Thoughts on Who Leans In and Who Leans Out

Most of the posts I write here weekly are based on ideas that have been simmering in my head for a few weeks or even months before I write about them for public consumption.

Every once in a while, like this week, they stem from an urge to quickly try to process a confluence of many recent ideas, before the potential magic they may contain begins to dissipate.

Leadership of families is often top of mind, but this week some conversations that included the ideas of “leaning in” and “leaning out” added to the mix, and so here we are.

Let’s see how I can tie something coherent together that is both useful and entertaining.

The First Family Meeting Is the Hardest

I should first set some important context though, because I recently had the privilege of working with a family for a number of months in preparation for their first in-person family forum.

When these go well, as this one did, there’s a magic that happens in the room, as the family comes together to discuss important topics as a group for the first time, and they typically begin to discover what’s possible for them going forward.

Too many families know that they should be discussing these things, but because they’re not sure how to start, or they fear that they’ll accidentally kick a hornet’s nest, they put these discussions off for “yet another year”.

So I was coming off a high, where I’d been with some people who had a new sense of possibilities for their future.

Yet Another PPI Call Inspires Me

As has occurred many times over the years, attending the weekly PPI Tuesday call was an additional source of inspiration.

The subject that week was women and philanthropy, and the guest mentioned that women need to learn to “lean in” to get more involved.

My friend Amanda, who was hosting the call and knew that I was in attendance asked if I had any comments, and of course I did (!)

They opened my line and I highlighted the concept of leaning in, and the fact that sometimes others, who have been leaning in, need to start to learn to “lean out”, so that others can play a more prominent role.

This applies to both women and men in philanthropy discussions, as well as to the Rising Generation and the Incumbents in families who are hoping to transition from one generation of leadership to the next.

How About the Outside Professional Advisors?

Part of the magic in a family forum comes from the fact that participants begin to realize that sharing of leadership is both welcome and required over the long term.

But the idea of leaning in and out is not just limited to the family members. 

As the outside facilitator of the meeting (and the only non-family person in the room), I also need to be aware of my own presence in the room, and to try to make sure I allow the family system to manage itself.

I may begin each part of the meeting by taking some leadership in teeing up a discussion or activity, but then I absolutely must lean back and let things happen organically, and only step back in as necessary.

If I try too hard to make everything work in a way that seems perfect, because I’m worried about looking good, I’m no longer properly serving the family.

My goal is to get the family members to lean in and put in the work required to build the connection and understanding with each other.

Sharing Leadership as a Family

The goal for many families is for their wealth to transition successfully from one generation to the next, and because that typically involves more people in subsequent generations, it’s important for everyone to learn to make decisions together in as democratic a way as possible.

Having all of the leadership and decisions concentrated in the hands of one person or a very small group can be a recipe for trouble.

There are usually more aspects of the family that require some leadership than they realize, and because everyone has different strengths, it makes sense to share roles among as large a group as possible.

And the parents first need to learn to lean back, and then the offspring need to lean in.