It seems to me that many of our biases stem from a single
story - or maybe the opposite is true. When
we limit ourselves and our understanding to one narrative, we limit the depths
to which we can be fully known and can fully know someone else. All of us live
a life of multiple stories, layers of complex experiences and opportunities
that define who we are, what we think and how we live our lives. To limit the
telling of these stories is to remove a part of ourselves – to underestimate
the person to whom we are relating.
When we allow ourselves to be defined by a single story, we
hold ourselves back. But single stories are also a way to limit the opportunity of others
and to hold them back from being all they can be – whether intentional or not. By
limiting others to a single narrative, a single, simple understanding of who
they are and of the richness of their life experiences, is to effectively
reduce them to something less, something inferior, to turn them into something
they are not and to allow our power to tower over them.
Novelist Chimamanda Adichie describes the Danger of a Single Story
in a talk that is both inspiring and challenging. The challenge for all of us
to take a moment and look beyond the surface and to consider why we limit our
understanding of others – why we see only a single story. By asking ourselves “why,”
we can begin to recognize the implicit (and maybe explicit) biases that drive
these narratives. Bias is ubiquitous and not inherently bad, it only becomes so
when we allow it to drive our thinking in a manner that is detrimental to
others and ourselves. Consider being a little more empathetic, a little more observant
and a lot more reflective on how you perceive the person in front of you… if
you are limiting them to a single story, ask yourself why.
Strengths are an interesting thing… for many of us, they are
the traits, characteristics and skills that we are sure we do well. Strengths
are what we boast about, where we have pride and feel accomplishment. In
reality, we occasionally fool ourselves into a false sense of our strengths.
The strengths we see in ourselves in some situations suddenly become a weakness
in other circumstances – or at best a hindrance. Those things about ourselves
that we can always rely on become vulnerabilities and challenges; when we are
forced to rely on others, our strengths sometimes get in the way.
Strengths, at best, are only good in a moment – that precise
instance when everything perfectly aligns, and we get to be the hero allowing
our strengths to shine through. However, at most times in our lives and
leadership journey, we need to rely less on our strengths and instead rely on
the strengths of others. Success depends more on our relationships than on our
internal need to show our strength. There is a Nguni word that speaks to oneness
among others and our common humanity: Ubuntu.
Literally translated, it means “I am, because you are.” Leadership is
recognizing that strength is in our common humanity and in how we exist through
George Bernard Shaw stated it this way, “Life isn’t about
finding yourself. Life is about creating yourself.” Our leadership journey should
be about seeking balance with each other and with the world. We discover our
strengths through our relationships with others. I recently had a wilderness
leadership experience that made me think about my strengths and my need to rely
on others. At the top of a ropes course exercise, I was tested. Not from a fear
of heights or from a fear of falling, but from something far deeper. Maybe it
was trust, maybe it was courage or maybe some implicit bias, but something
caused me to freeze. But in an instant, my partner took control, looked me in
the eyes and calmed my fears. Telling me to hold her tight, we completed the
exercise through her calming voice and strong determination.
At that precise moment, my partner’s strengths shined, and
she was the hero. Our challenge is to always be looking for the hero’s in our
One of my
guilty pleasures is America’s Got Talent,
a reality television show. In this show, one former judge regularly talked about
looking for the WOW factor in the acts that are performing – he was looking to be
completely blown away. The WOW factor is simply a distinct appeal that an
individual or an object has on others. For the leader, this translates into an
impressive display of leadership acumen and skill. But how do you find the WOW
factor in your leadership? It’s easy… simply consider three things to make you
appeal to others: practice makes perfect, knowledge is power, and just do it.
Practice Makes Perfect
I love sports
and particularly college football. The excitement of Saturday afternoon in the
fall is something I look forward to. But, according to the NFL, only 3.4% of
all college football players make it to the pro ranks. To be sure, one reason
why these elite few reach the pinnacle of their sport is through practice. According
to Martha Graham, “Practice
means to perform, over and over again in the face of all obstacles, some act of
vision, of faith, of desire. Practice is a means of inviting the perfection
desired.” While this sounds like the life of a professional athlete,
it is also the life of an everyday leader. Perfection is hard to accomplish but
worthy of our effort. As leaders, we influence others to accomplish things
greater than any of us could achieve individually… we strive toward a common vision.
Practicing leadership may not make us perfect leaders, but it will make us
perfectly prepared for leading.
Knowledge is Power
historically gained through intentional study or by experience. We have often
attributed knowledge to those who have been around the longest or to those we
consider the smartest. But knowledge is no longer the domain of a privileged few. We
recognize that everyone around us brings knowledge and that all of this knowledge
is valuable in making decisions. But Indian philosopher Krishnamurti thought of
knowledge this way, “To know is to be ignorant. Not to know is the beginning of
wisdom.” As leaders, we too often confuse knowledge with wisdom. While it is
important to consider the thoughts and ideas of our team – their knowledge – it
is more important to be aware of what we don’t know. Leadership is about balancing
emotions with reason to make good decisions. When we focus only on the
information in front of us, we may not be acting as wisely as we can.
Just Do It
this phrase a standard part of our vocabulary and I venture to say that as a
leader, you have uttered this phrase at least once when trying to get others to
follow along. However, we too often get caught up in the act of getting others
to “just do it” and often forget to follow our own advice. Philip J. Eby suggests
we put too much thought trying to find the “why” in what are doing. We should instead
stop trying and start doing. In other words, don’t over-think the problem,
allow motivation to occur naturally and see what happens. Leadership
expert John Maxwell puts it this way, “The whole idea of motivation is a trap.
Forget motivation. Just do it. Exercise, lose weight, test your blood sugar, or
whatever. Do it without motivation. And then, guess what? After you start doing
the thing, that's when the motivation comes and makes it easy for you to keep
on doing it.” When you are self-motivated, you become the leader that others
want to follow.
Even though the relationship between leadership appeal
and performance has been challenged, I contend when we have a distinct influence
on others we are more effective as leaders. When we are more practiced as leaders,
wiser leaders and more motivated leaders, we have more influence. Imagine there
was a reality television show for leaders and the judges were looking for the
WOW factor in your leadership… how would you rate?
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