talk, negotiate, sacrifice, and make it up as you go along. A modern warrior prevails not by sheer physical strength but by exercising his values with discipline.

From my vantage point, we seem to be moving backwards at this particular moment in time. With the scramble and competition for jobs and economic survival, the old gender roles (and fears) may be rearing their heads once again. It's hard to tell, because it's a lot more subtle these days. It's going to take the kids of Jack's generation to keep us on the path of growth towards equality for men and women alike - and as long as there are guys like Dan out there blazing the trail, right now, it's sure to happen.

Thank you, to both of you, for putting yourselves out there. I'm grateful for the eye-opening experience of trying to see things from the "modern man" angle, and I hope that other people are too. There is a lot to learn, and I hope you will keep sharing your experience with us as you grow in your new place and path in life.

If you're interested in learning more, check out Dan's new site at Strong Men Speak, or keep up with the original at Everyday Leadership at Dan Mulhern.com. It's good stuff.