October 5, 2022

Leadership is a Behavior Not A Title: DDS Dobson-Smith

DDS is a psychotherapist and executive coach who has spent the last 25 years facilitating leadership growth around the world and in that time, they have found that it boils down to something pretty simple. Don’t ask how to become a great leader, ask how to become someone worth following.

So, how do you become a leader worth following? In their new book, Leadership is a Behavior Not a Title, DDS answers that question from page one. Today, on Author Hour, I’m joined by DDS to talk about learning to start with your why as a leader, creating the conditions for your team’ success.

Discovering the most important and counterintuitive ways to set the example and that as a leader, by bringing your full self to work, you give your team permission to do the same. I’m your host, Meghan McCracken.

DDS, welcome to Author Hour. It’s so nice to have you with me today.

DDS Dobson-Smith: Thank you very much for having me.

Meghan McCracken: So I love to start with any author, on where you began with your author journey and I know you’re coming to this, having already published a book. So tell me about, with your next title that’s coming out soon, where did you approach and how did you decide to do a second book? What was the trigger there?

DDS Dobson-Smith: Well, I mean, I think the trigger was a long, slow pull of a trigger. I think it didn’t come to me in a flash of inspiration or insight. It really came together as a result of 25 years of working in the corporate world as someone that was and is a person that leads other people and manages other people.

But also as a person that has helped other people to be better at managing and leading other people through coaching leadership development programs and also as someone that has helped create organizations where people, to the first book, can be themselves and acknowledging how inclusion, diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging are all impacted by the leaders of an organization. So from the first book into this book, it felt like a very natural evolution to be able to share with the world.

Meghan McCracken: Coming from the background that you have in, as you said, doing lots of coaching with leaders, lots of setting up of organizations for leadership, what is the biggest takeaway that when you were going into writing this book, which is very much more focused toward leaders and how to become a great leader, which your answer to that is, “Don’t ask how to become a great leader, ask how to become someone worth following” and as you’re approaching it from that angle speaking directly to leaders, what is the biggest takeaway right off the bat that you knew had to come across in this book to your readers?

DDS Dobson-Smith: It’s all in the title. Leadership is a Behavior, Not a Title, and the biggest takeaway is that having the title of a leader does not make you a leader. The only thing that can define leadership is not pay grade, it’s not accountability, it’s not responsibility. The only thing that can define it is the extent to which when you look around, you have followers and so leadership can only ever be defined by follower-ship.

Sure, you can be a manager but being a manager doesn’t mean you are a leader. You are only a leader if you have followers. So don’t ask the question, “How do I be a great leader?” The question is, “How do I get followers?” and the book that I’ve written codifies a really simple way in which you can be a person that is worth following and very, very simply at its essence, if you were to boil it all the way down, how to be someone worth following is be a decent human being, it’s as simple as that.

Leaders and the People Being Led

Meghan McCracken: I love it in the section of the introduction where you make that exact point that the short answer to becoming someone worth following is be a decent human being and you go further in saying that a decent human being is essentially the kind of human that the younger you would want to be around and put another way, the younger you would have had their needs met by this human being.

Can you talk more about that and why you brought the concept of children and the younger you into that definition?

DDS Dobson-Smith: Yeah, as a psychotherapist, I often see and also as a coach, right? I often see a correlation between the wounds that we experience when we’re growing up and how those can often manifest in the workplace and so I guess what I’m saying there is that in a sense, that if you can be the type of person that you as a younger you would want to be around, the chances are, that’s going to feel good for other people.

That chances are that whatever your needs were in terms of nurture, care, love, support, development, if you are able to give those to other people, there’s a high degree of chance that that will be welcomed and will land well for them and will engender this kind of level of trust and respect that is gold dust in leadership for the leader who wants to be followed.

Meghan McCracken: I love how you just related it to the concept of childhood wounds. I think it’s something that is in a lot of leadership literature that is popular right now — which I see a lot of it, I write a lot of it, I talk to a lot of authors about it — I think we’re becoming more aware as a society that leadership is not about the leader, it’s about the person being led.

So much of behavior and perspective, especially in the workplace is part of the work that we do on understanding childhood wounds. Can you talk more about how you came to that? I know your work in psychology led you to that but, can you talk more about how you came to that specifically with leadership?

DDS Dobson-Smith: As you said, Meghan, it’s a lifelong project. It’s a lifelong work of observation and of communication and of conversation but I think there’s something very archetypal about the power structures that exist in the world of work, that exist in the world of family when you are a young child.

So as a young child, we are parented either by the people that gave birth to us or by caregivers but we are parented and there is a power dynamic there and the parent or the caregiver is the source of love and nurture but also nourishment and hydration of protection and safety or not, right? Or not, the parent and caregiver might not offer that.

Those are the needs of the child and those are the needs that when they’re met, the child will develop and grow. Now, translate that into work, there are power structures. The boss, the manager is the person that is in charge of or has the most influence over the extent to which you are experiencing a good day or not, in the office.

They are the person that it also stands in between you and a pay rise. They are the person that stands in between you and a vacation approval. They are the person that stands in between you and task division and so no matter whether you have an awesome relationship with your boss or not, they’re still your boss and they still get to have a say over whether or not you ware going to enjoy your day at work.

So I guess that’s where it becomes a correlation, right? If we have a male boss, to what extend do they remind you of the person that was male raised you? If you have a female boss, to what extend do they remind you of the way of the person that raised you who was female? And there can be these unconscious projections if you will, that can be useful or unusual and I think that’s where it can come into.

You know I also want to say, this isn’t what the whole book is about. The whole book is not about power dynamics and family relations and psychology. That’s a completely other world of work that I can – or body of work that I can go into but I would say, it’s really, really important to recognize that people come into work as whole human beings. They don’t park their histories at the door.

They don’t park their relationships at the door, they don’t park their problems at the door. They come in with them and so it’s important as a person who leads other people, who manages other people to acknowledge that a whole human being is in front of you when you’re talking to them, with a whole set of histories and a whole set of identities.

Meghan McCracken: I totally agree. I don’t just agree, it struck me so much as I was reading through your book that there is a level of awareness with leaders that is essential. The self-awareness of your role as a leader and the — I think, confusion is not really the right word but the misunderstanding of what your role is as a leader that we’ve seen in traditional leadership.

That leadership is seen often or previously or traditionally as more as managing, as giving people instructions, making sure things get done and it’s much more focused on the work and leadership from the frame that you’re presenting is more about the person being led.

DDS Dobson-Smith: Totally. Yeah, I mean when you are a leader, you also have to manage, right? So there are times when you will need to get instructions and show people the way but managing is not leading, right? That is a task of the leader.

When you are leading, if you are spending most of your time telling people what to do, just notice that isn’t leading because leading is much more — I talk about how management is doing and leadership is being and so it’s like, I’m not trying to make a distinction that leadership is a role that you achieve once you have done some management roles.

It’s not a hierarchical upwards progression into the role of a leader. I actually believe that leadership is relational, leadership is non-hierarchical. That you are a leader if you have followers, so that you can also be a leader if you’re not managing, if you’re not managing another person because it’s about influencing, it’s about relationship.

So when you are in a senior position, then you are managing other people but you can do that in a way that is managing or you can do that in a way that is leading.

Creating Accessible and Understandable Frames

Meghan McCracken: Yeah, I love how you separate those two. It really is the foundation on which the book is written. The piece of the book that struck me most powerfully after the introduction is when you go into this concept of major frames and one thing I want to ask you getting back to the way that you chose to author this book, the way that you chose to write it.

The concept of major frames, which is the whole first part of the book is that major frames are tools that you found to be particularly useful in problem-solving, in shifting thinking and promoting self-awareness and you write, “I call them frames because when you place them around a situation or challenge you’re facing, they enable you to look at that same situation with new eyes or with a different perspective.”

My question for you is, as you then set out to write the background, the consent, the explanation and teach these frames, how did you decide how to make that accessible and understandable when what you’re talking about is fundamentally perspective, which is unique to each individual? So if you’re thinking about a reader and you’re explaining the concept of unique perspectives and the frame that encompasses it, how did you decide how to put that content across?

DDS Dobson-Smith: Experientially. I mean, over the years of working with these frames, I found them to have cross-cultural, cross-generational relevance and also, cross-sector relevance. So these frames that are in the first part of the book are gathered from the world of psychology, the world of business.

They’re not mine, I didn’t invent them and I don’t take credit for them but what I have done is brought them all together as a set of really useful tools that can, when we use them, help us to become that person worth following because they can help shed new light on a problem situation.

They can help to gain access to internal resources that may have been out of reach and they can help to explain what might be going on in another person that on the surface might seem like strange or bizarre behavior that when we take one of these major frames, we might be more predisposed to offering the benefit of the doubt.

That we might be predisposed to assuming some positive intent and I know, through many-many-many years, decades of work in organizations, and thousands of hours of coaching people and thousands of hours of being in my own therapy but also being a clinician offering therapy to other people, that when we are able to adopt a position in which we can assume the positive intent in somebody else’s behavior, when we can give somebody else the benefit of the doubt, then everything moves much more freely and easily and smoothly.

And problems that seem irremediable, all of a sudden turn into these flowing streams and we can move forward and we can create and we can build in ways that we weren’t able to before. That’s how I decided to use and include these major frames in the first part of the book.

Meghan McCracken: I noticed that as you talk through them, one of the main tools that you use is, a lot of storytelling. There is a lot of storytelling of anecdotes from your own life, from your own work. There is, you’ll take historical anecdotes and waive them in.

There’s storytelling from other published works and I’m wondering if that is, you’re trying to create in and of itself, unique perception and weaving that into the frames that you’re describing?

DDS Dobson-Smith: Yeah, I mean that’s what I guess perspective making, as well as perspective taking, is all about. It’s like when you and from a social science point of view, when you bring together concepts and theories from different worlds and you synthesize them into something new, that brings new relevance and new information and new importance.

I guess that does to a certain extent make this book and my perspective unique in so much as I am bringing together tools and ways of thinking almost like each one is a little hexagon that when you place them together, they make up this beautiful patchwork quilt.

Meghan McCracken: I completely agree. The thing that struck me most I think is the balance of there is storytelling, there’s anecdote, there is deep dive into concepts and really careful effort toward accessibility of these concepts, which can be complex and also there’s emotion tied up with a lot of these concepts that I see you in the writing heading off reader resistances by in the way that you’re carefully building the content and the explanation of these frames and I see this really strongly especially in Chapter 4 where you talk to the frame of perception of projection.

I see right off the bat saying, “Hey, this might be uncomfortable.” This is an uncomfortable frame to understand so let’s dive into it together. Talk through that frame with me because I think that is one that if I am putting my writer hat on, that is one where the reader resistance to that concept perception is projection is going to be pretty high.

DDS Dobson-Smith: First of all, I didn’t know that I was writing in a way to counter reader resistance, so thanks for pointing that out to me. That’s really lovely to know that you picked that up in my writing style, it is definitely an unconscious process and I would also say yeah, like great, reject it and be repelled by it but have the curiosity to sit with it with your repulsion or whatever it is that you don’t like about it.

One of my jobs, I teach graduate students who are becoming psychotherapists, one of the things that I talk a lot about is critical thought and I think in order to have critical thought, you can’t just reject something immediately because it doesn’t fit with your model of the world. Reject it once you know how and why you’re rejecting it. So I am cool with rejection, I really am, or repulsion but what I would ask the readers to do is just to sit with that and notice what it is within them that wants to push against it or reject it.

Perception is rejection is a really — it’s a tough one to get your head around and the reason why it can be a tough one to get your head around is because it involves introspection and it involves owning stuff within yourself and your internal world that you would otherwise disown. There are many levels to the idea of perception is projection.

First of all, it’s a social constructivist approach, which is it comes from the idea that constructionism tells us that there is no objective reality, there is only a constructed reality and that that reality is constructed by the way in which we interact with it and the way in which we make sense and make meaning out of it in our heads and so when we are perceiving something as existing outside of our heads, it is a projection of what we know inside of our heads.

So that’s the first level is just acknowledging that what we see out there is not the truth, it is just a truth and it is our truth. So that is the first level. The second level to this is acknowledging that it comes from Jungian thought and Carl Jung, a Swiss psychologist who was once a student of Freud but they fell out and broke away and in the early 1900s, Jung said that there exists within us a part of our personality, part of our psyche called the shadow and its opposite number is the persona.

So there’s the shadow and the persona and I think about this as the persona being your shop window and if our persona is the shop window, we place everything into the shop window that we want other people to buy. We only put — if you walk along the street and you look at the shop window, they’re not going to put the shitty stuff in the shop window. They are going to put their best most modern, most new things to entice the customer to come in and that’s the same thing with our persona.

We show to the world the things that we think are attractive, the things that we think will be received well and we relegate to the shadow those aspects of our personality and our behavior that we find appalling or distasteful or unacceptable from a social point of view, which is a bit like the stockroom in our shop, right? So if you think about the stockroom, the back stockroom of a shop, back in there will be goods and products that are broken or that are from previous seasons that nobody wants to buy.

The thing with stockrooms is that nobody else knows what’s in the stockroom other than the person that owns the stockroom but they’re still there taking up space. So we can relegate aspects of our psyche, aspects of our behavior into our personal shadow. We can suppress it there and we can repress it there but it’s still there and what happens is, it has a useful or unuseful, depending on how you look at this, a useful or unuseful knack or habit of showing up, of reminding us that it’s still there in our shadow.

It is still there in our mental stockroom and it does that by a process of projection. So it is easier to name those aspects of our behavior, our psyche, et cetera in other situations than it is to accept that that might be a part of us. So when we find ourselves in a situation going, “Oh, that person is such a bleepety-bleep-bleep-bleep,” I am very interested in that because first of all, how do you know what a bleepety-bleep-bleep-bleep is if it doesn’t exists inside your mental world and on what level?

Is that you if you’re naming it and somebody else? And that’s what perception is projection. I mean, it is a very rich complex reign but that is a very, very basic introduction to it and I talk about that in the book in a little bit more explicit terms.

Meghan McCracken: For me, that boils down to and this might be a real simplification of the concept that you just so well currently talked through but for me, it really boils down to [what] we look for in others what we are either perceiving or seeking ourselves and so your perception of others is really rooted in the projection of yourself as how you perceive the world.

DDS Dobson-Smith: Great.

Meghan McCracken: Is that all good? I got that right?

DDS Dobson-Smith: Yeah.

Meghan McCracken: It was spot on. What strikes me about that is what you were talking about earlier with creating these spaces where generous intent is assumed and how that simply it works better and we hadn’t dived into the why behind that but I think what we just talked about with that frame is a little bit of a clue to that that the assumption of generous intent and operating with that assumption, it essentially removes the judgment of other behaviors that might be rooted in our own perception.

It removes that projection by me saying, “Oh well, they did that because XYZ.” That’s me making a judgment based on my own perception, which is rooted in my own sense of self and my projection of self, whereas if I am blanket assuming generous intent, that judgment goes away and it creates almost definitively other focused environment where people are not running up against judgments based on projections formed by others.

Well good, I’ve nailed that one too. The second part of your book, it goes into what you call the six principles of human leadership and the piece that I want to talk through with you is that these principles that you outlined in the second half of your book are very simple. These are not complex concepts and for the most part, they’re not new concepts at all.

When you were diving into how to create that content, how to teach it, exactly how you’re going to outline this piece of the book, how did you reconcile the concept of, “Well, this isn’t new information” and how did you created within the perspective that you are bringing to this information?

Simple Principles of Human Leadership

DDS Dobson-Smith: Yeah. Well I mean, look, I go back to the idea that being someone worth following, the shorthand to that is be a decent human being. It is not hard to be a decent human being or actually, should I say it differently, it’s not complex to be a decent human being. It’s really simple but that doesn’t make it easy because we live in a world that would sometimes otherwise make it less easy for us to be a decent human being.

So these six principles of human leadership are simple. They are not complex at all and they are simply a view, a perspective that I have that arises from all of these years of being a leader, supporting leaders and being in the world of coaching and psychotherapy. That’s as simple as it is, right? It’s just my perspective, my experience.

There are thousands of books out there that will give you a blueprint to being a great leader, which wasn’t my intention even though I have said how a blueprint to being a good leader that I didn’t want to add to the — and another thing or the back at you, you know? But this really is, I don’t want to call it, it is not a memoir by any way but it’s really a synthesis of my work over the last two and a half decades.

Meghan McCracken: I see. I like that explanation into how this differs from another leadership playbook, which I agree, there are thousands of those out there and something that I hear all the time from authors is the struggle when you are bringing your own perspective on well-known ideas, well-trodden ideas is, “Okay, what am I adding to this conversation?” I like how you said, “I am not adding something new, this is just a distillation of your work and what you’ve experienced.”

I think the most important piece to take away from this book is what do you feel and what have you experienced that leaders are most commonly doing wrong especially when it comes to maybe these six principles of human leadership, what do you most commonly experience and notice and see that people are getting wrong when it comes to leadership?

DDS Dobson-Smith: They’re forgetting about the relationship, it’s as simple as that. Leadership can only really be defined as a relationship and when people forget that they are a human being working with another human being and that’s when it goes wrong, Meghan, like when they forget to focus on the relationship.

Meghan McCracken: It sounds like the concept of relationship not really rooting into, “Hey, these are two human beings who enjoy a connection that is a two-way street.” I experience all the time even myself in my own leadership or with leadership coaching that I do that sometimes even leaders forget that they can be incredibly focused on the other person and they forget that they themselves are a person in this relationship and that relationship goes both ways.

DDS Dobson-Smith: Exactly.

Meghan McCracken: Is there something you would point readers to as, okay, if there’s one thing that you have to remember coming out of this that’s really going to enable you to meet your goals of becoming a better leader and you know, more easily being a decent human being, what from your book would be the, “This is the piece that you need to takeaway with you”?

DDS Dobson-Smith: It’s really simple, it’s the title, you know?

Meghan McCracken: Ah, back to the title, yeah.

DDS Dobson-Smith: It’s the title, Leadership is a Behavior Not a Title, that like take that away with you, sit with that and acknowledge that your pay grade doesn’t confer upon you any special leadership rights. The thing that it does is it places you in a position of power, so use that power well.

Meghan McCracken: I like that. Additionally, it doesn’t confer upon you, that title doesn’t confer upon you any more leadership skills than you have the day before you had that title.

DDS Dobson-Smith: Exactly.

Meghan McCracken: Well, I so enjoyed talking through this and I think that as we talked about really why genre of leadership books, I think that this book in particular, it just distills really well-known and simple but crucial concepts in a way that is so valuable and it is something that I talk with authors all the time about that there is so much value to simple information that you might have even heard before being written and distilled and explained so accessibly and so digestively and I think that’s the big strength and power of this book.

DDS Dobson-Smith: Thank you very much. I really, really appreciate those kind words more than you’ll ever know.

Meghan McCracken: How are you feeling going into preparing for a launch? You have been through one as an author, you have done a book launch, how are you feeling preparing for your second?

DDS Dobson-Smith: I am feeling like I felt with the first book and the way that I explained it to some people when they ask me about how I felt, my response was, “I feel like the chef at a Thanksgiving dinner.” I feel the chef at Thanksgiving, by the time you sit down for dinner, you’ve probably sampled the turkey, you’ve probably sampled the corn casserole, tried the green beans, even eaten a little bit of stuffing and you’re so worn out from all of the cooking and the preparation that by the time you sit down, everyone else is really excited to tuck into their dinner but the chef is perhaps, you know, just a little bit like, “Everybody, enjoy eating.”

Meghan McCracken: Yeah, just eat it.

DDS Dobson-Smith: That’s how I feel.

Meghan McCracken: Yeah, I hear that all the time. There is this concept of you do so much work in the lead up and then the launch of a book is really it’s day one and it sometimes can be, to you, it feels like day 5,000. It really does come down to, “Okay everyone, please just read it.” Let’s just read it.

DDS Dobson-Smith: Exactly.

Meghan McCracken: Also I have to say, I am incredibly impressed at your intimate knowledge of Thanksgiving dishes being that you are not American, that was really impressive.

DDS Dobson-Smith: My husband and I have lived in America for nearly a decade and so…

Meghan McCracken: Okay, okay, so you’ve got the menu, you’ve got the rundown.

DDS Dobson-Smith: Yeah, I do. I do.

Meghan McCracken: Amazing. Well DDS, in addition to the book that is coming out soon, Leadership is a Behavior Not a Title, where else can people find you?

DDS Dobson-Smith: Yeah, you can find me on LinkedIn, DDS Dobson-Smith, if you want to follow me and I also have a website, www.soultrained.com.

Meghan McCracken: Excellent. Well, thank you so much for being here with me today and it was a great conversation.

DDS Dobson-Smith: Thank you so much.