Reality Check: the Secret of Self-Reflection

I recently had a conversation with a young man interested in applying for his first leadership role. This young soul recounted all of his accomplishments to me: bonuses earned, awards won, and recognition given to him by his organization for his outstanding performance.

As he continued to try and convince me that he was ready to take this next step, I sat back and thought, why are you trying to persuade me?

The conversation was quite one-sided and seemed self-aggrandizing.

As I continued to reflect during the conversation, my thought turned, he's not trying to convince me, he's trying to convince himself! Even though he had received all of the reward and recognition, he knew in his heart of hearts he was not ready. His peers were being promoted around him, causing him to take on their call as his own.

My role as a coach is not to judge whether he is ready, my role is to help him explore his reality so that he can make informed decisions about his own life. After he stopped talking, we ate in silence. A long and very uncomfortable pause ensued, and I could tell he was starting to get uncomfortable. “You're not ready,” I said. My intention was not to judge him, but rather to shock his ignition and get him thinking.

He immediately became defensive. "What do you mean I am not ready? I have done this and this...." He started to give me his list of accomplishments again. I let him go on until it seemed he was out of breath. When he finished I said, “You have all the WHAT you need. You have the individual contributions. You have shown your skill and capability. I think you might be missing the HOW.”

“HOW? What do you mean by HOW?" he asked.

I turned to one of my favorite modern day philosophers, Parker J. Palmer, who wrote, “I now know myself to be a person of weakness and strength, liability and giftedness, darkness and light. I now know that to be whole means to reject none of it but to embrace all of it.”

My young friend was still trying to embrace all of his strengths as an individual contributor. He was still selling to himself the idea that these attributes were enough for him to lead others. He was also not being completely honest with himself or in his description of his accomplishments. He was grandstanding, and frankly, it made me uncomfortable just listening to it.

So I asked him, “Tell me about a time when you worked on a project that did not succeed."

Long, long silence again. I could tell he was stuck. The thinking in his head must have been like a game of chance: “If I tell him about an unsuccessful project then I admit failure and that looks bad, but if I don’t tell him then I look arrogant and that looks bad, too.” I could see the thoughts rolling around in his head like a pair of dice being shaken just before being jettisoned in a game of Craps. So I broke the feeling of awkward stillness…"You see, what Palmer is saying is that you have to know your whole self. We all have strengths and we all have weaknesses. Until you are ready to embrace your weaknesses, I don’t think you are ready to lead.” My message to him was that he needs to get really honest with himself.

“You need to think about HOW you accomplished your work, and frame your story around that, not the WHAT you had done in your career to that point."

My Morning Reflection

Many of you know that I try to spend my mornings in quiet reflection and meditation prior to starting my day. Many days I will do some type of Scripture reading to accompany this reflection. I love it when the topic of my reflection shows up later in my day. The day of the above conversation was such a day.

Prior to my talk with this young leader, my quiet meditation had been with the biblical character Moses. When I think of Moses I cannot help but think of the Charleston Heston caricature in the movie The 10 Commandments. In my mental picture, Moses is standing on the rock, staff held overhead, as the wind and clouds swirl around him and the Red Sea in front of him splits open like a zipper separating two sides of a jacket. Powerful, in control, strong, mighty….Moses.

But my study that morning showed a different side of the biblical character. God is having a conversation with Moses trying to convince him that he is the guy to lead the Hebrew people out of slavery. Moses, who had been raised as the son of an Egyptian Pharaoh, felt self-righteous enough as a young man to kill an Egyptian and vindicate a fellow Hebrew. Rather than face the conflict of what he had done, he ran from that life to be a shepherd and a bit of a nomad in the wilderness. Then, forty years later Moses encounters God in a burning bush. God says he wants Moses to go and lead the Hebrew people out of Egypt.

Moses reply is just classic, “Who am I?"

According to Dr. Ken Boa, this question revealed a radical change in Moses. From radical impulsive youth to a middle age man feeling inadequate for the task.

Moses had come to grips with the totality of his humanity. From knowledge of his strengths to understanding the depth of his weakness. This level of self-knowledge is what Palmer calls “embracing one's wholeness." It is this wholeness that allows a leader to balance their strengths and weaknesses, their confidence and self-assurance, with empathy and compassion.

Emotional Intelligence*

What I love about using emotional intelligence as a leadership model is that it allows leaders to see inside themselves so that no strength is overplayed and no weakness is swept under a rug. If we are going to lead, then our followers deserve to know us as leaders, including what our dreams and visions entail for those we will lead. Any employer who is going to pay you for your service deserves to know the entire story of what they are getting. If they don’t align with your vision or story, then the role just is not the right one for you. Move on. The right role will come about and you will be much happier.

It is not only prudent but also critical that any candidate for leadership understand this emotional intelligence leadership model and the value it can bring for self-reflection and communication of HOW one goes about leading others. Current research suggests that between 15% and 45% of work success can be attributed to emotional intelligence. If such a large proportion of how a person is going to perform in a role is dependent upon their emotional intelligence traits, then candidates for leadership need a working knowledge of these attributes.

In a study of 4,888 people in various occupations, researchers were able to identify key emotional intelligence attributes in various job functions such as general sales, marketing, senior managers, and human resource personnel. These key traits come together like ingredients in a cake recipe to give the interviewer a better idea of how a candidate might perform in the future.

As I studied this research there were two emotional intelligence competencies that stood out to me as vital for roles in leadership across organizational types (non-profit, business, government, education) and job functions: self-actualization and self-regard. Realize this is a broad, meta-stroke across data. Every role will have emotional intelligence competencies that lend themselves to more successful outcomes.

Self-actualization, the ability to realize your potential capacities.

Lewis Carroll writes in Alice in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.” Self-actualization is about being involved in pursuits that lead to a meaningful, rich, and full life. Leaders who self-actualize let go of things that are not important and can focus on what brings meaning, purpose, and fulfillment to themselves. Friends who have in career counseling often tell me that people they coach dwell far too much about how much money they will make.

I have to admit, I just had this conversation with my own coach. I am in the research stages of writing another book and I shared with him that I wasn’t sure the work was going to provide enough revenue to even break even with my time. “So what?” he replied. "Do you need to write it? Does the information have to be shared? Then write it and stop worrying about who will read it or what they will pay for it.” Sage advice!

I am now giving the same to you, young and experienced leaders alike. Follow your dream, follow your heart, follow your passion. Money may or may not follow, but happiness will. Isn’t that what you want to make all that money for anyway?

Reflection Question: What are you doing to develop enjoyable and meaningful activities that reflect a lifelong effort and an enthusiastic commitment to long-term goals?

Self-regard is seen as the ability to respect and accept yourself.

Essentially, liking yourself the way you are. This competency ensures the leader has enough self-confidence that others would want to follow. That his/her self-worth is balanced with enough empathy that the leader is going to be able to get through good times and bad.

Elanor Roosevelt is famous for saying, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent."

People who have positive self-regard have a real sense of identity and work to overcome feelings of inadequacy or inferiority. In order to lead others, you must have enough confidence to lead yourself. Then, you must have enough empathy to realize that leadership is not about your identity, but your relationships with your followers that matter.

Appreciate your positive qualities and accept your limitations. Know your strengths and weaknesses, and still like yourself, “warts and all.” If you don’t, why should they?

Reflection Question: What value would it provide for you to understand your strengths, and what would it feel like for you to embrace your weaknesses?

Homework. Spend some time in quiet reflection using the two questions posed above. What impact will a reality check on your self-actualization and self-regard have on your ability to lead or obtain your first leadership position?

*Full disclosure. I am a certified master trainer using the EQi 2.0 published by Multi-Health Systems. This is the emotional intelligence model I use in all of my coaching and leadership development work. All definitions I use come from this model.