Self-Awareness & Self-Acceptance (Cancer & Leadership: Part 4)

A couple interrelated ideas that I wrestle with–as I suspect others do too–are the ideas of self-awareness and self-acceptance, and specifically self-awareness and self-acceptance in regards to leadership. This is an ongoing conversation in one of my grad school courses; it came up within the context of a larger discussion of transformational leadership and servant leadership.

If we want to become better leaders, we have to continue learning how to become more appropriately human, if that makes sense. This is true of all aspects of our life, and is certainly applicable to our leadership within organizations. I’ve argued before that leaders need to be OK with having faults, and bold enough to be open about those faults. Vulnerability is foundational to building trust, but it’s also in many ways foundational to being human.

As I mentioned in a previous posts here, here, and here; cancer was pretty tough to accept, and has been a formative experience for me. I know I was fortunate that they caught it; with kidney cancer, by the time symptoms show up, it’s often too late. I’m even more fortunate that my kidney cancer was not as severe as the various types of cancer that others have suffered and continue to suffer through so courageously. Even still, during that time, it was hard for me to look in the mirror and know that the cancer was lurking on and in one of my critical organs. And if I’m honest, it’s not just every November this comes to mind.

The crazy part is that it was there before I knew it was there, right? It’s not like it popped up the day of my initial CT. It had been there doing its thing for who-knows-how-long, but I was completely unaware of its presence. I had no idea. None. It was only after I became aware of the situation that I began having significant trouble accepting it (duh).

As with any human being, as leaders, our self-awareness affects our self-acceptance. Here’s what I mean. It’s as we work toward more self-awareness that it could potentially be more difficult to embrace what we find. It’s a tricky tension to navigate because our shortcomings as humans and leaders are complex, partly having their genesis in our past and being influenced by a multitude of factors, both internal and external.

The tension seems the most difficult for me personally when I try to spend time reflecting on myself, my life, my past, my actions, my attitudes, my motivations, and yes, even my leadership and professional life. (Perhaps that’s too much navel-gazing, but perhaps it’s not.) Like so many others, throughout my life, and especially as I stumbled through adolescence and early adulthood, I felt tremendous pressure to look a certain way, be perceived a certain way, and think about myself and others in certain ways.

One of the many consequences of growing up with that mindset is that I never knew anything other than trying–sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously–to earn the acceptance of others through any number of things. In my mind there was an ever-present need for acceptance and affirmation.

It was never enough, of course. I would spiral into deep episodes of depression as I saw how fractured my life was in the sense that the me I was trying to project to others (put together, successful, etc) was not congruent with the me that was on the inside. While I was good at appearing successful and put-together, on the inside I was anything but that. I was a mess.

In a way, my difficulty in accepting myself–flaws and all–was an outgrowth of my becoming increasingly self-aware (as we all do as we live and learn) but less able to process that awareness and use it in positive ways. The more clearly I was able to see things about myself, the more those feelings of inadequacy intensified.

As leaders, it can be very, very hard for us to be self-aware to the degree we should be; and even during those times when we do see ourselves more clearly, it can be excruciatingly difficult to own those inadequacies, weaknesses and struggles. Vulnerability is way easier to talk about than it is to embrace as a leader and human being.

If you’re anything like me–and I hope for your sake you’re not–you see so many areas where you have an opportunity to grow as a leader and person, as we all do; but it’s during those moments of clarity that we have to push ourselves to own our faults as leaders and humans. We have to own those shortcomings, because it’s only after we own them that we’re able to address them in real and meaningful ways.

Everyone talks about being authentic and real and all that jazz, which is certainly good and appropriate. But owning and wrestling through our struggles, weaknesses, and failures is so critical to our growth as people and leaders. That appears to be where self-awareness and self-acceptance intersect, and it also seems to be where legit authenticity begins.

10 thoughts on “Self-Awareness & Self-Acceptance (Cancer & Leadership: Part 4)

  • Matt,

    I apparently missed the other posts that were linked in this one. I’ve now gone through them all this morning and just wanted to say “Thank you” for sharing this very personal struggle. It’s so easy to get caught up in the day to day and forget to step back and realize who we are, who we want to be, and who we project ourselves to be. Your posts are great reminders about the things that matter most, and sometimes fall to the bottom in our list of priorities. It seems these days that self-awareness and critical thinking are skills/behaviors that are in decline. Thanks for challenging us to be more self-aware, challenge the status quo and improve the world. Have a wonderful Thanksgiving. Tom

  • Thanks for this insightful post. You might be interested in one of my blogs–http://eiapplied.blogspot.fr/2012/01/10-ways-that-emotional-intelligence-can.html about using emotional intelligence (including self-awareness)to cope with cancer. Best to you–

  • This is a deep one Matt – good job. First, I have to say I have a very similar mindset and background to you (less the cancer) so I’ve been there. I’d like to explore this a bit more. By the way I admit, this is a tough topic to put concisely into words, but here it goes. When we’re growing up and becoming more aware, and try to become what we think others want us to be, we’re not embracing who we are. As you said, we’re not accepting our humaness. For some people like me and you, it didn’t seem ok to be who we were. But back then, it wasn’t about dealing with characteristics on which we can improve. Shouldn’t the form of self awareness that leaders need be about improvement? The awareness of what we can and can’t improve on? The awareness that certain things just are, and certain things need work?

    Not sure I clarified at all, but I guess I’m just trying to add that certain things about ourselves just are, and we can’t condemn ourselves for it. We accept these because it’s part of being human. But other issues can be worked on and as leaders we need to own these. This is the type of awareness which is missing most.

    Curios on your thoughts. Thanks.

    • I think that’s absolutely a facet of self-awareness, and that’s a great angle to bring up. And I’d suppose that the more self-aware we become, the better we’ll be able to tell the difference between something that just “is,” and something that can get better/different.

  • Loved this post. As a fellow cancer survivor you have been articulating many of the same feelings I have had so well. But it goes beyond the shared background of a cancer fight. This particular post really touched me because, as an extremely frustrated perfectionist, the quest to do whatever it would take to earn others approval has nearly overwhelmed me at times. I just could not imagine, or bear the thought of, anyone for any reason having bad/negative thoughts about me. This was somewhat helpful when I was in school, because my quest for the best grades and to be the ‘overachiever’ earned me the success I craved. However, I’ve spent the last ten years as an elected official, so you can perhaps begin to see how difficult my life has been! I am unwilling to bend on my personal integrity standards, and of course there are those who do not personally agree with me. Partisan politics always seems to polarize people, even though my current County office has no bearing on politics, I am elected on a partisan ballot. I manage a staff which includes a chief deputy, so I can see how embracing/confessing foibles to them may help my leadership style in the office setting, but I would be interested to hear your thoughts on fostering an appropriately human persona to the general public when I am an elected official that deals with constituents on a daily basis.
    Thanks Matt!

    • Wow. What an honest and vulnerable post, Julie. Thanks for sharing that.

      I would argue in some ways that what you’re describing is part of what contributes to national, big-time politics being such a mess. Campaigns have hundreds, maybe thousands of folks on the payroll whose role in some way includes making sure the candidate appears as close to flawless as possible. If you think about it (and I’m nerdy so I do), during debates, candidates will do just about anything they can to avoid having to directly say they were wrong, or that something isn’t a particularly strong suit of theirs, and so on. The game is very much rigged against folks in politics being more human and vulnerable.

      That said, I still admire someone who, even in the face of that pressure, has the fortitude and honestly to admit goofs and weaknesses–which we’ve all got–and leads to the best of his/her ability in spite of them. When people see that you’re human, and when they see that you know you’re not perfect, they’re far more likely to want to follow someone like that.

      Kudos to you for your service, and for your desire to lead well. I wish there were more like you out there.

  • Matt- thank you for talking about something that is uncomfortable for most- self doubt, depression, uncertainty, insecurity, pain. Most people have experienced some if not all of these at some point in their lives yet most people can’t talk about it. It’s almost like its shameful. I’ve experienced many of the same you describe above over the past 5 yrs after a traumatic accident and ongoing chronic pain have impacted my ambitions, balancing self again career and others needs. I’ve experienced the professional pressures to act like a warrior irregardless of what’s occurring behind the scenes- strong, confident, assured, unemotional. As a women, I often feel professionally there is even less room to display signs of weakness.

    I believe only through exploring our weakness can we emerge and grow to be the people we are destined to be. If more if us listened to our hearts and honored the weak person inside each of us, how different would most people’s lives be? Maybe more authentic, maybe more at peace with oneself, perhaps stronger and happier? Maybe it would change the course of our lives to live a path that has more fulfillment?

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