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Special Assistant to The Secretary of Corrections Explains How to Support Leaders

Secretary John Wetzel leads the Department of Corrections for the State of Pennsylvania. It’s an organization with a $2.6 billion budget and 18,000 employees.

This post reflects my conversation with Deb Sahd, John’s Special Assistant.

(5:34 video on Linkedin of my conversation with Deb.)

Understand direction:

Support begins when you understand and embrace the leader’s vision.

I’ve been in leadership a long time and this is a beautiful thing. People often have their own agenda and give their best energy to pet projects.

Be the person who owns the vision as-if you created it.

The but’ers:

Organizations have people who like the vision, BUT. The but’ers drain organizational life. Don’t give yourself an escape hatch. Avoid saying, “I like our vision, but I’m not sure about … .”

Create three spaces:

Deb explained three spaces she creates to provide support.

Brave Space:

Tell the emperor he has no clothes. Speak hard truths with courage, kindness, and openness.

Deb says you should give leaders your honest perspective and respect their process. You may be good at seeing connections, for example. If that’s true, then share your insights.

Make space for leaders to work through their own ideas by sharing your perspective.

Don’t expect them to immediately agree. Give your viewpoint and let it go.

Sacred Space:

Some situations are too volatile to address with others.  

Build a relationship that provides space for leaders to say things they shouldn’t say publicly.

Leaders need a place to hear themselves talk.

Conversations in the Sacred Space are never repeated.

Safe Space:

Make space to talk about the day or personal concerns.


Take the perspective of the person you want to support.

Deb explains how to take perspective. “[I] think of myself as the person who is responsible for every decisions that’s made.”

4 aspects of a support-mindset:

  1. Rise above checklist-thinking. Don’t focus exclusively on getting tasks done. Think about the whole organization.
  2. Think beyond, “I hope he likes it.” Worrying about your own performance is important but too narrow for a support-mindset.
  3. Be willing to get in trouble. You can’t seek the best interest of others and always (CYA) cover your own ass.
  4. Don’t live for a great performance review or promotion.

Deb asks herself, “If I had to go before the senate or governor, what would I do?”

Perspective-taking, “… creates a great empathy for that position and it helps to bolster those spaces I talked about.”

“Act as-if you have that responsibility.” Deb Sahd

What does supporting others look like in your role?

How might we support each other in organizations?

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