I remember the first time in my adult life I tried to get into ‘leadership’. It was back in the 90’s. I read a bunch of books that told me I should budget my time. I should be consistent, motivated, excited, energized, and ready to go above and beyond. They basically told me what I should DO and how I should BE if I wanted to be a good leader.
So I tried. Tucked my shirt in. Kept my hair cut short. Said ‘sir’ and ‘ma’am’. Tried to speak up and ‘do the leadership thing’. Trouble was, I was trying to be someone I was not. And it showed. I never got the sense that people were ready to follow me anywhere.
I also began to notice that the more books I read on leadership, the more books were published. There was no way to keep up with all of the so-called ‘authorities’ on leadership. Furthermore, the books I did read often gave advice that conflicted directly with other books I’d read. “Act like you’re not afraid of anything so people will have confidence in you.” “Show your weaknesses and share your feelings so people will see you as human and have confidence in you.”
Ugh. What a mess.
I walked away from it all. I just wanted to be able to be myself. Wanted to strive for improvement, sure… but not to put on some phony act. If that’s what it took to be a leader, then they could keep it. I wasn’t interested.
At this point, I had some serious internal conflict. On one hand, I looked up to powerful leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, the Dalai Lama, and a host of others. I could SEE with my own two eyes that leadership was real, dynamic, and powerful. That good leadership could change the world.
Yet on the other hand, my personal life experiences told me that leadership meant being fake, inauthentic, and phony; that in order to get people to follow me (and why would I want that sort of head trip anyway?!) I’d have to pretend to be someone I’m not. I’d have to pretend to be strong, confident, and comfortable in my own skin. Because at this point in the game, I wasn’t.
The next 10-15 years were filled with personal growth. And when I say, “filled with personal growth”, I don’t mean to suggest a pleasant afternoon stroll during which I gently stumbled upon the answer to life. No. I’m stubborn, and I often have to learn things the hard way. It felt more like crawling through rusty barbed wire and broken glass.
I skinned my knees badly. And often. Went through years of pretty savage discomfort as I learned to stand on my own two feet in my mid-30’s. About fifteen years behind schedule. But better late than never.
Started really looking closely at the concept of healthy boundaries. Began to realize that the only truly ‘clean’ relationships were those that I could approach without wanting anything from the other person. And I’d spent all my life trying to get something from the other person… love, admiration, food, money, safety, sex, security, a sense of self-esteem… you name it.
Naturally, the things I was searching for could only be found within me. It took me some years of counseling, meeting with groups of people in rooms, and experiencing some personal transformation through intense personal work (check out “Energetic Awakenings” by Scott Beebe and “I Am That” by Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj) before I finally started to see some light, joy, and happiness in my life. At the heart of it all was the experience of sitting at the foot of the bed with my guitar, playing for a loved one as she died of brain cancer.
Finally I reached a point where I sense the presence of a force larger than me. And it’s not another person. I may have little time and patience for organized religion. But that feels very different from sensing something bigger than myself. Whether we call it ‘nature’, or ‘spirit’, or whatever… I know I’m part of it.
So how does this tie into leadership for me?
I was accepted into Leadership La Plata last fall, and over the past 7 months it feels like I’ve grown 7 years. As I dive more and more deeply into the concept of authentic leadership (using the concept of the Johari window as an illustrative tool), I’m learning that the intra-personal work I’ve been doing for 20 years — that is, learning about my limitations, my blind spots, the ways in which I’m selfish, arrogant, and insensitive as well as insightful, caring, and charismatic — is exactly the foundation upon which a good leader can stand.
But there’s more. There’s also a willingness to take responsibility. And that is a feeling that, in the past, I tried to dodge and deflect. It turns out that, for years, I’ve been giving about 20% of what I can give. More specifically, I’ve only been willing to reveal 20% of my gifts and talents to the world, because I was so afraid of getting ‘burned’; of not having what I need in life.
Now I see that my life is like the ultimate jazz trio… everything we need to make great music is right here in the room.