As leaders, we have privilege, and it’s up to us to empower the people we’ve been charged to lead.
Today’s guest, Mike Yates, empowers people on a daily basis. Mike is an educator, the host of the Schoolish podcast, TED talker, and runs the Reinvention Lab at Teach for America. In this episode, he sits down with host Richard Lindner to talk about recognizing privilege and power structures and how leaders everywhere can leverage that knowledge to gain a better understanding of their team.
Mike’s journey is fascinating and unconventional, and he’s doing some pretty awesome things with his life.
Jack Of All Trades: An Insult or a Compliment?
Mike grew up hating school. His mom was a teacher, so that didn’t go over very well in his house. He remembers being raised to be a well-rounded person, so he had his hands in a lot of stuff. “No one ever told me to hyper-specialize,” he says, “and I developed an ability to multitask. I decided to use my varied interests as a strength.”
Ironically, he became a teacher, and not surprisingly, he hated it. So he found a side hustle which led him to build a teacherless school that utilizes technology in cool ways. He built his personal brand, started a podcast, and became a jack of all trades, a phrase he discovered is actually misquoted (or incompletely quoted) most of the time. The actual phrase is “A jack of all trades is a master of none but better than a master of one.”
Richard, who identifies as a “generalist,” was thrilled to hear him say that. It took Richard a long time to appreciate that quality in himself. It always seemed to him like the most successful people had an extremely narrow area of focus, while Richard was just generally good at a lot of different things. Now he realizes that, if you want to excel organizationally as a leader, you have to have a general understanding of how every area of the company works.
The Culture of Power
Richard loved Mike’s TED talk on recognizing privilege and asked him to break down the culture of power for listeners. Mike says that the “culture of power” is a phrase coined by Lisa Delpit. It’s this idea that power structures exist all around us.
Mike used the example of his mostly Black and Latino students, who would say to him from a place of major deficit, “I could never go to college. I’ll never be Bill Gates or Elon Musk or Lebron James.” Mike would try to dig deep to find something to help empower them. “No, you’re probably not going to be Lebron James, but you can be JJ Redick, if you do the right things and can see yourself differently.” He wanted them to have an alternate way of viewing what they thought were deficiencies.
Each of us needs to understand power structures and accept where we have privilege. There’s white privilege (which people get all up in arms about), but there are other privileges too. “I speak English,” Mike says. “As long as I live in the U.S., that gives me an advantage. I have the use of all my limbs. I went to college. My mom went to college. There are things that give me privilege.”
Empowering Those You’re Charged With Leading
Mike says that, as a leader, your words carry a lot of weight. When you recognize the qualities and skills of the people you lead, you can metaphorically lift their chin when you see greatness in them. He knows a guy who’s often the most powerful person in the room. He saw something in Mike back in the day, and told him so, and it made a huge difference in Mike’s life. Good leaders help their people see themselves as powerful, give them that chin-up moment.
Richard agrees. “You don’t need to flex your power for people to know you have it,” he says. “True leadership is pulling greatness out of people. When we struggle with impostor syndrome, we’re worried about getting people to know we deserve to be here. Instead, we should focus on others and bring out their power.”
Someone on Mike’s team told him recently, “Do you understand what happens when you show up in a meeting?” He didn’t. He sometimes forgets he’s a senior leader of an organization. This person said, “You basically control the energy of every meeting we have. You have the ability to suck the air out of the room or make it go really well.” It was a weakness Mike has turned into a positive power because he recognizes it now.
The Critical Characteristics of a Good Leader
Mike says a good leader isn’t afraid to take the blame. They know how to put out fires, to take responsibility when someone on the team drops the ball. Richard adds that every failure is a failure of leadership. He tells his company’s up-and-coming leaders, “you get all the blame and none of the credit.” It’s humbling, but you also understand your role in caring for and growing the people you’re charged with leading.
Mike says good leaders listen. The best leaders he’s had listened deeply. They have the ability to listen past what you’re saying and get underneath it, asking the right questions, guiding people to the solution. Along those same lines, a leader should know everything, be an expert, make that extra effort to be educated/informed. They should hire smart people, but should also know enough not to be threatened by anyone in the room.
The best way to create good leaders in your company is to be a great leader. Model good leadership, and people will imitate you. Lead with confidence, work hard, have humility, and seek to understand others’ areas of power and bring them out.
“I really think leadership in any industry is a people game,” Mike says. “We’re in the people business. You do it for human beings. As technology gets better, the ability to be human will be more important than ever.”
Richard and Jeff want to hear from YOU. Is there a topic you want to dive into? Was something in today’s episode a big aha moment for you? What did you learn from Mike and how will you apply what you learned? What other guests would you like to hear from on the podcast? Email Richard and Jeff here with your thoughts/questions: firstname.lastname@example.org
- The most popular Mike Yates on LinkedIn
- Mike’s TED talk on Recognizing Privilege
- Schoolish (formerly the School Sucks podcast)
- The Reinvention Lab at Teach for America
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