Joe Founder, who is 68 years old, has two daughters working for him. Jane is 5 years older than Julie. They’ve respected each other’s contributions for many years, and Joe thinks the dealership is stronger with both of them. Both have the option to work elsewhere.
In recent months the tension between the sisters has been rising. Jane is the obvious alpha type, with exceptional energy. Julie is quieter, sometimes too quiet, but excels in analysis, and people love working for her.
Lately, Julie has had a lot of people coming to her complaining about Jane. And Julie has begun to admit to herself that she doesn’t like how Jane talks to her at times. Jane senses this, and goes to Joe to complain that Julie is undermining her. Joe knows how he responds will powerfully affect his chances of retaining both daughters in the dealership over the coming years. How should Joe proceed?
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Recently, I had the pleasure of an hour with one of the foremost “deal brokers” in a rural state. I think I found a master in the art of dynamic neutrality.
We sat next to a large sunny window at an iconic bakery cafe, which has been hosting conversations with great skill for over 40 years. It provided the table, chairs, uber-coffee and rhubarb muffins.
My “broker,” aged 73, was a senior vice president in a large publicly traded company for years, where he gained renown for being that guy you want at the table during sticky, complex negotiations that just might blow up, wrecking the best interests of both parties. Consequently, he knows everybody, and has his finger on the pulse of titans. We got to talking about the art of neutrality in leadership.
Neutrality is a word that got some bad press after WWII, but among leadership scientists it retains a strong image. It does not refer here to tepid, wishy washy, please-everybody leaders, who tell people what they want to hear, and who eventually lose the respect of their most talented players. Instead, the word refers to a dynamic person with the capacity to draw out the best thinking of seemingly opposing parties by establishing strong, respectful connections with both sides. Along the way, they hold people accountable to find creative pathways to productive collaboration amid strong differences. Piece of cake, right?
Whether we are talking about a business leader working with government regulators, the supervisor with a team of strong personalities or one of 5 sisters planning her mother’s funeral, dynamic neutrality is like a secret sauce.
At the bakery, my master deal broker credited an early background in journalism as teaching him to see beneath the emotional headlines at the surface of stories into the more essential substance of the matter. He also displayed that unpretentious, kindly competence of a person others find it easy to talk to.
Many years ago, the great leadership theorist Dr. Murray Bowen noted that when the emotional immaturity present in any group gets stirred up, those caught in the whirlpool mentally place the people involved into rigid categories; they defend the “victim,” revile the “villain” and applaud the “hero.” The neutral leader is less prone to leaping headlong into such divisive alliances. My broker seemed to be that one who remembers his grandmother’s advice about neighborhood gossip: “There is his story, her story and then there is the truth.”
The dynamically neutral leader must also be good at challenging his anxious teammates, family members or employees who themselves have fallen into that victim/villain/hero trap.
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So what about Joe Founder? How would dynamic neutrality apply to his situation with his snarling daughters?
He decided to respond to the situation with neutral questions and accountability, rather than suggestions and commands. Rather than telling Jane, “You’ve got to find a way to work this out with your sister” he asked her, “Do you think you’ve done anything to contribute to this problem?”
Rather than sitting down to mediate for Jane and Julie, he privately told both, “I am going to function as a resource for both of you in managing this hurdle, but I’m not going to be the judge or referee. What our company needs is creative problem solving and emotional maturity from each of you.
“If you come to me upset, I’m not going to get upset with you. I’m going to listen, and expect you to generate ideas to make this better rather than trying to convince me that you are the victim and your sister is the villain. I am more interested in seeing you two work this out successfully than being the hero who saves one leader from the other. You might consider this passive, but I’ve thought it out. I’m not being passive, I’m just dynamically neutral.”