Who do you see?

September 23, 2021
Arjav Chakravarti

Notes on leadership: Part 2

“I’m the head of this organization. I have to embody the mission or else I’m just a hypocrite.”

The statement stands out as one of the most powerful that I’ve heard in a coaching session. The person had been hired to turn around an organization and, months of effort later, was worried that some in the organization still felt disconnected from both, the leader and the mission itself.

“The work used to be so much fun but it’s been less so since I got promoted. The team doesn’t see me as one of their own anymore.”

This lament came from someone who had worked their way up the ranks to become the head of the organization – the culmination of years of single mindedness and dedication – only to find that the work was less fulfilling than before.

Here were two individuals at defining stages of their careers. They had experienced a change in role – a change they had sought, worked for and been excited about – and yet, a few months later, something was wrong. They were the same people as before – smart, capable, fun, even inspiring to be around – but the knowledge that their teams did not view them that way was draining them of energy and joy.

In the last post you read the stories of Atul and Uma. You were asked whom you would like to follow. Think back to your perception of Atul. Was he compassionate or indecisive? And did you see Uma as courageous or inflexible?

One definition of the word image is “a mental representation; idea; conception.” One’s image of a person could be based not just on what they say or do but also on a number of other factors – past experiences, tendencies, needs and mental constructs, for example, that a leader should look, speak and act a certain way. If you are the leader of a team that carries a certain image, or images, of who you ought to be then what can you do about it?

To answer the question, take a small leap of imagination and picture yourself as an actor in a play. It’s probably not that hard to do! Imagine that during the daytime you live your life a certain way but the lights come on in the evening and you find yourself on stage playing a character – a boss, a peer, a friend, an outsider. It’s only natural that the audience will react differently to each of these characters. The thing to remember is that they’re reacting to a character, not to you, and that their reaction draws from a variety of preferences and past experiences, some of which you can do little to change.

If you’re a good actor then you will think, feel and move as the character, but no matter how much you immerse yourself in the role there are two things you will not forget – that you are not the character, and that the show will end, at which point you will put away the costume, wipe away the make-up and return home.

Am I suggesting that you become inauthentic by separating who you are from how you are seen? Not at all. In my opinion, developing an awareness of the difference raises the prospect of bringing the two closer together.

If you are dissatisfied with your team’s image of you then you could try one of three things. Firstly, change the image to be more like you, perhaps by bringing more of your personality to interactions with the team, and relying less on your position. Secondly, change yourself to be more like the image. Take up positive aspects of the image, for example, far-sightedness or compassion, and work towards developing those within yourself. Thirdly, do nothing. Be comfortable in choosing to not meet certain expectations, for ethical reasons perhaps, or simply because the effort required would be more than you consider worthwhile.

As you lead teams, now and in the future, you might find that all three approaches have their own value, and that you are applying one or the other at different times and in different situations. However, as you navigate options, goals, stakeholders and demands on your time, remember that the most important decision you take will be on where to focus your attention.

You can only love one of these – your self or an image of you. Choose wisely.

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