Adam Bryant conducts interviews of senior-level executives that appear in his “Corner Office” column each week in the SundayBusiness section of The New York Times. Here are a few insights provided during an interview of Lois Braverman, chief executive of the Ackerman Institute for the Family. “I have to make room for the legitimacy of your point of view, and not let my righteousness make me think my perception is more meaningful than yours.”
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Photo credit: Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times
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What were some early influences for you?
I grew up in a working-class section of Philadelphia, in a very close-knit family. We were first-generation Americans — from Romania and Russia originally — and my mother was very concerned that I become more American. They sent me at an early age to elocution lessons.
I was very, very shy, and I learned from those lessons how to get up in front of an audience. They started putting me in plays at school, and I got much more comfortable speaking to large groups.
I’m the oldest daughter in my family. My mother was the oldest in hers, and my grandmother was the oldest of seven sisters. In the psychotherapy world, we call that being “loaded.”
You’re kind of loaded to be domineering. My mother and my grandmother were seen as very strong, opinionated, determined, disciplined and highly responsible women. Interestingly, we all married husbands who were the youngest in their families. The relational paradigm in the family was that women were in charge.
And I remember thinking that my mother was always right. If she said, “No, this is a better way to do it,” it actually was a better way to do it. As I got older, I started feeling that I had her organizational sensibility, and I felt that my way of doing things was the right way to do it.
I call that the “firstborn ‘right’ disease” because it can create a lot of difficulties in your personal relationships. But in organizations, it actually gives you the courage to make decisions and to take risks because you have this internal sense that you’re right. Even though I know intellectually I’m not always right, it’s easier to make a decision as a leader.
How has your background as a psychotherapist affected your understanding of leadership?
I didn’t come into the field to lead an organization. I was trained to do individual, couple and family therapy. One of the things about family therapy training is you come to understand that reality is all about perception. If people are in conflict, it’s because we really are perceiving some aspect of the world differently at that moment.
What makes a big difference in relationships — especially marriages and parent-child relationships — is that when you hit those differences, does the other person make room for the difference? I have to make room for the legitimacy of your point of view, and not let my righteousness make me think my perception is more meaningful than yours. That idea fundamentally shaped me as a leader, because I saw how much trouble people had because they would get into these fights over who was right or wrong. It doesn’t generate a lot of creativity, and it doesn’t generate innovative ways of being together.
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Adam Bryant, deputy national editor of The New York Times, oversees coverage of education issues, military affairs, law, and works with reporters in many of the Times’ domestic bureaus. He also conducts interviews with CEOs and other leaders for Corner Office, a weekly feature in the SundayBusiness section and on nytimes.com that he started in March 2009. In his book, The Corner Office: Indispensable and Unexpected Lessons from CEOs on How to Lead and Succeed, (Times Books), he analyzes the broader lessons that emerge from his interviews with more than 70 leaders. To read an excerpt, please click here.