Can’t Make You Love Me If You Don’t

What it means to work for others instead of work with others

As a candidate for a local office, new to politics, your message is so important and helpful as I strive to be a good representative for everyone. I feel like I have a good handle for whom I’m doing the work, but the “how do we connect” part of onlyness is still fuzzy. I could use some ideas to know how I can better find, listen to, and address underrepresented populations?

Dear Good Handle,

I’ve been thinking a lot about this topic recently—processing recent events. 

How annoying it is to have to repeatedly text, so someone will do what they promised. How it means one person picks up the invisible work of tracking the work. The frustration of raising issues the team needs to address, only to have those concerns ignored. How that very issue is given as the reason to exit. The deep loneliness of being committed to a project; yet, noticing how a colleague shows up late to nearly every meeting (even when that meeting was set to accommodate his needs). 

How do we do this fuzzy thing of connection? You ask.

I wonder if I have any clarity to offer. 


But let’s start with where you start. You say you know for whom you do the work. 

I get why you would use this lingo. We’ve been taught to value servant leadership, where one prioritizes the “greater good,” putting the needs of others first

Servant leadership is widely celebrated in just about every organization. “Are we serving our customers’ needs?” business leaders ask. Teachers are feted for how they “serve” their students by imparting all their knowledge to them. In public service, you—the future elected official—serve them, the constituent. 

But, pause for a sec: What could be off, even wrong, with this lens? 

Do you notice the power dynamic in these scenarios?  

How one party creates, makes, initiates? The business sells. The educator tells. The politician governs. While the rest of us consume, receive, and follow?

Let’s unpack that. 

“For whom” is deeply paternalistic, where one party knows more or has more responsibilities than another. It puts one above the other instead of in an equal relationship. Which is one form of connection but not the kind Onlyness calls for. “For whom” can miss a key ingredient: mutuality, where each other’s needs are met in a way that works well for both players.

For example, “for whom” can mean you genuinely care about me and still decide what is best for me. You can “hear my concerns,” maybe even hold forums, and yet believe it is your job to have the answers for how my needs are met. You can see our dialogues as your way to “poll the marketplace” to get input for your decision-making, instead of as a way of enrolling folks to get involved. 

“For whom” means you see a constituent, not a citizen

It sure sounds good, even as good as pie tastes.

But, it puts you in charge, not in connection. At least not in a mutual one.


I’ve noticed many leaders I coach say they “work for” a certain leader. I have them say that same sentence again but with the world “with.” You work with that leader. My clients totally get what I am asking of them. Their faces light up as they feel an internal shift in how they conceive themselves in the relationship. 

Work for,” says you have to please the boss, get their approval, maybe be available at their beck and call. But “work with” changes the focus, so your efforts are about a common shared goal. The business goal, the outcome, yes. But also about making the power dynamic equal. So if they’re running late all day long, it can’t become your problem to drop your evening plans with your family to “be there” for them. You can easily end up exhausted, as they end up promoted.

Any construct that makes someone “small” and others “on top” limits Onlyness. Which is what “for whom” and “work for” can do.


Many of you might read that section above and think, well, that’s all fine, but I work for a boss. And for money.

I hear that. I do. 

I remember a time when the CEO of my web startup surprisingly fired me. I had hired a great team, just sold a big-ticket project to Time Warner, and I was feeling so connected to the team, to the brand and, even to my boss. I felt on fire. But then the boss man and I disagreed over something, and I was ousted in a snap. I wondered how I could go from being so valuable at first, a true find. Yet, shown the door, dismissed in an instant, even after helping rake in bookoo bucks. There I was, all alone, with nothing to show for it but some used logoed mug. 

But the thing was? The thing I didn’t want to see back then? 

The fire of financial security flames out fast. That job was about money, not meaning. We had absolutely nothing in common besides a thing we were trying to sell. Money is not, cannot be, the foundation of mutuality. There has to be way more bringing people together for it to be viable, enduring, growing.

Because, as this column has coveredmoney is not what creates scale; community is.  Like an aspen grove, what creates aliveness is an intertwined connection. 


The question you ask is a toughie. I know. Or rather, I don’t know.

How do we do this fuzzy thing of connecting? I can say with deep humility that connection is a process; and, like any relationship, not done by oneself. How does one know if they’ve given someone too many chances? Through giving room for people to show up and then seeing what happens. Do they show up too, or have one foot out the door at all times?

But that’s why your question is so important; it is always a question worth tussling with. So we can try again, to see what’s right. 

So, thank you, Good Handle. You’ve healed something in me by just asking this. It’s changing conversations I’m having with folks to co-create what comes next. 

And, can I tell you the bottom line of why this shift matters for you? 

When you change your approach from “for whom do I do this work” to “with whom do we do this work,”…you won’t need to “find” your people. 

You will already be in a relationship, already co-creating, co-operating. When you are leading in this way, you are co-labor-ing towards a shared goal or leading collaboratively.  

In that way, leading is a lot like love. Because love, like power, is not a private solo act but a profoundly social one.

All of us can be fully alive at work, but that aliveness doesn’t emerge until it is actualized. We are not actualized by what I do for you or you for me, but what we’re able to do with one another.

(P.S. This week’s question came from an opening keynote and related dialogue with Hello Neighbor, an organization that serves the refugee community. It’s found in minute 39, and the whole talk is linked here. Thanks to the Harnisch Foundation for enabling this access. )

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