When I last worked inside an organization I was chiefly responsible for leadership development. Fortunately (and with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps even amazingly), there was a portion of that time – about three years conservatively – when our team, along with the principal leadership of the company, operated within the context and with the qualities of deep alignment. Enough time has passed for me to see this period as distinct or even “special,” but not so much as to fall prey to the romanticism that so often accompanies a look to the past. This reflection certainly represents the limitations of my own perspective while it is informed by an awareness of the ease with which such reflections can become revisionist history.
The personal benefit to me of this three-year period of alignment is that, having experienced a time when the specific efforts I led – widely supported by many, many others of course – were in sync with the organization’s drive forward (serving as a propellant, you might say) gave me a high-water mark against which to compare the period when this was not the case. In fact, most of what I espouse today as a learning and leadership professional is rooted in the contrast that I observed between these periods of effectiveness (alignment) and ineffectiveness (misalignment). Seeing our work, work, and seeing it happen in real-time, even though we so often stumbled our way into our solutions with an experimenter’s mindset, provided a felt experience of the possible. Observing and even participating in the deconstruction of our co-created leadership development culture as we slowly but steadily drifted away from alignment provided the best learning of all, of course. It’s a truism that we learn more from our failures.
In that period of alignment there was an overarching sense of simplicity, something I believe to be a powerful indicator of whether or not any initiative is on track. In our case that simplicity took shape from a foundational understanding of what it is we were there to do. What were these leaders, coaches, facilitators, psychologists and training professionals really there to accomplish? What was the primary focus of our shared work in the context of a growing, changing, fast, aggressive, defensive, reactionary, closed, hit-you-right-between-the-eyes system? First, we were there to bind the anxiety of leaders working in a challenging environment (see the aforementioned cultural characteristics) and, second, we were there to facilitate the capacity of our leaders to operate more effectively on the continuum of “fitting in” and “standing out.”
Larry Hirschorn (Passion and Group Life, 2003) identifies this continuum as moving from “heartfulness” (fitting in) on one end to “narcissism” (standing out) on the other. It was on this platform that we were running our campaign of outreach and intervention. Our leadership services – primarily one-on-one coaching augmented by quarterly small group learning events – weren’t advertised this way in a specific sense but you didn’t have to hang around the place for long to understand that narcissism/standing out was the one note played the best and most often. It was a culture of communal one-upsmanship where the senior leader in the room would consistently “suck up all of the emotional oxygen” (Hirschorn, 2003).
In a very real way the narcissistic drive comes from a scarcity mindset, that there’s never enough (love, recognition, opportunity, connection, money, purpose, pleasure, etc.) to go around so I better get all I can before anyone else does. But that is the darker side of narcissism, an individual and organizational quality that is essential for moving towards what one wants to achieve, the pursuit of one’s passion. Heartfulness, on the other hand, suggests that there is plenty for all of us, even in the pursuit of our passion. And this is key: that we can and must (for our individual and organizational livelihoods) move toward what we want and do so in a way that preserves and even upholds other’s needs and interests without single-mindedly destroying what stands in our way. This is the heart of heartfulness.
Our commitment to engaging our leaders on this continuum showed up in the very design of the work itself. One-on-one professional coaching, in large part, helped to more productively and constructively feed the narcissism side of the continuum. “My coach” became a common refrain among the leadership, exemplifying in the early stages the pride or prestige that comes with being among the included. If coaching created a feeling of “specialness” among those leaders it also provided a forum to assert the qualities of narcissism, good and bad, necessary to be experienced by anyone whose job it is to lead teams to specific outcomes in a demanding environment. It was an hour every other week that was “all about me.” With the support of a well-qualified coach the layers of those narcissistic qualities could be examined and played out to enormous impact.
The quarterly small group off sites, on the other hand, were “all about us.” Those interactions had more of a playground feel where each individual could practice integrating their narcissistic individualism with the necessary responsibility to be a caretaker for the whole. Conversely, one could practice the less discussed but equally imperative “standing out,” especially if one’s orientation was more on the “fitting in” or “heartfulness” end of the spectrum. These groups were both small enough that you couldn’t hide and large enough that you had to share the space for it to be productive. And please know that I am not suggesting we discovered some sort of magical “I, thou” equilibrium. We most certainly did not. What we did discover was that learning to operate along the continuum rather than where one feels most comfortable is a necessarily slow, iterative and redundant process. What we were doing was, in fact, countercultural and therefore the most necessary work. We were fortunate to stave off rebellion which reinforces just how aligned, if only for a short time, we actually were.
Our goal, in line with Hirschorn’s admonition, was not an either/or proposition suggesting that if you were comfortable on one end you “should” move to the other. Rather, it was to expand the leader’s capacity to move freely along the continuum with awareness and purpose, born of the heavy lifting of self-reflection. I do not prescribe what we attempted as some sort of “off the shelf” solution for building organizational leadership capacity in the face of complexity and change. We wrote our playbook as the game progressed. Instead, I share it in the hope that the integration of these capabilities – narcissism and heartfulness, standing out and fitting in – will become more centrally located in the dialogue of aligned leadership development practices.