Three men walked down the road,
As down the road walked he
-The man they saw
-The man he was, and
-The man he wanted to be
In 1982 (wow) I was a ninth grader at a school with a Junior ROTC program. Our teacher was a former drill instructor, a lifelong Marine, and an all-around interesting man. I did not impress him nearly as much as he impressed me. He dropped these words of wisdom on us in class once, and though I do not remember the context of the sharing, I have carried those words since.
The meaning that I’ve found in them has shifted over these many years, and continues to shift. Early on, it was about how we masked our true selves from others and how we aspired for a different future self. At this point in my life, I see it more about self-awareness, about authenticity, about growing. Who knows what it will mean to me in another 25 years.
So Tim, what’s your point? Well, I’m glad you asked.
In leadership, authenticity shines. It gives those you lead a beacon to follow through cloudy and uncertain times. Authentic leaders build trust, model integrity by aligning their words and actions, take ownership of wins and losses, show the appropriate blend of positive and realistic views. Big boots, aren’t they?
Think about this with me for a minute. Imagine a Venn diagram with a circle each for: who they saw, who he was, and who he wanted to be. If I recall my algebra terminology correctly, intersection is the space where the circles overlap. Thus, we become more authentic as we increase the area of intersection that these circles have with each other.
Self-awareness creates this area of intersection. Self-awareness provides a key to authentic leadership. Self-awareness is a journey, not a destination. I don’t really believe that many of us ever get these circles to fully overlap; I do believe that persistent effort and focus on becoming better will increase this are of intersection.
Tell me what you think.
In the early 90’s, I found myself in a leadership role with a small company. The CEO lacked any level of refined interpersonal skills; he bullied, he coerced, and was a generally unpleasant human being. But boy let me tell you - he could he spin a yarn.
He had a gold tooth and a very misshapen nose and occasionally, at leadership meetings, he would tell the tale of being young and brash with more confidence than skill and ending up with what he called his “souvenirs”. He would relate his “souvenirs” to a tough, hands-on defeat, to lessons learned and to overcoming setbacks, to grit.
His stories engaged the leadership team. He had others: his rags-to-riches story about taking risks and managing losses and succeeding in business; his stories of hustling deals with sketchy suppliers in his early days. And though, I did not like him as a person, or as a boss - I stayed with the company longer than I wanted simply because he was interesting.
When I turned in my resignation, of course, he had a story for me - a story of a poor decision he’d made, of not following through when things got hard. He told me that he didn’t want me to make a similar mistake. The story got me thinking, and I waffled for just a second before sticking with my choice to leave.
As I said, he was a pretty terrible boss and an unpleasant man. I never missed working for him, not a single day, but from time to time, I did miss his stories.
As my new career progressed, I worked for many leaders with many styles and many strengths. It was years before I experienced anyone who could engage a team with story as well as that old CEO. As I moved into leadership development work, I learned more about “storytelling” as a leadership skill. I often found myself thinking of that unpleasant CEO, often wondering what a powerhouse he might have been had he worked on his emotional intelligence.
A story can explain data, engage a workforce, motivate a team, close a sale, touch a heart, change a mind. As a leader, do you use storytelling? A good story, well told is an incredibly powerful tool. Think back on your own experience, what leaders have you had that used story effectively? What did you learn from them? From their stories?
I have a bird feeder outside one of my windows, and though I don’t often make time for it, I deeply enjoy watching the birds that visit. Regulars include cardinals, a red-bellied woodpecker, the occasional blue jay, chickadees, titmouses, and doves, always doves. The doves feed on the ground, they pick from the seeds the others scatter from above. I like the doves, the seem conscientious and calm.
While I watched this morning, I noticed something I had not seen prior. Usually the doves just hop around and eat their seeds and largely ignore one another, in what seems to me a respectful disinterest. Today, one hopped aggressively after the others, his feathers fluffed and chest puffed out. He acted like a little bully, chasing the others away from the plentiful food.
I wondered what made him seem so threatened that he needed to act that way toward the others. I thought about self-awareness. I found myself thinking about the times that I had been on a team, or in a work group, and how I may have behaved toward my peers.
Most of us, regardless of our role, work in some sort of a team or group setting. How do you act toward your teammates? Do you find yourself acting like this dove, needing to establish your success at the expense of others? I know that at past points in my life, I certainly treated co-workers as competition. At those points, I struggled to see how “we” could be greater than “me”; I struggled to see how our work accomplished a single goal. I won’t blame that on my leadership at the time, but I do think that leadership could have influenced how we worked together.
In coaching, one of the tenets has to do with people acting in their own interest. We all do it, the variance comes in how we do it, how well we do it, and how much awareness of it we have. This morning, all of the doves acted in their own interest, but this puffed-up dove, he acted in his interest to the detriment of others. The way he acted stepped past self-interest into selfishness.
As a leader, how do you experience the other leaders in your section, or in your department? Do you see them as collaborators or competition? How do you encourage your team to act toward each other? What behavior do you model for team, for your peers?
Self-interest exists, selfishness doesn’t have to.