Interviews: The Powells, L. Lee, G. McDonald


Ned and Diane Powell, Ladonna Lee and Geraldine MacDonald

I know of but one single means of increasing
the prosperity of a people that is infallible in practice that I
believe one can count on in all countries as in all spots. This
means is naught else but to increase the ease of communication
between men.
Alexis de Tocqueville


The previous chapters have given us many examples of how the human brain is receptive to stories as a way to see hidden processes. We know that relationship blinders, stress, information that does not compute, all of these can create reactions, and the automatic overuse of defensive mechanism.  Increasing anxiety in relationships can prevent us from questioning or noticing what goes on between people. So a critical goal is to learn more about managing ourselves in different types of relationships by listening to our own and other leaders’ stories.  Now people can give you a lit of things to do: be nice, be positive, be joyful, argue thoughtfully but any such list may not work to allow you to change your behavior.


On the other hand real life examples show us the subtle ways that useful relationship networks are built and then managed by a person. If the individual is separate and secure and best of all systems-wise, their story will have impact on the reader’s brain. The clearer people are about their experience the easier it is to listen and even enjoy the adventure of the story. This allows us to see how others experiences fit with our own experience. 


Stories add to our knowledge base. Armed with ideas from others and our hard won experience, we will be able to see just what is happening in social relationships. Eventually using only a very few clues, we will decide what to do about relationship patterns as we see them unfolding.   

Nuggets of Wisdom from Families to OrganizationsØDisturbance is necessary to create conditions for change in a stuck system.Any business, organization or family is capable of making errors that can lead to its demise. Because patterns of past behavior are such powerful predictors of future behavior, disrupting the ongoing pattern is seen as dangerous and disturbing. The consensus will be that the risk of doing so is too great. Therefore, necessary change is easily avoided. 


ØAnyone willing to stand up and disturb past patterns in an organizational culture must be willing to forge new and useful relationships with the people disturbed—or risk losing those people. 

ØWhile it is important for a leader to know the facts of a business, it is more important that he or she listen to the people who are working in the business, make genuine contact with them, and then make a change-oriented decision. 

________________________________________________________________________Ned and Diane PowellOne of my goals for this book project was to find a husband and wife team who could explain both how their leadership was influenced by their family histories, and how they each managed having a dual career family.    

I met Diane Powell (Chairman, Des Plaines Publishing and a former VP at NBC,) through my book club.  Here she stood out, first she is a very tall outspoken woman, but secondly she was a fun leader provoking the group with personal question that connected each of us to the book’s topic while allowing the people in the group to know one another at a different level.  I asked her if she would like to participate in this project as I knew her to be interested in the special challenges for woman wanting to be contributing leaders in corporate

Diane was interested in the project and in taking the time to reflect on how her relationship with her family over the generations might have predisposed her to choose to be a leader. I also knew she admired her husband, Ned Powell, who is the director of the USO; therefore I asked if he would also participate in the interview process. They each liked the idea, and many fascinating concepts emerged from the interview with these two engaging individuals.  Ned Powell (now the head of the USO) began the interview by reflecting on how family relationships sustained each of their wishes to contribute to the larger community.  We all agreed on the premise that the family has some role in how individuals are enabled to function in the larger society. And that society has some influence in how families are able to function. Each of us has a different take on the details.  

Family ExpectationsNed’s contention; that both social and family expectations set a stage for how children come to view challenges and opportunities for leadership. It is clear that families can not always overcome all the obstacles in society.  There are factors such as the average life expectancy for inner school children.  There are clear forces impinging on positive expectation for children, despite a family’s best intention.       ******************* 

NP – What happens in your family sets you up with a certain level of family expectation. It’s in the air you breathe. What are the expectations you learn in your family? There they are behind the scene, setting a stage for your future.  In our society we are surprised when there is a miss match between the way the family is operating and the wishes, hopes and expectations of how we want our society to be. 

When my Uncle Lewis died I became the oldest male in the generational line.  It was then that I began to realize the importance of family influence. The patriarch had died.  It’s a shock to know you are now the oldest. You are it. (Uncle Lewis was Lewis Franklin Powell, Jr.,  an Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States from 1972 to 1987.  He developed a moderate reputation, and was known as a master of compromise and consensus-building.)  He was my father’s oldest brother. My father also had a twin sister.  Both my Dad and his brother served in WW II.  My uncle went to law school and my father to business school at Harvard.   My family comes from a long line of teachers and contributors to society.  We have been in Virginia since the1600’s – The expectations were you had a role and you were going to contribute back to society. The expectations go in both directions: encouraging and restricting.  They involve many levels of pressure which can be very subtle. One example, I was living in Boston after my father died in 1979, and I get a letter from Uncle Lewis, who had stepped into the parental role, even thought I was in my thirties.  He wrote to ask me “What are you doing leaving the

Commonwealth of
Virginia.?  No one in the Powell family has ever left the Commonwealth except to go to school or to serve in the armed forces.” 
 The family values were clear. Contributing to society is a privilege and an honor, not a choice.  Being a leader simply enables you to do the job better, to leave the woodpile better than it was when you found it.   My biggest disquiet is when people talk about inner school kids.  I can see how disconnected people are with the actual lives of these kids.  What are the expectations they have for life?  People ask how can you get inner city kids to do this or that?  The answer is process.  The dirty secret in school is families.  What is going on in the families and homes has everything to do with what is going to happen at school. The reality is still the family expectations.  When you talk to inner city school kids many of them will tell you that their friends are dead.  They have no future they can count on.  For these kids having a family member, a coach or a mentor that makes him or her think they can do better is invaluable.  The reality is due to my family’s social position I could do just about anything I wanted to do. That is as long as I am willing and able to pay the price of success with hard work. DP – In my family I too was given the message that I could go to Harvard. All I had to do was to get a loan and put in the hours to achieve in school. 

I also see the expectations in society especially as they operate on woman.  For woman society was not able to meet the family expectations for opportunity as far as work went. Woman’s expectations for those born in the 40’s were to find a good husband and have children. My grandparents were all immigrants.  They had to learn the language and make their own way.  I had other challenges. I could go to Harvard but then what?  Society was not and is still not ready to enable woman to do well. The family expectations did not prepare me or other woman for hitting the glass ceiling.  Our grandparents had come to this country with all kinds of dreams for a better future, but in my grandparents day the woman supported the man’s career.  Woman in the board room is a relatively new phenomenon. I am not sure how family dynamics, like sibling position, plays into preparing us to become a leader. It is easier to see what happens to a defined group like women, and the social obstacles that still exist. Ned, do you know if the people on your executive team are oldest in their families? 

NP – I have not thought much about succession roles in families and a possible transfer over to work roles.  I realize there are logical associations with family potions and family dynamics. But I have no first hand knowledge of how sibling position might operate at work.  I could guess, and I would assume there is some logical correlations.  Functioning positions in all kinds of groups make an impact on any individual’s ability to perform. I would guess that the numbers in families might also make a difference. Odd numbers might not work that well, as it’s easier to gang up. It’s like The Apprentice over and over again. And as Bill Crosby said, the parents who have one child do not know what its like to be a parent.  The Not so Subtle Influences within the Nuclear Family In my family of origin there are four siblings.  I have two older sisters and a younger brother.  I am close to my bother and my older sister.  The sister next to me and I are a lot alike physically.  The physical characteristics are interesting.  Both my parents were brown eyed and two of the siblings have recessive traits with blue eyes.  My brother is much more introverted and into mountain climbing and is not afraid of physical risk.  I have no interest in that but my business life is far more risk-prone than his. I like to talk to people and he likes to read books. He is more like my mother and I am in general more like my Dad.  I was close to my Dad but I know I gave him heart-burn.  Our personalities are alike. Mother was into the arts. She was very bright and personable was president of her class at Wellesley. She was the youngest of five.  Even though my Dad went to Harvard business school he did not like to read at home. I like to read like my Mom.  Dad does likes to read about airplanes and so did I. We had a common interest in airplanes.  I still like reading about planes.  Dad was a Navy pilot but my vision was so bad that I could not go in the service and fly.  But I wanted to be apart of the effort and so I enlisted in the Navy reserve after college at 21. That was an important decision for me. I will cogitate on something then I will do it. I do not agonizing over the decisions that I make, I have to focus my attention to getting things done. Mother will agonize over the decision. I am sure this gets in her way. It’s interesting to think about the diversity in families and who got influenced by what behavior and where the overlaps are. 

AMS – Often people in families learn just as well by positive identification as they do by seeing certain traits as negative and not wanting to go in the direction. Overall, it sounds like you identified more with your Dad but respected your Mom and of course you have the two older sisters.  It would be very important not to over agonize about decision if you are a leader so that is an important skill to pick up. 

DP – I think the decision to enlist was a very important one. You earned more respect by enlisting as you learned more about relating to all kinds of people and making your own way.  The fact that you became an executive in the USO after enlisting gives you a different viewpoint on how to think about issues. NP – Yes, and I can see the problems for woman in society due to seeing the personal experiences of my sisters. My sister Kathy is very smart.  She did very well working for a bank and then she married and had children, and this was a kind of death for her career. Once you get off the track then if and when you come back to work, as my sister did after fifteen years or so, you find yourself way far down in the hierarchy.  DP – The problem is clear but woman still have to compete with men and put a similar effort in to achieve a similar reward.  Woman should not use their family duties as an excuse not to do as well as men. NP – That may be but the legal system does not allow you to say this to a woman “you have to remain on the job in order to compete with the men.”  Unfortunately there are stereotypes and if a woman needs more time away from work for her family, she can get written off as a not serious contender.  On the other hand if woman try to keep up with men the children can pay a price.  I try to teach people to consider the risks and rewards and the far reaching consequences of decision. Often one of the partners can make a decision to have the career and the other can stay home. But for some families there is no choice both parents have to work. I would hope that having children is a choice, so I say to people, “Be mindful of your choices. If you have children then that is your first commitment.”  In her book Judith Wallerstein talks about second chances.  She seems to think that it does not matter if the men stay home with the children or the woman.  But we know there are issues that have to be resolved.  After all we do not have the ability to change the biological fact that women are the ones that have the babies and this causes some angst if the mother has to leave the children and go to work. 

DP – The traditional way is that women are more often the nurturing ones for the family and the men are the breadwinners.  In my family what I took away was that the father had the better life. I am sure there are a lot of different influences in order to answer the question, “Do I want a career or do I want to be a caretaker?   There is some kind of a biological push, and then there are the family hopes. In my home it looked like the men had the more interesting life and the woman have the chores. If a woman identifies positively with her Dad’s path over the mothers then it may be that the woman has almost self selected to choose a career over having children.  I am a first-born with a younger brother and while Mom and her friends were in the kitchen cleaning up, I preferred to go and sit with Dad and his friends talking in the den.  My mother is a bright woman who had a career in modeling but then gave it up to have a family.  I think she may have also wanted me to have a career as she never taught me the things she knew about make up and was more interested in my doing well in school. But she was also definitely interest in me getting married.  I can see from my family history were some of these influences began. My maternal grandmother, Flora, was able to figure out how to leave Poland/Russia at the very young age of thirteen.  She decided she was going to go to Kansas City and live with her uncle. She had head her parents would have to sell the family farm to raise a dowry for her.  She was the youngest child and the only girl. She did not want that to happen so she wrote her uncle in Kansas City and said she would come and work for him as his servant if he would pay for her trip to the USA. Flora never saw her family again but she did create a family of her own.  She married five times and my mother has four older stepsiblings.  In her later years Flora lived with us for six months and then year after year, she would get on the bus and go visit her other children in California.   

I guess from her own mother’s life, my mother got the ideas of the importance of finding a good husband and she hoped I would find one too, and now I have on in Ned. 

But overall I was more identified with my father and thought he had a more interesting life.  My Dad’s family was also well known in the business community. My paternal grandfather was one of thirteen. He and his brothers started a Chocolate Company in Wilmington, NC  before eventually moving to
Philadelphia. They produced candies like Goobers and Raisinettes.  
 But my grandfather died on my fourth birthday.  The Yahrzeit candle replaced my birthday candle.  He had divorced my grand mother years earlier. He was said to be the nice one and she, the mean one. Indeed she did not like any of her children’s spouses and became very isolated.  My father and his brother helped support her. After her death we went to clean up her place. It was a mess. But there were all kinds of very expensive jewelry hidden away.  She left the jewelry to me.  Who knows why? But again it reinforced in me the idea that I have to be careful to be self sufficient. All of this sensitivity finds its way into my marriage.  Sometimes Ned and I laugh that he is my cricket and I am his ant.  I make sure if it’s a cold winter we will survive and he says listen to the music and let’s dance.    The sibling rivalry with my brother also played into my doing well.  My brother was like the prince with blond hair and blue eyes, more like my mother.  But both my parents were focused on him.  I was perhaps trying to say I was as good as or better than Mark and then this competition turns out to be another factor in doing well.  AMS – Yes, sibling position is a good one you have your natural intelligence and then you have the conditions around you that support you or that handicap you.  What your parent’s sibling position is (and even their parent’s sibling position) makes a difference in the ability to relate to you. In your case and you’re mom and maternal grandmother were both youngest and you’re an oldest.  Therefore it may have been more difficult to identify with them.  DP – I made my choice to have a career and be self sufficient and my first assignment after Harvard business school was to be the publicist for NBC sat night live.  NP – I remember one time Uncle Lewis made the comment; the woman’s movement in this country is a luxury of the upper class. In the lower class both men and woman make about the same wages and are hard working.  When we were in Kenya there was no question of a woman working. Her way of contributing is to have children.  In many cultures woman are valued as child bearers. In the industrial countries woman began to be valued for contributing for their intellectual contributions to knowledge.  Some say that the largest single factor for the economic failure of Muslim countries is they have kept woman out of economic life.  There is still a struggle between woman who work and woman who stay home. You can see a kind of old fashioned ethics in the way Hillary Clinton is judged by the far right conservatives.  It is as though one feels that the other is too different from what has been, and is therefore threatening the status quo and the future.  DP – My mother did often seem desperate for me to get married.  NP – The biggest problems for men is their fathers and for woman the mothers. It’s about the expectation that you will follow in their footsteps. DP – There is something that depreciates your choice if your children do not follow in your footstep.  NP – I met a football player and he was telling a story about his son getting to be better than he was and so now to get his position back as the father he had to beat his son up.  So in some families there is the element of your doing well that the parents need and in others they can resent your success. Both a parent and a spouse have a way to reach in and push the button to downgrade your life effort. The parent-child relationships continue on in many different forms throughout life with all kinds of people. AMS – We are always vulnerable to the feedback we get from others that can over determine our path.  This is why its so important to have some kind of a compass so you can guide your own self, through a jungle of sensitivity created in the past. 

DP  – The woman I worked with who had reached a VP level at NBC still try to get together for a lunch once or twice a year.  Many of these successful women, who choose to have children, did so late in life.  When they pull out the pictures I can feel badly as I did not have children.  But I also realize how much they sacrificed to have and to raise these children.  It is really curious as to how many of these decisions, career vs. babies, are real choices and how much is programmed into us? AMS – We do have instincts for procreation but our brains are also hardwired to notice the changing landscape and adapt. The evidence is that the changes in society are very radical now compared to how we have lived for millions of years as a more tribal species. The population explosion that occurred as we became an agricultural and then an industrialized society forced us to adapt to more social demands.  These changes happen, as adaptation to pressure, before we have time to reflect on them. No one decided that we needed to have woman in the work force or that we needed smaller families in the industrialized countries. These are just trends that reflect our ability to adapt to changing conditions. 

DP – You can see how many instinctive patterns still play out. Put a bunch of woman into a group and it will not take long to see there is no real question about who is in charge. There is an almost instinctive knowledge about who will be in charge.  NP – Now if you insert a strong man into the woman’s group it will alter the dynamics immediately.  I am not sure how this relates but I heard some people in a restaurant complaining and the other person says we just have to rewrite your childhood to solve the problem. Perhaps it more than your childhood you would have to rewrite.  There are larger forces influencing us.  DP – If you watch dogs then you see how the alpha dogs keeps reinforcing his/her position.  Within groups people seem to know their roles and their positions almost immediately.  Men seem to have a definitive pecking order that is more of a command and control operation. The woman’s pecking order is based on something else.  I found it difficult to navigate the woman’s pecking order but then I had one brother and women are more of a mystery. NP – There is a different dynamic among men.  Leadership is ultimately about trust.The group has to have trust that you know where you are going, and you have to have a connection to your followers.  They want to know where you are going and how you will get there and that you care about them.  Look at Clinton even thought people knew he lied to them about his personal life, and that this was a bad thing, they did not feel personally betrayed. They looked around and saw that their life was better and felt he had delivered on his promise to them and therefore Clinton left office with a 63% approval rating.  With men looks do not matter significantly or make a tremendous difference. Leadership is more intellectual.  I am not sure that is true for woman.  To some degree we are still hard wired to our biological heritage. 

To be a leader people have to be able to break the code of their group.   The question is how men and woman work it out to rise above the crowned and lead. We are hired wired to go along with the group; it may be more difficult at work to differ with the group. A small percentage of people can rise above and lead others, as they have some talents the group needs and social skills. DP – Is there a skill one can develop to have a more independent mind, remembering that any leader has to be able to “sooth” the group as he or she differs from them. Some people learn to joke and enjoy turning aside the “digs” from other females.  While someone like me learns to ask questions and find out more about other people.  These are all social skills useful in being a leader. 

NP – For men in high school their are two distinct leadership tracks: there are the athletes, and then there are the smart guys who win the awards.  When they go to college very few of the jocks how keep going, in college more of the intellectual types do well. Then when you get to graduate school it is even more focused on intellect.  I am not sure about the trends for woman?  The cheerleaders do not have to change they can continue on their track to get married. This is the path for the majority of woman, find a spouse. DP – Sometimes you see that the women who are leader have become the sons in the family. Their brothers do not do well and the sister seems to take over and excel.  AMS – One question would be did the parents directly or indirectly select the brightest one to focus on to be the leader of the next generation?  There are probably a lot of factors that go into the woman becoming the chosen one in the family. NP – As my family went it was handed down to me; it’s my job to go to work and be responsible rather than to be the nurturing one.  In general there is probably more awkwardness when it comes to men who take on the nurturing female role and look after the children while the wife goes on to be the career person. AMS -How do you all manage your career choices and how do you balance out the two careers in your family? NP – Choices always have consequences. There may be doubt and uncertainty at first.  My brother stayed in the family business while I went on to graduate school and was determined to do it myself.  It looked early on like my brother was going go to be more successful in the real estate business, but I took more risks and now both of us admire the others choices. DP – The way I see our careers is that we trade off. When I was able to get a job that was fabulous, we moved for my job.  About the time Ned had a great offer, my media company was bought out.  President Clinton challenged Ned to get involved and so we made a move here.  Now the next move might have been for my career but Ned was given this wonderful opportunity with the USO. I can be with him and travel and be useful to the organization so it worked out for each of us.  We talk these things over. NP – Both of us have been blessed with great wonderful mentors that are a bit older.  One of the men I admired walked out of Poland and came to this country after the war, and now I want to give back to younger people, as he did. This is another significant aspect of leadership.  Who do you invest in that sees your potential and invests in you as a future leader? I also knew that I wanted a spouse that is intelligent.

Diane is one of the first women I have known who I do not have to explain things to.  DP – There are good things and challenges about the fact that I have been in the business world. I often have opinions.  I have a strict sense of justice. Once I was serving on the board as a member of the investment committee and found out that three of the board members had a conflict of interest.  I stuck it out for two years during which time the facts came out and the various people resigned. This was good example of staying with your group while managing to keep factual and true about your values.  It is not easy to do.  Woman in management positions face a lot of resistance so you can not slip up.     MentorsThen I was fortunate to work for Grant Tinker “the man who saved NBC” when he served as the network’s chairman and CEO from 1981 to 1986. His vision was to hire the best creative people and let them work without interference from executives at the networks.  He lived his values.  Once I was at the airport waiting for my bags and he saw me and asked me if I wanted a ride. The cost of the ride was to answer a lot of question he had about my take on the company.  I was a low person in the organization and was amazed at how interested he was in what I thought.  I have kept this kind of attitude with all the people I run into.  You never know what you are going to learn from the people around you, not matter their position. One of my strengths is that I will stand up for the people under me and defend them to the end.   The down side is I do not find it easy to sell myself to the bosses.  NP – Another important aspect of being a leader is that you need to know your strengths and weaknesses.  When people would ask me a question I would answer and then people said that they learned a lot from me. Finally, I saw that I was able to mentor people. As a couple one of the fun things is that we almost simultaneous think deeply about things and are willing to talk about our life experiences.    Challenges for WomanDP – I am still thinking about the issues for women.  I think one of the biggest challenges in business is how caught woman are caught in the social approval game.  Woman can be another woman’s worst enemy.  Often they want the other woman’s approval for looking good rather than for work well done.  And then as I have seen it, it almost seems more natural to do in another woman in order to help a man than to help another woman. AMS – I wonder if a woman’s natural role has been to find a husband and raise children then in that circumstance there is little overt competition with woman in the neighborhood. People cooperate easily to raise children.  But once you put unattached woman together, without children nearby, you alter the cooperative dynamic.  Once you introduce a man there is competition at an instinctual level. Now how that is handled depends on the woman’s level of awareness and their ability to see it.  It would seem there are many things we can lean about that will make it possible for men and woman to work cooperatively together.  I see now that the trend is for more woman to be attending college than men.  This will force more pressure for change. There are many unanswered question as to how people will cope and adapt with all these larger trends that are occurring in society.    I want to thank you each for your time and your treasure of ideas and experiences. Ned Powell’s Mindful Compass Points1) The ability to define a vision: 

Ned was clear that his family values are important to him.  He based his vision of giving back to the community on these values.  In fact one could make the case that he has used his basic family value, of contributing back to the community; to perform well in any job he is given.   Since Ned has worked in a variety of jobs the skill that he noted as significant was to consider the importance of deep values in making decisions.  Secondarily, he noted that being able to consider many factors before making a decision, without over worrying, is a key skill to putting any vision into place. A third point would be one that his wife brought out about him and that was his ability to relate to all kinds of people.  It made a difference that he enlisted in the armed forces. This gave him the opportunity to test his skills and to know the broader population.  Understanding people is a prime requisite for any leader. Leaders have often commented that they take in a lot of information and try to be as efficient as they can about their time. Few would disagree that it is important to have a wide variation in ideas in order to make good decisions. But it takes a special talent to enable people to feel safe and valued so that many ideas present in a group will surface.  The fourth point in enabling a vision to become a reality was the hard work of filtering the ideas and developing a comprehensive plan or solution. Ned has many years of practice in different arenas, making tough decisions and then keeping on the path, even when people around him object.  He always demonstrated the skill of being able to relate well to the people around him, to enhance his ability to communicate his vision while enabling his vision to become a reality. The calmness and certainty of Ned comes across when ever you see him both in informal and more professional occasions. When you talk to him almost on any topic he seems to have thought carefully about many different viewpoints.  This ability to think carefully often reassures the uncertainty in a group enabling foreword progress.  The ability to see the group dynamics and also connect with people in the group enables Ned Powell to move forward with confidence.  It is clear that in his case these social skills were learned very young, by noticing how people in his family related over the generations.    (2) The resistance to change in self and in any system:  The story Ned tells us abut his uncle’s very subtle influence to reinforce the generational norms is both instructive and endearing.  He did not tell us the details of how he handled the pressure but we can assume from how the story is told it was no big deal.    Being able to handle even subtle pressure to change self for another is a leadership skill that is so very important.  How do any of us not create more reactivity when people put pressure on us to change for them?   

Both members of a social group and family members can have undue influence on a leader. If the leader reacts negatively to interpersonal pressure the whole situation can deteriorate.  Ned Powell demonstrated that he can keep a sense of humor with his uncle; this gives us an idea of his ability to have perspective when ever resistance appears.  (3) The ability to connect: Ned comes from a family with three siblings and a long history of living in one area.  He learned from watching his sisters, that woman often have greater difficulties in sustaining a career decision.  The conflict with family needs and the needs of the job are often at loggerheads. He has taken this knowledge and used it  to enable woman in his organizations to do well, just by recognizing what it is woman are up against without judgment. He is able to let people see the facts and make a thoughtful cost benefit analysis and then make their own decisions.    As a young man he enlisted in the service and this gave him the opportunity to build on his ability to relate well to all kinds of people.   No doubt his leadership’s style of enjoying being in personal contact with a larger network of people began when he was young.  His family connections lead to his larger community connections, which then helped him remain connected to a larger network in his jobs.  One other connection that Ned Powell mentioned was the skill of team work learned in sports. Sorts are a proving ground for team work and for leadership. These skills are now evident in his enjoyment of playing golf. Golf is game which allows him to get to know people in a competitive situation. There will be a winner and a loser today but that can and often does shift in the future. This is good to remember in business. Not taking sides and watching what happens in the moment are skills that golf encourages.   Golf too is a game of risk where one’s physical skills, values and ability to relate well, to the foursome of the moment, are equally important. In summery, leadership in one’s life can be learned in many different ways but it is an advantage to be able to play and to think well in our daily life. 

(4)  The ability to be separate:

in many short interviews, you can not always get a story to demonstrate deeply each point on the compass.  But to be able to make choices that go against the family grain can force any of us to experience a moment or two of separateness.  This has to be good for you. Dual Careers and MarriagesNoticing how you are different from significant others and allowing that to exist without upset is so important to a leader’s ability to relate well to others.  Being separate gives any of us an opportunity to consider what our deep values are and how to live by them without impinging on others.  This is a primary skill in managing a marriage. Both of the Powell’s are able to demonstrate great respect for one another’s talents and differences.   Diane Powell’s Mindful Compass Points 1) The ability to define a vision:  Diane talked about her early need to be self sufficient while remaining true to her deeply held values.  She had positive family expectations that fit with her talents and desires to achieve. 

Growing up in an intellectual stimulating environment enabled her to enjoy learning and translated into her doing well in academic settings.  As she encountered challenges, being a tall outspoken woman in corporate America, she used her personal learning experiences to consider the bigger picture.  Her question was and is how can woman help other woman to do well?  In her view woman needed to have a realistic picture of what the costs to their personal and family lives might be to do well in business. The benefits were more obvious. Some women may naturally understand group dynamics while others may need more mentoring.  One question she asked was, if there were more women, with greater awareness, on corporate boards would that promote more opportunity for woman to live up to their potential?   (2) The resistance to change in self and in any system: 

The story that Diane tell us about how she served on a board where she found out that several of the directors had a conflict of interests was a good example of how a leader can know the problem but must still come to terms with the fact that it still takes a very long time for change to occur.   It through seeing problem solving as a process that becomes more neutral and is able to relate well to others. Often the leader has to sit with the opposition, and with the tension in the group, while nothing seems to be happening.  It may be tempting or even easier to quite the board or the job rather than to stick dealing with the slow process of interpersonal change in a group.  If one person changes at a time and the change has to happen because the individual understand from within self then you can see why change in an interlocking system takes a long time.   Seeing the big picture and having patience are two traits of successful leaders for whom resistance is no big deal.(3) The ability to connect: Being able to build networks of supportive people is important to any leader.  It is not necessary that these networks of people are directly connected to one’s job or current career. 

Overall people need to have balance in many relationship systems so that if one is uptight the others might be welcoming.  A good example in Diane’s story is in the group of women who have been vice presidents at NBC.  They still keep up with each other as part of being connected to their own history.  Just as people like to have knowledge of their family history so too keeping up with ones co-workers adds depth and genuineness.  She described her own growth in relationship to the different paths other individuals had taken.  I t is always good to be able to questions one decisions and wonder what would have happened if you had taken the same path that Alice took, and then come to find your self pleased with your choices. 

Often people say. “I do not want to go to this or that reunions as it would be too painful to see so and so.” Many miss the opportunity to go to the emotional gym and have a good workout.   We are often held to a higher standard by the people who have known us the longest.  There also may be some correlation between long standing relationships in one’s family and long standing friendships in one’s working world.   

(4)  The ability to be separate: Diane is one of many woman leaders who had commented on being separate from their peer group growing up.  She noted that her Mom did not encourage her to use make up and that she found it difficult to figure out how to be at ease with girls her age.  If you do not fit in with your social group then people often fall back on their skills which are often more intellectual or athletic. These kinds of skill are not as subject to group pressure. Yet as Diane also says, “you have to unlock the ability to relate well to groups of people in order to be their leader.” 

The ability to ask good questions and really listen to others is grounded in her ability to be separate and relate to people as separate individuals.  As a bonus Diane noted that her ability to understand her husband was part and parcel of her ability to listen well and to risk being open with all kinds of people.                                        





Geraldine MacDonald is retired Senior Vice President, Global Access Networks, America Online, Inc. For 25 years, she was responsible for computing and networking at the

University of
New York at

In his book Serious Play, Michael Schrage identifies a leadership trait he calls “retrospective sense-making.” It is a trait that enables leaders to link the past and the present to the future. Individuals so gifted automatically use their relationship knowledge to build future success. If you ask them, they can reflect on how they got from point A to point D, and can assess the probability of getting to point E by doing X, Y or Z. 

Most people don’t easily link their preferred ways of working as leaders or team members to situations in their early lives. But this is a skill that can be learned. When you think about your early experiences, about what happened and why, that older knowledge will emerge as connected to the patterns in your life today. You will probably have to do quite a lot of reflecting to see these patterns as they take shape, but it will be time well spent. 

MacDonald is a leader in the technology arena, able to reflect on the early relationships and events that made significant impressions on her. There may be certain kinds of experiences that reinforce the traits needed to be successful in different fields.  

Clearly, to be a leader in technology one has to be able to let go of the past ways of doing business or producing products. The product life of soda drinks, for example, is very different from the product life of cell phones.  

MacDonald is an oldest female with a younger sister and brother. She recounts her early experience with her father and the dramatic stories of her family’s escape from Eastern Europe in the late 1930s. As an oldest sister of a two younger siblings, she would be more of a natural leader—as long as the family expectation for women was that they become leaders.
Leaders often notice small changes and can see how they might become future trends. When the group does not see the trend or get the message, the leader must have that special ability to stand apart until the group catches up. MacDonald talks about how families and mentors can enable young adults to develop the skill to be aware of the group’s direction, while also articulating a different way of proceeding. She also sees in her earlier experiences practical application for leadership training in schools and business.   

There were two interviews with MacDonald. The first I did by myself, but for the second I was joined by my long-term colleague Kathy Wiseman (KW). She helped me organize the nonprofit Leaders for Tomorrow and has been an organizational consultant for many years, mostly to family owned businesses. She is past president of the Family Firm Institute Research and Education Foundation, and has served as president of the Family Firm Institute. She is also founder and president of Working Systems, Inc., a consulting firm located in Washington, D.C., and creator of a radio and video production firm producing “Why Work: Stories from the American Workplace.” 

.MacDonald was able to use her knowledge of math and science to participate at a high level in the technological changes characterizing the 20th century. This is extraordinary, given the many impediments to women in the sciences that were the norm well into the 1970s. Now society would like to bottle and sell encouragement for women in these fields. How did it happen for her? I think there is something to be learned by listening to her story. 

GM – My Dad said, “Just worry about math and science, which is the only thing that is important.” He was Jewish and came from a large family with perhaps eight or nine siblings. He was one of the younger ones. Many of them did not survive World War II. He was alert enough to see how society was changing, and escaped from Eastern Europe before the worst treatment of the Jewish people had begun. 

MacDonald’s father knew the situation in Eastern Europe was deteriorating when all Jewish people were required to report where they went every day. Seeing how much more restricted movement was becoming, he took steps to get out of the country. He had a passport that made it possible for him to leave Eastern Europe and go to France without as many problems as others had, but it was still extremely difficult. By comparison, the financial burden of leaving his business was no doubt a welcome risk, considering the personal risk of staying in Hitler’s

MacDonald’s mother’s the family was split in their ability to see and react to the changes in society. Her mother was the middle of three girls, and appeared to be the one most comfortable remaining with her parents, despite the threats around her. Her older sister was in her twenties at the time and was able to get a visa into the United States. The younger sister was part of a “kinder transport,” a program designed to save children under the age of 15 who were caught in Eastern Europe. A movie called “Into the Arms of Strangers” was made about this program.

GM – When I asked my Mom why she, too, did not flee, she said that she and her family just could not believe that their friends and neighbors would betray them. *************** 

The youngest sister was determined to get her parents and middle sister out. (She and every other child in the program had been told that it was their responsibility to see that their families escaped.) This sister worked on a plan to sponsor the rest of her family. She camped out on the doorstep of a potential sponsor with her request, day after day after day, until he finally agreed to help her. Although the sister might have been described as “pushy,” it was this trait that was so necessary to save her family. ***************
AMS – It is very difficult to change basic assumptions about how safe the world is and how secure one’s position is in it. And it requires great courage to let go of past comforts. But if we want to consider different mental models of the world, we have to let go of the old way of seeing. And I assume that those who in the 1930s realized that the world was changing and would never be the same might have passed on this ability to “see” to their offspring.
GM – Well, I am not sure about how all that influenced me, but I am an oldest and am used to pushing the envelope and constantly striving.
AMS – Global uncertainty and unrest can destabilize family functioning—that’s clear. But a family with a relationship system that incorporates a thoughtful view of the outside world can give realistic feedback about what is changing in society and what needs to be done now. Your family clearly demonstrates how the ability to see the possibilities in the future can lead to success.

My general thesis is that people emerge from their families with higher levels of functioning if the family relationship system is calm and reasonably focused on doing what needs to be done. This is much healthier than thinking fearfully of the past or about the future. It’s not that people don’t experience fear. They often do, but then they can let it go and not use fear as nightly entertainment.
How Family Relationships Affect Later Work Relationships
GM –Children learn very early the difference between what is acceptable and what is not. As they grow up, they continually push those boundaries. For a creative person, the key is to be able to push the boundaries without having the parents—or, in later life, the boss—crack down too severely.

AMS – One of my favorite stories is about Jane Goodall’s early life. Jane was missing for hours. Unaware of the fuss, she was happily watching how chickens laid their eggs. When her mother found her, Jane was not punished. The mother understood that Jane was a budding scientist and an observer at heart. She had just pushed the parental boundaries a bit, but not to the point of anger.

GM – In the best cases, children will risk and the parents will form a kind of management team. I think there are many similarities between these informal family “rules” and the ways organizations are run. Let me give you some of my ideas:
1) Feedback: In well-functioning families and organizations, individuals receive immediate feedback for boundary infractions. They are also given positive motivational rewards for good work. In a family, a child can earn a dime for doing good work, and can also lose money or privileges if he or she is disrespectful or breaks the rules. In companies, the feedback is much more complex, of course, because it includes input from customers.
2) Expectations: Both parents and bosses can be guilty of setting unrealistic expectations. This creates problems in corporate America, just as it does in families. I think it’s best to give newer people a chance to prove how well they function, realistically, before hoping or deciding that they will be the next leader.
3) Assumptions: The needs of the corporation and the needs of the family can become so great that making an accurate assessment of any individual’s talent is difficult. Workers, like children, then might try to become something for “the other.” This type of pretending to be what one is not eventually leads to disappointments and frustration for both.

AMS – Another assumption that people hold, is that before five years of age children are primarily influenced by their relationship with their parents. After five, children become more and more sensitive to how peers view them. Many youngsters’ values are a result of their orientation to peer group standards—a process that results in conflicts with their parents during high school. Eventually, each individual will select the more personally meaningful set of values. Some will be from the parents and others from their peers. This means that some young adults will emerge with a tilt more toward just accepting the peer group’s values, while others will be more stabilized from within self as the values have been well integrated in to who that individual is and is automatically reflected in behavior,   

Those individuals who are able to reflect on the family values and take what they need from the family, often find it easier to stabilize self during the hectic teen years.


Internal values which an individual is clear about, helps teens be more independent, creative and flexible. To reach this point, however, each individual must run the gantlet of peer pressures.

GM Often peer approval is more important to girls than to boys. Boys may spend more time learning team values. The highest value for girls is often more about looking good and fitting in with the group. Boys can be athletes or smart and still be accepted. What can make a difference as children approach their teen years is accurate feedback from parents, and the parents’ ability and willingness to support the child’s natural talents. This is one of those areas where companies and families are similar. When companies give accurate feedback, it reinforces and sustains individual accomplishments while enabling diverse individuals to work productively inside the system.

As individuals climb the corporate ladder they encounter more responsibility and tougher rules. Long-term goals are crucial for a CEO, whereas new employees have short-term projects. Leaders are concerned with the long-term vision for the company, while new people have shorter-term goals, like needing to have the right tools to get the job done. At each level, success is measured differently.

Apprenticeship and Mentoring
GM Organizations used to have more of a relationship model for teaching and learning. This was a time when taking on an individual as an apprentice, being a mentor, was popular. Now some companies look for the “knowledge worker,” the ones who come to work with the tools and know what to do. No serious mentoring or training required. This is very different from how people have lived for thousands of years. In the agricultural economy, jobs were similar from generation to generation. There was less need to specialize.

AMS – Does this imply that the boss or the management team has less impact on the worker as there is a feeling that no matter what you do there is less overall company loyalty? One piece of evidence is that the company is investing less and less in its employees.
GM – This differs from company to company. The parent’s job with the teenager could be seen as similar to the job of an aware CEO who is looking for a replacement. You want someone to take over a role. It is not to be yours forever, so you have to invest in the future performance of your new people.

AMS – Let’s consider what part schools play in this leap between the family and the job. If the families fall down on the job or fall apart, we can be sure that the school’s job will harder—perhaps impossible. Schools can become a hoped-for replacement for the family. Then the organization becomes the next family-like replacement. A solution that many religious and coaching organizations have suggested is renewed focus on values and character. To the extent that this makes people think about the long-term consequences of how they deal with one another, it can be useful. But if people have disregarded their family members and become more isolated, that is a cycle of greater and greater limitation, generating more and more sensitivity in relationships. The bottom line is that each segment of society has to deal with the relationships. Organizations can make rules about harassment, discrimination and other issues, but they fail to address the deep nature of the problem. What will probably happen over time is a slow recognition of the nature of relationships and their impact on the business environment.Another question: Are men and women moving toward more cooperative relationships at work?GM – Women have been in the workforce in large numbers since World War II. Women are probably better at trusting their instincts. Men are about teamwork. You learn on teams what cannot be taught in classrooms. Men learn to cooperate on teams. Women have a harder time, especially if they did not play sports. Every company has teams that are formed to solve intellectual problems. Now high-schools teams are being encouraged to solve problems. For example, there is a program (Odyssey of the Mind) that gives the students one year to solve a particular problem. In solving the problem, the students learn to work together as a team and to exploit the skills of their teammates.  AMS – One question I have asked is if families are thinking about preparing children for teamwork?  Do they allocate tasks that allow kids succeed? Without some focus on teams and an individual’s responsibility to contribute to the whole, people will tend to follow the leader. We see herd mentality. Some people will say that teaching teamwork and leadership is not going to help, since it’s “obvious” that entrepreneurs are just born into the right times and even the right neighborhood where experimentation is going on. But I see a great need in schools to clarify the skills needed to become a leader. After all, only a few young adults can get to be the football quarterback.   KW What are the qualities you are seeing in leaders?  GM – First of all you have to be intelligent. I enjoyed the TV program The Apprentice because it shows how people use all kinds of smarts to do well. Initially, the women went overboard, selling a kiss with the lemonade. Then the producers had a more mixed team between the men and women, and that more sexualized behavior fell out. One woman took the blame for the failures, but Donald Trump told her that he wanted her to fight with him about what had gone wrong. People often misread their bosses and then do not deal with them directly. What is the skill set you need to teach? Relationship awareness might be a skill that can be learned more easily when you are young.  AMS – Can you teach an introvert to be an extroverted leader?  GM – Perhaps it is easier to learn to be a follower and go along, but if you want to be a leader you have to be willing to take a risk and live with success and failure. To summarize, I would say there are four points: being aware of your natural strength; having relationship skills, such as knowing who to trust and who not to trust; knowing when to take a risk; and having the confidence to go with your instinct, to go with what you think is right.KW – Is there an example of when you took a risk?  GM – In 1968, when I was 19 and a half years old, I graduated from college and made a risky decision to go into computers. I could have taken a safe job for a woman and been a teacher. Another interesting fork in the road was when I interviewed with AOL. I had been teaching and building technology systems for 25 years when a friend told me that there was a job at AOL and asked if I would be interested. This was early 1995. AOL was a distant third in online services. But I saw the potential. I thought that I would be crazy not to take the job, even though it was a big risk. But I was right. Six months later AOL was leading the Internet revolution. We really did change the way business was done, and I am so pleased that I made that decision.KW – Are there times when you have to define yourself to the team and you get a push back?  GM – Yes. When I was line manager at AOL I had to do this every day. In fact, I also had to say to my boss, “You are not paying me to say yes to you on everything. If that were so, then you do not need me.”  If you have an acquired skill set it is easier to make risky decisions. Making decisions about softer things, like when to get married, is a different kind of analysis. In business you have measurements and a series of checks and balances to see if you are making the right decision. I like to use the football analogy. The quarterback leads the plays, but the team’s performance is what is really being measured. In the same way, the company’s’ leaders set the goals, and then each department has to see that it is on the right page and that there are goods metrics to measure success.  AMS – Do you think being able to talk more openly with your father helped you in business? GM – Yes, it helps to be able to talk to your parents, but it also helps if your parents are providing a secure environment. I had parents who were willing to trust that I was making the right decision. You need someone who believes in you, not someone who is constantly questioning you. The parents have to be willing to believe that the children are making the right decisions and can live with the consequences. The parents who criticize too much are eroding the child’s chances to learn from their experiences. The parents become too powerful. They make it so the child’s opinions do not count. Both parents and children should have a right to be heard.KW – Would you say that leaders are looking for ways to build maturity or foster maturity in an organization? GM – You do this by observing how people operate in teams. You see who the contributors are, and you reinforce their achievements by saying, “You did a great job with that, now would you like to try this?” By keeping them in a feedback loop and giving them more responsibility, you help them to learn how to be successful. Of course, you can learn from your failures, too.If a company wants to grow leaders from within, it has to create a way to see who these leaders are, how various individuals function in the group. If you ask middle managers to identify potential leaders, they might point to their best friends. So, you have to set up work groups to see who will be able to contribute. It is up to the senior people to look for potential leaders and figure out how to bring them along. It also depends on the company. There are companies that, in times of slower growth, develop leaders from within. When there are mergers, then new leaders may be picked from outside. Then you have to focus more on integrating the two cultures.   Young adults also need opportunities to do something different. Both schools and families could be more conscious of who gets to do what. Being more inclusive would require an effort on the part of schools. ***************MacDonald switched her emphasis on leadership building and teamwork to a look at the ability to spot trends and the influence of family.***************AMS You got to see your father’s genuine interest in taking things apart.  GM – When I was at college, my Dad loved going to auctions. There was a clock he wanted a part for, but to get the part he had to buy a box of these clocks. There were probably 50 of them. He put them all around the house, and at night there was symphony of clocks. I will never forget that.  AMS – Do you think you learned to see future trends from you’re Dad? GM I am not sure that there is a direct correlation. Individuals who can really see trends are not always leaders. They tend to be more removed from people, tend to be more thinkers than doers. But my Dad and his clocks helped me see more about how things work, and that got me over some of the technical barriers. I think being a woman in a technical field is a real issue. There are lots of men who will not hear what you say just because you are a woman. But if you ask them if they would want that to happen to their daughters, well, that can be an eye-opening experience for them. In certain forms of corporate America, fighting is not appreciated. Women have more passion. Donald Trump noticed this and recognized that there is a difference. But, in general, corporate America is not there yet. I think that as there are more and more women in the workplace, the different ways of communicating strong opinions will become more accepted.  When you are woman and doing something by yourself, you think you should get credit for it. But I think that if you are moving up in a company, you don’t have to worry about getting credit. Instead, if you reinforce what others are saying that is close to what you think, suddenly people seem to be able to hear you. Then you can get things done.You also have to be aware that there are people who want your job and who will try to do you in. This is just the nature of corporations. Helping people understand who to trust is very important. You have to figure out how to get realistic feedback from people you work with. What is dangerous is not the personal criticism, but the negative messages that float around you.  AMS – Do you think that having a more open family helps you to deal with criticism at work?  GM – I think most families are loyal to one another above all, and that in families you do not experience the political backstabbing that is in corporate America. Perhaps your teenage peer groups are closer to what goes on. There are cliques in corporate America, just like there are in high school. KW – Are there skills as a leader you would like to acquire? GM – I am working on ways to socialize my thinking. When I have a project that I want supported, I go around and have one-to-one chats with people about my research and what I am thinking. This is something I think I had to learn—how to get people you’re working with to put some of their own skin  into the project. If you can do it, you have a better chance of success. How you get a team to work well is a big part of a leader’s job.  AMS – I hear you as saying that there are skills you pick up in your family, and that you then have to develop them when you get into your job. There are things that no book can teach you—there’s just your ability to observe relationships and to notice what works in the moment.  Thank you again for giving us so much of your time and being willing to continue to think about these ideas. It’s been fun. 

Geraldine MacDonald’s Mindful Compass Points(1) The ability to define a vision: MacDonald highlights the early influence of her father on her career choice. Her father loved and had a great curiosity about technology; she built on his encouragement and embraced her own dream. The ability to build on your family’s intellectual resources facilitates taking a calculated risk with your own vision. When MacDonald saw an opportunity at AOL that fit with her long-term vision of connecting people through the Internet, she took the risk. That decision ultimately enhanced her ability to make a significant difference in opening up a new market and changing the way people around the world do business. 

(2) The resistance to change in self and in any system: MacDonald also told us about her father’s coaching in regard to the pressure to fit in with her peer group versus following her own dreams. (“Just worry about math and science, which is the only thing that is important.”) For MacDonald, that advice has stood the test time. She used this idea when her mother could not understand her career choice. In addition, MacDonald was later able to step back and let her own daughter find her own career path. Like most of us, MacDonald has experienced those “odd person out” feelings that can be associated with being a woman in business, or with having ideas that are not well understood by people who are important to you. Being able to stay centered, without reacting or taking a passive or revengeful stance, as those people try to catch up with your thinking, or as they reject you and your ideas, is a key ingredient to working with teams. 

(3) The ability to connect: MacDonald is very much aware of and grateful for the courageous people in her multigenerational history. And clearly, she is knowledgeable about the impact of looking after family members. But the degree to which building and sustaining her family network has helped her in building her business network was not clearly addressed. Generally, however, people who maintain good connections with their families find it natural to sustain a well-functioning network of friends and business associates. 

In her nuclear family experience, MacDonald saw her father’s sincere interest in doing well. This was transmitted to her. He had his own business and could see the impermanence of trends. Therefore, as he predicted the future in technology, he stressed to his daughter the importance of math and science in preparing for a future career in that field. As a seasoned observer of how people pressure each other in social ways, he was able to warn his daughter about the dubious good of trying to fit in with the girls her age by rejecting “boys’ subjects,” math and science. 

In addition to talking, he walked the technology walk. Very probably her father’s love of mechanical things gave his insistence on the importance of math and science a more realistic base. This is an example of the genuine strengths in the father-daughter relationship, coherence between what is said and what one does, and it probably enabled MacDonald to take the more challenging, less popular road.  

While her father was obviously very aware of the changes happening in society, it is unsaid but assumed that the mother fully supported his position, encouraging math and science for her daughter. 

Finally, because the ability to have a respectful relationship with one’s boss is often related to one’s ability to have an open relationship with one’s first authority figure, the father-child relationship can influence one’s ability to connect. 

(4) The ability to be separate: As a youngster, MacDonald saw her father disassemble motors just so he could understand how they were made. As an adult, she watched him put together a box full of clocks. He was interested in making things work and in getting a good price. His example retains a firm and fun-filled place in her retrospections about her family experiences.
Her father was also convinced that he could see the way the future would turn to embrace technology. He saw the introduction of TV to the American home and concluded that Americans were in the early stages of a technological revolution.

Parents who communicate easily often have a genuine interest in the subject, rather than an agenda to make the child “do the right things.”


Learning by identifying positively with a parent’s message makes it easier for children to learn both by imitation and by listening to stories. Although her parents influenced MacDonald to stay in science, there was no undue pressure to go in a direction that did not fit with her underlying strengths. Most important is that her father saw MacDonald’s strengths and was able to uphold her ability to make the most of them. 

Having had a positive mentoring relationship with her father probably made it easier for MacDonald to relate to men in authority. She could also see the importance of men and women working in cooperative relationships, and noted that men with daughters were more likely to enable women to be successful. 

Knowing the way systems operate as natural phenomena makes it possible to stay separate and not overly react to the way things are. Being a good observer without reactivity also enables people to make small changes when there are openings for changes, rather than trying to force a system to be more ideal.   




Ladonna Lee is a strategic communications consultant who has worked with many of the top political leaders and committees in Washington, D.C. As of this writing, she is employed at Foley & Lardner, LLP, a law firm in that city. (I met her through my friendship with David Schwartz.) 

Ladonna Lee is the second of eight siblings, and was raised with them on a ranch in
Colorado. Sibling position is an important fact in developing an understanding of the patterns that emerge in a given family system. Different sibling positions have different advantages and disadvantages. Many leaders, for example, are oldest children, since responsibility is thrust on them at an early age. However, if the oldest child does not naturally take to a leadership role, that responsibility can fall on the next willing child.

In most families, the oldest child initially takes up most of the mother’s time, while the second child often spends more time with the father. In families that emphasize careers and education, the second child may have an advantage in being closer to the father—who often has a career outside the home. And, true to form, Ladonna Lee was special to her Dad. He was special to her, as well, and over time she became a family leader. 

In my interview with her, Ladonna’s (I use her first name as I have known her personally for some time) was able to convey a feeling of the forces that her family contended with by giving me just a few well-chosen thoughts and memories. This was enough to create a background understanding of the times and influences at work in her early family life.  

“My parents lived though the Depression,” she explained. “My Dad was sent away after eighth grade to herd sheep” because there was not enough money to get by in those days. The money he and the other older children earned was given back to the family.  

Ladonna’s Dad had a clear influence on her choice of career. Here is how she explained what she heard about his beliefs and saw in his actions, and where she differed from him. 

“My Dad’s political responsibility was about being able to influence his situation. He believed that parents could influence their children. His belief was that children’s philosophy and values were largely formed by the time they are six years old.” 

Ladonna believes that there is further shaping and influence once a person leaves the family unit. And we know that politics is one way you can influence people. 

“My Dad was interested in local politics first. There was no high school in our rural area. My older sister had to go live with another family so that she could attend high school. School was important to Dad. He decided to run for political office so he could make sure there was a high school locally so that the rest of his kids would not be sent away.” 

In talking about her unique skills, Ladonna said that in her family, it was expected that the children would do their jobs without being asked. Her father would brag that, “Ladonna could grease the windmill, and be ready for Church in 20 minutes.” With eight children, the uniqueness of each was valued—but to receive individual recognition was special.  

“By the time I was a senior in high school, Dad ran for the state legislature. When I was a freshman in college he asked me if I would be interested in working at the Capitol during the sessions. It was great, I loved it—and I got to live with my Dad.”   

Ladonna added that during this experience she “got to see up close how the political system worked. What I found compelling about politics is that there are so many ways to let people have their voice. You are exposed to a lot of ideas, and there is a definite measuring stick to see if the ideas are workable: People get elected—or they do not.”   

Thinking about the progression of her work life, Ladonna said she made many choices on her way to finally selecting politics as a career. “One that stands out,” she said, “occurred when I was asked to interview for Vail Associates to be a corporate secretary to, among other things, wine and dine investors. Vail was a hard and fast lifestyle. It had some appeal to me at age 25. But I knew it was not the place to be if I wanted to raise a family. It was not my values or my lifestyle. I knew they appreciated me for being a blond and interesting woman, but this was not the talent I wanted to build on.” 

In life, she added, “There are many situations like this where one has to choose, to ask which of the choices represents a deeper value. The bigger driver for me was to move to another environment. I had spent time in Colorado and I wanted to know more about the broader world.  

“My career decision was practical-driven. I was working for the governor of Colorado when he lost the election. Then I got an offer to come work in D.C. for the Republican National Committee. This was post-Watergate, when very few people would publicly admit they were Republicans. I knew that there would be many opportunities here to solve problems.” 

Ladonna Lee’s Mindful Compass Points 

(1) The ability to define a vision: She recognizes how she has been influenced and can address the pros and cons of various opportunities before she articulates her own goals and makes a selection. 

(2) The resistance to change in self and in any system: Sometimes resistance appears in the guise of an easy way out, in Ladonna’s case a flashy job at Vail. Easy money, easy life—how many of us have been tempted to take a job that offers lots of benefits, but that could derail our long-term goals? Ladonna’s values were clearly stated: Let other voices be heard in the political process, and pick a task where success can be measured. (This is not to suggest that these are her only values. These are just two that popped out as she told her story.) 

(3) The ability to connect: Like many successful women, Ladonna had a sound relationship with her father. Having a role model whom you admire early on makes one’s life a lot easier. Women who have been fortunate enough to have positive relationships with their fathers find it is easier to build trusting relationships with men, to see them as allies, and to expect that men will do well by them.  

In addition, we can assume that Ladonna’s father encouraged her to build a working network of relationships as he himself had done. Once again, life is easier on those people who have positive experiences and can identify with their parental figures; they can build on that identification rather than struggle to figure out who to trust and how to build networks.   

(4) The ability to be separate: In her story, Ladonna described how as a child she showed leadership ability “in that no one had to ask me to do things.” The windmill story exemplifies her Dad noting her leadership ability. This brings up an interesting question about a leader’s ability to be emotionally separate and to do things more for self rather than to please others. Where is the motivation found to be wise and thoughtful for the long-term future for self? People find values for the long term to be refreshing once they are named. The confusion can come over the short-term consequences of staying with your long-term values in the face of opposition or conflict. (For example, it can get tricky if you like both pleasing people and doing a good job for yourself.)This is a dilemma that many people may not even recognize. The problem is that pleasing people can be dangerous; it can cause you to lose sight of your own direction and goals.  

People who care more about the work they are doing than about pleasing others are often called loners, or idea people, or introverts. These people usually stand out and do not fit in. And because they are not easily influenced, the group can react negatively them. 

But a person who can be in a relationship with others and withstand the lure of those oh-so-good feelings of being popular is a person who can be free. This person stands out and fits in. Do you fit this pattern?  

One way to answer that question is to gauge how comfortable you are spending time alone. Another is to inject a few minor differences into your relationship with someone with whom you normally agree, just to test how well you can swim in choppy waters. 

Ladonna’s story suggests that she is more on the side of the importance of work itself rather than winning approval from others. The ability to do one’s job without “needing” approval is crucial. You know that’s true if you’ve ever worked with someone who constantly sought your approval, or with someone who would either become paralyzed or mad as a hornet if you did not approve of what he or she were doing. 

In Ladonna’s case, the feedback from her Dad was not so much about approval as it was about expectations that you carried your weight and did the right thing no matter who was watching.   

A short story such as Ladonna’s can give us a good look at the big picture. Then it’s up to the individual to build on any insights or appraisal given by others—or, in the case of Ladonna, assess the feedback from her Dad about her ability and then use her talents in the service of a worthy windmill.  

The Importance of FeedbackAfter submitting the write-up of Ladonna’s interview to her, I asked if she had any other stories that could attest to the importance of being more emotionally separate as a leader, yet still in touch with others and able to function at a higher level. This is the story she kindly added: 

“When I was about 15, we arrived home on the school bus one night and found that our folks hadn’t gotten back from town yet. Shortly after dropping us off at home, the school bus driver roared back into the yard. He was hysterical and said that there had been a bad accident involving our pick-up and our folks were dead.” 

When Ladonna, dreading the worst, asked specifically who was dead, the man said he wasn’t sure. “He was incapable of functioning. I told my sister to call the ambulance, knowing it was over a 30-minute drive from the nearest town. I was getting ready to drive over to do what I could when our hired man, who was the driver of one of the vehicles in the accident, drove in and said help was on its way and that our folks weren’t back from town yet. Thankfully, I was saved from personally dealing with the carnage and finding out if my folks were the ones who had been killed. It was the first time for me that an adult hadn’t measured up to a major crisis, and I knew I had the capability to step in and deal with a terrible situation. Fortunately, my role then turned to one of calming my siblings and the bus driver and caring for our injured hired man.” 

Dr. Bowen wrote –  if individuals intellectual functioning can retain relative autonomy in periods of stress, they are more flexible, more adaptable and more independent of the emotionality around them. (Source: Family Therapy in Clinical Practice, page 362) 

Summery Thoughts – The Emotional WhirlpoolYes indeed—who wants to be sucked into a giant emotional whirlpool? Who wants to be frozen on a sea of obsessive thoughts? Well, the way to greater emotional freedom is through integrating and balancing two forces that exist in all emotional systems: fusion (the force to become joined with the other) and differentiation (the force to be a separate, functional individual).  

This integration can be accomplished by remaining in contact with even the most difficult people in your life. The key is to practice: Feel the fusion force and the ease of giving in, and then stop, get hold of your emotional backbone, and say no. Another way to make progress for self in relationships is to not lose your self in over-intellectualizing the relationships. Complaining and giving too many details to sympathetic friends can have you believing your worst nightmares. How much good can it do to feel the emotional dramas too intensely?  

We have seen that the less fused, intellectually and emotionally, a person is, the more independent he or she is. And the more independent or autonomous a person is, the less he or she will be influenced by irrational elements—whether they are in relationships with others or in how the brain itself functions. Doesn’t that sound like an authentic leader to you? 

Whatever forces come along demanding a change in you, it is important that you be able to change and adapt in your most thoughtful way. Otherwise, the good times will deteriorate as you cling to old ways of doing things under new and challenging conditions.