“Too many people separate the act of leadership from the leader. They see leadership as something that they do rather than as an expression of who they are.”
I was coaching a district sales manager who was struggling with getting her team to complete their administrative tasks. She said she felt forced to act like a policewoman having to remind them to obey the rules. She asked me what she could do differently to make them comply.
Instead of brainstorming approaches, I asked her to define herself as a leader. Her answer focused on carrying out the responsibilities of the company, or more specifically 1) for seeing that her district met their sales goals and 2) that her team never showed up on any lists for not completing company directives.
I told her that this felt like she held the identity of Taskmaster which made them her Slaves. No wonder they resisted her whip.
She angrily corrected me, telling me how deeply she cared about them and their successes. She wanted to help them enjoy their jobs and be proud of their individual wins as much as she wanted them to make a visible difference within the company. She resented that anyone would think she was solely driven by results and recognition for herself. Yet, when I asked her for examples of how she demonstrated her devotion, all she could tell me was that she provided quick follow-up when her employees made requests.
I interviewed her direct reports. It was no surprise that they described her as overwhelming in her demands and patronizing in her tone. They felt she spent far too much time demonstrating her own expertise than in trusting and developing theirs. She never spent time just talking with them; she didn’t get to know who they were and what they needed. If they came to her with a concern, she was quick to jump in with solutions instead of coaching them to find their own. They were afraid to give her feedback. Not that they thought she was a bad person and would hurt them, but since she obviously didn’t trust them, they couldn’t trust her.
I could have told her to back off and quit micromanaging. I could have taught her coaching skills. I could have worked with her on specific scenarios and helped her find new solutions. Yet I didn’t want to waste our time.
Before she could behave differently, she had to see her role and herself in a new light. She needed to develop a new self-concept.
The neuroscientist, Joseph LeDoux, wrote in his book The Synaptic Self that the notion of self is defined in the patterns of interconnectivity between neurons in the brain. We are what we feel and what we think. Yet, the neural patterns in the brain are not static; our sense of self is not a solid concept. These patterns are shifting all the time. We are always in a process of becoming as we move through life.
Therefore, we can actively assist in the process of shifting our self-concept by engaging in exploratory dialogue. We can become someone else. A new self is realized when calling upon the information encoded in the past (self-awareness) and modified by choosing to think differently about present experiences. Through dialogue and reflection, you can help direct the changing patterns in your brain.
Getting back to my client, we began to talk about how she saw herself as a manager and more importantly, as the leader of her team. We explored her current identity of Taskmaster, a manager with a mission to get things done. She listed out everything she thought was true about the people she managed then dreamed up other possible “truths” for their current behavior. We then played with possible identities she would rather hold.
She restated her mission by adding two words, that she wanted to be a leader who inspires others to get things done. This led her to try out new ways of acting and reacting when communicating with her team. She said her new mission out loud at least three times a day to keep it present in her mind.
As a result, she tested out new thought patterns and behaviors and let go of old ones. Over time, she could see herself changing-thought by thought and action by action. She now calls herself the Magician because she seeks ways to transform situations from negative to positive. The results have been magical.
The key to making positive, sustainable change is to consciously choose to learn. As a human, you are a master at rationalizing and justifying your behavior. Therefore, if you are looking to expand your self-concept, you need to allow yourself to be different and to make mistakes as you learn. Then, you have to take time to actively reflect on these experiences. You need to consciously see, smell, behave, feel, speak, think, believe, evaluate, judge, discuss, reflect, reveal, and imagine on purpose. The process of re-creation requires you try on new behaviors and then think about and discuss your performance to create and maintain new synaptic connections, the psycho-socio-cultural-spiritual package you identify as self.
Here are some questions to get your mind in motion:
- In five words or less, define yourself by your purpose, not by your role or tasks.
- Based on this purpose, how do you expect people around you to behave?
- What stories are you telling about the people around you? Could they be telling these stories differently?
- What is most important to you? What do you fear? What do you passionately believe?
- What do you like about yourself right now? What doesn’t feel so good?
- What stories can you let go of?
- What story would you like to be living? How do you want this chapter to end?
- What doors are opening for you now? Who are you sensing you can be?
- What can you begin to do to honor who you want to be?
Spend time on each question. Write about it, talk about it, sleep on it and see if you wake up with something new. Joseph Campbell said, “We must let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the one that is waiting for us.”
Now, go become someone else!