I want a man that stands beside me
Not in front of or behind me
Give me two arms that want to hold me, not own me
And I’ll give all the love in my heart
Stand beside me
Be true, don't tell lies to me
I’m not lookin’ for a fantasy
I want a man that who stands beside me
I’ve loved this song for a long time. The chorus lyrics ring true for me in so many different ways. For me, these lyrics symbolize equality and mutual respect. Yet, it took me a long time to truly understand them.
I grew up in staunchly patriarchal household. I married young with that expectation in mind. Even then, I liked the song. Mark and I talked about equality as something we wanted and strived for in our relationship, but the truth was I didn’t know how to lead. I certainly didn’t know how to leader as equal partners. So, Mark assumed the leadership position and all the responsibility the position entails; and it was exhausting.
In school, I learned how to assume the leadership position. As an excellent student with challenging goals, the leadership position was often mine by default. I knew my way worked, and so I enforced my way in order to achieve my goals—carrying my team mates along with me. By doing this, I closed my way off from other possibilities and other approaches. The grade was my goal and I went after my goal relentlessly.
I found I had a knack for leadership. I got things done, and my manner of doing things tended to work. So, as Mark grew more and more tired by the steady and weighty demands of leading our family, I took on more and more of the leadership role at home. Whereas once he stood in front of me—a bulwark against the nastiness of the world; now, he stood behind me—with me taking the brunt force of the world around us.
I found the power of these leadership roles alluring, but not very gratifying. In such a position, power is assumed and is ripe for abuse. Even well-intentioned people find themselves abusing the power of a leadership position, justifying the means via the ends. And the responsibility to face the brunt force of these decisions is exhausting. Yet, ignorance prevailed. I’d never been taught how to lead without assuming the leadership position. I didn’t know there was another way.
Over the last year, I’ve stepped back from these types of leadership positions in school. The pressures of assuming the leadership position at home made assuming the same position in group assignments undesirable. In doing so, I learned how to be the supportive person, the person who achieved the same goal (the grade) while using another’s approach and by facilitating that approach. It’s been a fascinating experience. I wasn’t standing in front of my team, nor was I standing behind the leader. I was standing beside the other person—supporting, influencing, helping, and shaping the goals of our team. As I tried to bring these lessons into our home life, something clicked into place between my husband and me.
Looking back I regret my ignorance. Perhaps fatigue would not plague Mark so much now if I’d known how to lead as a partner from the beginning. When I slipped into the leadership position, I felt the same profound tiredness he faced for years. Now, as we are both learning to lead together, as a team, our capacity to do is enhanced greatly. We stand united, neither in front nor behind, we stand beside each other, achieving more than we otherwise could. There’s still a lot of damage from my early patterns of behavior, but we’re together and together we both can heal.
With any form of leadership, there is a tendency to stand in front of those you represent. You call attention to yourself and speak on behalf of others. Our society expects this and encourages this. A spokesperson makes things easier for those who do not know how to lead or who do not want to. A cause or a group can be reduced to easily consumable sound bytes.
The trouble with a spokesperson is that this behavior does not encourage equality or mutual respect. It creates a focal point of attention. It creates celebrities and symbols that dehumanize not only the group the leader represents, but also the leader assuming the position.
In many ways, this is a good thing—it serves a real, almost-necessary purpose. Martin Luther King, Jr. played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement by assuming this focal position. He also paid a very steep price for his role. But even in death, he instigated action, his voice—suddenly silenced—was a rallying cry for others. Yet, there is also a tremendous amount of power inherent in such positions. And this power can be very seductive.
Leadership roles are a double-edged sword. Such a position is ripe for abuse. It is also exhausting and difficult to do well. The position is perceived as necessary in our society, because we need people to lead.
Leading, however, is a different act than assuming a leadership position. It’s a form of leadership, but without as many built-in faults. Leading can be done from any position. It can be done without power struggles. It can be done in a genuinely beneficial manner to all involved. Leading can be an act of equality and mutual respect, and does not have to involve leadership positions.
Sadly, this distinction seems to be poorly recognized. In our society, we train people to assume leadership positions. We seem enamored with them, assuming that such a position is necessary in order to have leadership. Our government is designed for people to assume leadership positions, and to engage in power struggles between divergent factions. It’s systemic and ingrained into our culture. Yet, with this system, have a profound need for leaders that often goes unfulfilled. We train people to assume leadership positions, where power is the reinforcing element of the leader. We do not train people to lead with influence and cooperation nearly so well.
Neurodiversity represents a very diverse group of people—a group of people made up of diverse differences, diverse cultures, diverse genders, diverse nationalities, diverse ethnicities, and diverse belief systems. No leadership role can satisfy the needs of this group. Yet, we still need leaders, people who lead as co-equal partners. The great thing about such a partnership is that everyone can join, everyone can lead; and in so doing, we can achieve so much more than could be accomplished in any other way.
It could happen. It can happen. But will it happen?