If a picture is worth a thousand words, then this picture describes how I tried to live my life for too many years. It is the proverbial ‘square peg in a round hole’ syndrome; the place in which we carve away pieces of our authentic self to fit someone else’s vision for our life.
On this journey toward authenticity, I have simultaneouly been thinking about the concept of servant leadership – something I wholeheartedly embrace, yet have struggled with, too, especially on the professional front. The struggle has not been in doing what’s best for the team, client or company, but in what that leadership has demanded of me.
At one point in my career, for example, I was asked by one of my clients to pretend to be someone I’m not, for the good of the whole. Yes, the word ‘pretend’ was actually used. I was asked to subjugate my strengths and to at least try to become a Beta personality (which by all accounts I am not), so as not to disrupt the balance of power. I was also asked to keep the conversation a ‘secret’. It was team dysfunction at it’s best and my marching orders were to help keep the dysfunction functioning.
Where I take pride in leading with integrity, I’ve also been advised by professional allies of mine to learn to play the game. You know the one: the coveryourassandpointthefingerbehindyourback game. And I hate it. I hate it because personal accountability is eroding in our culture at break-neck speed. I hate it because the game has become more important than finding meaningful solutions to complex problems. I hate it because saving the skin of the individual has become more important than serving the goals of the whole. Increasingly, people lack the courage to lead; the courage to be vulnerable; the courage to be honest; and the courage to be wrong. Survival trumps all and a culture of fear is born.
Over and over I see this played out in life – in the corporate boardroom, in the political arena, and in our personal lives. At best, I’ve been told by some that it may not be right or fair, but it is the way it is. At its worst, I’ve been told by others that playing the game is their idea of leading from within. It has become a cultural norm. Dysfunction has become the new ‘normal’ and fear, uncertainty, indecision, and reduced output are the result.
So where do we go from here? How do we learn to lead and manage our teams, our lives, and our families from within in a world which measures it’s worth and value from without? How do we learn to influence others and effect change without eroding our core values in the process?
It starts with knowing who you are and what you stand for. It starts with courage. It starts with integrity. And though I may resist it at times, I am learning that it also starts with meeting people exactly where they are and as they are. We must understand the core values and culture of the individuals and systems they are a part of before we can hope to be influencers of change. We must be willing to model our own values…to lead by example, yet still remain fluid enough to respect the needs of the other or the whole.
There are days when I want to step out of the muck; days when I need to step out of the muck. But I find that when I take time out to honor myself and my core values, I am able to step back into the arena of life a stronger and wiser leader and learner. I am learning that I cannot necessarily change a system or personal/corporate value, but I can control how I respond to these challenges, and that the response itself can influence change.
People have often heard me say that to be ‘centered’ is to live in such a way that our outer lives mirror our inner values. Perhaps, then, the challenge is not how or if we can find a system or person that perfectly aligns with our core, but how we will live our values and lead others in spite of those differences. Can you hold on to your core when the wind sways around you? Can you stay strong in your values and authentic in your leadership, yet flexible enough to respect the needs of the whole?
I am rethinking the image above. Perhaps a wooden peg is the wrong image altogether. Perhaps instead of seeing ourselves as square pegs trying to force ourselves into a round hole, we can begin to see ourselves as water – transparent and fluid, yet with a hidden strength and force that can polish the rough edges of a river rock, generate power and electricity by the sheer force of its current, and restore life to those who thirst. As we approach the inevitable challenges of life, we learn not to resist change or challenges, but learn to flow with them.