The Art of Leadership Reinvention

If you read this blog regularly, you know I connect current events with academic research with actions you can take to become a more effective leader. The subject in this blog post may be the most important of them all. The CBS Money Watch blog post refers to the Republican race for the nomination. This blog post goes into how you can reinvent yourself, and the cost of doing so. It’s not for the timid.

Having spent a decade asking leaders, psychologists, and other experts about self-reinvention, their answers come down to two words: experience and reflection. You have to do things you haven’t done, and reflect upon what works and doesn’t, and how the experience made you feel. Look especially for extreme reactions. If something ticks you off, there’s a good chance you’ve discovered a core value, and that whatever is bothering you violates this value. If you find yourself in a flow state, “in the zone,” it’s hard to stop and reflect for the same reason it’s hard to slow down a raft in the rapids. You may have to look back later. In all cases, reflect.

As you reflect, look for the four factors: core values, yearnings, rage-inducers, and ideal vision of the world. Core values are principles, as we write in Tribal Leadership, that, without which, “life wouldn’t be worth living.” We don’t find values directly, but by reflection on moments of joy and outrage. Yearnings are a sense of missing something—connection, power, quiet, love, fame. Notice yearnings aren’t kittens and puppies. Or rather, it is all kittens and puppies, because both will destroy furniture, leave their excrement in the worst possible place because they’re mad at you, and fight back if provoked. And they’re cute and cuddly at the same time.

Rage-inducers are people or situations that make you more than mad, they set you off. Real leaders get mad, and many stay mad. Look at Dr. King and Gandhi, and I say this with the greatest respect. Without anger, they would have been less effective. Because they tempered their anger with their core values—“peace” and “human dignity” in both cases—their anger became the means to noble end, rather than mere rage.

Ideal vision is how you think the world should be. People often trip over their ideal vision, as in the case of Mother Teresa, whose reaction to the state of the children and dying in Calcutta was “this ought not be.” The world should be a place where people live for others, and love one another by caring for them. For those who think real leaders control their temper, consider what Mother Teresa said about the United States: “When I see waste here (the United States) I feel angry on the inside. I don’t approve of myself being angry but it’s something you can’t help after seeing Ethiopia.”

Here’s where shallow thinkers go off track: they find the happy stuff—the values, their higher selves, their noblest aspirations. They miss the stuff that turns their stomach—greed, envy, rage, and the passionate desire for something they know they shouldn’t have. You are a creature with millions of years of trial-and-error coded into your genetics, and if your ancestors couldn’t lust, get mad, and even kill, you wouldn’t be here. I refer to the part of ourselves we don’t want to see as “the dark side,” partly because it can be a turn off, and also because it lives in shadow, outside our awareness. We can find it only with experience and reflection.

Throughout this process, put together a statement of the “real you.” Who are you, at the deepest levels? This process takes Shakespeare’s “all the world’s a stage” and makes it literal, rather than a metaphor. You, me, and everyone else in the world is an actor playing a role. Understanding this fact gives you the ability to play the right leadership role, and play it well. Get any part of this process wrong, and you will come across as fake, a bad actor, and give people a general sense of mistrust, or outright accusations that you’re a fraud. If this sounds like how Romney is characterized by his Republican rivals, you’re right. He has not done this process well, and as result, will almost certainly lose against Barak Obama in November.

As Bennis’ writings show, many cases of reinvention are forced upon us. Failure and hardships are two cruel teachers, often requiring us to remake ourselves. For some, we go through process because of what Steve Zaffron and I refer to a “crisis of integrity” in Three Laws of Performance. In any case, the flow is the same: looking deep, accepting what you find, and remaking yourself from the inside out.

Are you what Bennis calls a “twice borner,” having reinvented yourself? If so, I hope you’ll share a comment here about what you learned through the process.

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