The Language of the Self

I suspect I could start a pretty lively debate by asking this question: of all of the limiting characteristics of leaders you know, which one is the most fatal?

Some would argue the question itself, frustrated by it’s cynical assumption of leadership failings. As much as I favor and advocate for a “strengths” and “possibilities” point of view, the disengagement of 70% of the American workforce isn’t going to be effectively addressed through appreciative approaches alone.

Back to the question: what is the fatal flaw of leaders you know? What holds them back from being someone you would willingly follow?

Is it poor planning? Poor execution? Lack of strategic vision? Ineffective communication? Lack of inspiration? Inability to confront poor performance? Lack of advocacy for the team? Low relationship skills? Insecurity? Pettiness? Lack of feedback? Inconsistency? Fear mongering? Favoritism? Triangulation? Narcissism? Low emotional intelligence? Lack of care or concern?

No doubt all of these can be fatal. And, there is one that rises above them all serving as a nutrient rich source of sustenance from which the others feed. It is the inability to speak with fluency the language of the self.

A leader in trouble, and that is any leader bent on forcing compliance rather than earning commitment (read “engagement”) is one who has no ability to converse in their own language. That is abstract, I know, so let me make it more concrete.

Fluency in the language of the self comes from the close examination, understanding and articulation of who we are in a number of key domains. For starters, I would bet that the leaders you willingly follow – who inspire your commitment to a cause worth fighting for – can speak thoughtfully about the following: they know and live their values; they understand and practice their signature strengths; they are forthcoming about their limitations, building a diverse team to accommodate their weaknesses; and they are productively ambitious, guided by their aspirations to evolve their learning, their contribution and their influence.

But where does this awareness come from? To understand these things about ourselves in a deeply authentic way – to truly own them with a compelling confidence – is to possess a rare self-knowledge, one that is hard-won. It requires an exploration of the dynamic layer of our adaptive, default tendencies in how we cope with the messy murkiness of the world around us. This is about the ways in which we strike out, become defensive or otherwise get emotionally hijacked when things don’t go our way. Knowing the darkened alley ways of our emotional landscape is essential for effective leadership; or effective life, for that matter. And this is why a lack of fluency is so fatal to so many leaders: they simply aren’t willing to take a hard, honest look at the interior “stuff” that makes them more human than otherwise but that also limits their capacity to deal with the hard stuff, something employees everywhere understand with a first-hand, battle hardened, soul bruising certainty.

Leadership, if it’s about anything, is about the expansion of capacity to effectively take on the complexities of change that litter the road from where we are to where we want to be. When we speak the language of the self, we gift ourselves the peace of understanding and the confidence to move toward that which would otherwise lay us low.

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