Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Is Losing Yourself Necessary for Leadership?

I grew up in a tight, European household.

We were a total of 7 living under one roof which included my maternal grandparents. I was taught many of the "old world" values where the collective needs always came before the individual. I was taught that a family was not a summation of individuals, but rather an entity unto itself. Boundaries were never clear between "me" and "we".

You could say that I started life without a real clear sense of myself, because it was intertwined with the needs and expectations of my family and my extended communal "colony" comprised of 50 other families who emigrated together from Spain.

My internal household reality was at odds with the external world where I spent my childhood on Long Island, NY during the '60s and '70s. Our country was built on an individualistic spirit; one where we were taught the importance of following your own passions, purpose and dreams. A place where every person can "do anything you set your sights on." A place where our founding fathers dreamt every individual could flourish.

My family upbringing caused a conflict and struggle in me relative to my outside world where individualism was the order of the day. That struggle continued well into my adult life, particularly in my working life where I came face-to-face with the leadership challenges of the seemingly-at-odd priorities of "we vs. me."

It is no surprise that when I came across two articles recently, that I had a strong reaction to their messages. The first one was an article by Bill Taylor "We is bigger than me" where he states "the true measure of success is not the value you create for yourself but the values that define your work and how you lead and live."

I happen to agree with his statement. To lead your life effectively, you can't be completely self-centered. You need to see the broader impact beyond yourself.

However, Taylor goes on to say that "This is the age of the maverick, the startup, and, dare I say it, as the cofounder of Fast Company, "The Brand Called You." That is why it's so easy to focus on the magazine covers, the IPO wealth, the personal narratives." What Taylor is missing here is that some of this rugged individualism is required to ultimately connect with the "We" which in this case is a target audience. Achieving a brand called YOU, means that you have understood the intersection of your brilliance and core strengths with the needs of your target to deliver on their needs.

Achieving a Brand called YOU is the ultimate challenge of melding the needs of "we and me", which requires you to step outside of yourself to deliver on the needs of others. This is the work of a business leader.

The second article by David Brooks "It's not about you" (which Taylor references in his article) reinforces the idea that as leaders we need to "lose ourselves", in other words putting others or the task at hand ahead of ourselves. His message was directed to new graduates, as they step into this world, as newly minted leaders of their lives and careers. Here are some of his words:

"...many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture. But, of course, this mantra misleads on nearly every front.

...Today's grads enter a cultural climate that preaches the self as the center of a life. But, of course, as they age, they'll discover that the tasks of a life are at the center." He concludes his article by saying "The purpose of life is not to find oneself. It is to lose oneself."

While I agree that leadership is a maturation process and that we ultimately do want to lose ourselves to the tasks of life and the needs of others, what Brooks misses here is that losing ourselves can only happen once we have a strong foundation of self.

This profound insight represents one of leadership's counter intuitive truths: In order to lose oneself completely, one has to know oneself completely.

I have seen this in my own personal journey.

The tension I felt between "we and me" can best be described with a continuum. At one extreme end of the continuum there is self-lessness where the "we" rules at the expense of the "me." We can see this in repressed societies around the globe. It is also where many women in our own society can migrate when they feel the relentless expectations to care for others at the expense of their own needs and desires.

On the other extreme of the spectrum is where I believe Taylor and Brooks are advocating "losing oneself" to an area that I call self-interest. A self-interested person has a good sense of themselves and is not threatened easily by others. They are compassionate of others but they can't be walked over either. They are driven by a greater purpose, something bigger than themselves.

Having a healthy self-interest is critical to effective leadership.

In the center of the spectrum is where unfortunately, many people reside and where leadership cannot flourish. Self-centeredness. As infants we start here, after all we enter this world with a need to survive and self-centeredness is essential for survival. However, as adults we need to move beyond self-centeredness. When someone is overly self-centered, they usually don't have a good sense of themselves, they are struggling to know their place and role in life and are easily threatened by others.

Self-centeredness is about self preservation and hanging on to the status quo while fighting heavily to maintain it.
Our individual and collective journeys are to move from self-lessness and self-centeredness areas of the spectrum to develop into healthy self-interest. So, is losing oneself necessary to get there? Yes, but certainly not at the expense of eradicating "me" altogether.

To that point, I would change Brooks' words to say that "The purpose of life is not to find oneself. It is to find oneself then give it away."

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