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.