Leadership involves so many difficult challenges and exceptional behaviors and mindsets. These days, we ask much of our leaders.
When I ask workers to quickly name the qualities that arise in their minds when they hear the word “leader,” I am instantly assaulted by a barrage of words: vision, charisma, confidence, clarity, responsibility, results, judgment, emotional intelligence, coach, and much more.
The Most Important Aspect of Leadership
What’s the most important aspect of leadership? Have you thought about that?
In my view, the most important aspect of leadership is integrity, because everything else leaders do flows from it (or its absence), followed by the courage to uphold it.
Warren Bennis, the late scholar and author widely regarded as a pioneer of the contemporary field of leadership, once wrote:
“Integrity is the most important characteristic of a leader, and one that he or she must be prepared to demonstrate again and again.” -Warren Bennis
Reflecting on his approach to hiring, Warren Buffett, chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, noted, “I look for three things in hiring people. The first is personal integrity, the second is intelligence, and the third is high energy level. But if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you.” Yes, we have seen many leaders with smarts and ambition get into trouble when they lack integrity and make poor choices.
The Quest for Excellent, Ethical, and Enduring Organizations
For our book, Triple Crown Leadership, we interviewed leaders in 61 organizations in 11 countries, and sought to find out how leaders build organizations that are excellent (exceptional results and positive impacts across stakeholders), ethical (doing the right thing, even when it’s costly or hard), and enduring (standing the test of time and operating sustainably).
When we interviewed Girish Vaidya, former Senior Vice President of the Infosys Leadership Institute, we asked him about the relationship between excellent results, operating with integrity, and sustaining these practices over time. He noted, “You might get high performance for a while even if there is no integrity, but for consistent high performance, integrity is absolutely important.” Notably, they view integrity not just as an aspiration or value. It’s something to bake into their culture and their organizational storytelling during onboarding and meetings.
During your career, your integrity will be tested. Have you committed to doing the right thing, even when it’s costly or hard? Do you have people around you with the courage to step up and ask the hard questions and push back when there are concerns? In her book, Fierce Conversations, Susan Scott wrote, “There is something deep within us that responds to those who level with us.”
Think of your own leadership at its best, whether at work or in community engagements, sports, or family. Think of the leaders you admire. And the ones who have influenced you in lasting ways and brought out your best. In all cases, you’re likely to find people, though not perfect, who are deeply committed to honesty, fairness, and morality. Integrity is essential in leadership.
“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionable integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.” –Dwight D. Eisenhower, former five-star Army general and U.S. president
There are many ways to think about leadership. For some, as we have seen, it’s about control or power. And for others, it is about achievement or recognition. For others, it’s about people and service, along with higher purpose and positive impact.
Since leadership by definition involves a relationship between leaders and followers—and, more precisely, an influence relationship—it begs the question of trust. One may be able to command, control, or deceive at some point or for some time, but for an enduring relationship of constrictive influence, trust must be present.
Trust is a firm belief in the reliability or truth of someone. This takes us into the deep and rich territory of character, credibility, ethics, honesty, integrity, morality, and values—all of which are essential underpinnings and necessary prerequisites of good leadership. These virtues are good in and of themselves and should be aspired to by all (and, yes, even in competitive contexts such as business and sports).
The Business Case for Trust
There is also a “business case” for trust. Without trust in an organization or society, things take longer and cost more, due to the need for checks and reviews and the inevitable holding back that comes in such situations. In his book, The Speed of Trust, author Stephen M. R. Coveywrote, “Trust always affects outcomes—speed and cost. When trust goes up, speed will also go up, and costs will go down. When trust goes down, speed will also go down, and costs go up.” He and his father, Stephen R. Covey(author of The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People), brilliantly described leadership as “getting results today in a way that, by inspiring trust, increases our ability to get results tomorrow.”
Leadership scholars James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of the classic book, The Leadership Challenge, have been surveying people around the world for decades on the characteristics of admired leaders. More than 100,000 people worldwide have responded, and the findings are powerful:
“Credibility is the foundation of leadership. People must be able, above all else, to believe in their leaders. To willingly follow them, people must believe that the leaders’ word can be trusted…. Trust is the most significant predictor of individuals’ satisfaction within their organizations.” -James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge
This is not rocket science. Imagine working for a leader or colleague whose behavior has demonstrated that he or she is not worthy of your trust, since he or she has deceived or used you. Imagine living with a family member or having a friend who abuses your trust.
Unacceptable. Such a situation requires change, and urgently so.
Of course, we all make mistakes and, when we do, thankfully we can redeem and make amends when others are kind and gracious enough to give us a second chance. But patterns of deceit warrant decisive action. Otherwise, we enable abuse and corrosive forces in our organizations and society.
Trust is essential in leadership—and in all forms of human relationships and organizations. Chronically failing the trust test is disqualifying for leaders.
Credibility: the quality of being worthy of belief and trust
Credibility, which flows from character and competence, is one of the most essential aspects of leadership. High credibility is a tremendous asset for leaders seeking to achieve exceptional performance and positive impacts. Low credibility is devastating.
Credible leaders are straight with people, even about hard topics. They walk the talk and practice what they preach. They do what they say they will do and follow through on promises.
Think about what you have wanted from your leaders, parents, teachers, and coaches over the years. Next, think of the impact that credible leaders have had on your life. And think of the kind of leader you would want your children or best friend to work for.
Characteristics of Admired Leaders
Leadership scholars James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of the best-selling classic, The Leadership Challenge, have been surveying people around the world for decades on the “Characteristics of Admired Leaders.” More than 100,000 people worldwide have responded, and the findings are powerful and surprisingly consistent across nations:
“In every survey we’ve conducted, honesty is selected more often than any other leadership characteristic. Overall, it emerges as the single most important factor in the leader-constituent relationship…. First and foremost, people want a leader who is honest…. “…people want to follow leaders who, more than anything, are credible. Credibility is the foundation of leadership. People must be able, above all else, to believe in their leaders. To willingly follow them, people must believe that the leaders’ word can be trusted.” -James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge
Table 1. Characteristics of Admired Leaders (% of respondents selecting each characteristic over time periods)
The Benefits of Leadership Credibility
According to their research, when people perceive their manager to have high credibility, they are significantly more likely to:
Be proud to tell others they’re part of the organization
Feel a strong sense of team spirit
See their own personal values as consistent with those of the organization
Feel attached and committed to the organization
Have a sense of ownership of the organization
When they perceive their manager to have low credibility, they are significantly more likely to:
Produce only if carefully watched
Be motivated primarily by money
Say good things about the organization publicly but criticize it privately
Consider looking for another job if the organization experiences problems
Feel unsupported and unappreciated
That leads them to the Kouzes-Posner 1st Law of Leadership:
“If you don’t believe in the messenger, you won’t believe the message.”
And then to the Kouzes-Posner 2nd Law of Leadership:
DWYSYWD: “Do what you say you will do.”
Today we all face grave challenges, from the pandemic and economic crisis, with all their stresses and pressures, to competitive and technological disruption. Now more than ever we need credible leaders worthy of our belief and trust.
What are you doing to build leadership credibility?
“Credibility is a leader’s currency. With it, he or she is solvent; without it, he or she is bankrupt.” -John C. Maxwell
Scandals. Fraud. Abuse of power. Greed. Corruption. Tax evasion. Coverups.
Once rare occurrences, coming back to haunt us every decade or so, these are now front and center in our daily lives and our daily news cycle. We see them in government, in business, and even in nonprofits and some religious organizations.
It seems as if we are in a race to the bottom.
While these challenges and failings have always been with us, we are not particularly well equipped to deal with them, in part because we fail to understand their root causes—and to hack away at them.
obsession with an overarching goal. For example, Enron executives were a group of hyper-ambitious overachievers with something to prove about being number one. Many were ruthless and uninhibited about doing whatever it took to get there. For NASA, it was fixation with set-in-stone space shuttle launch dates, contributing to tragic explosions and loss of life. Some mountain climbers get “summit fever,” where they are so focused on reaching the top that they recklessly risk their own lives and those of their teams.
attempting to explain or justify behavior with logical reasons, even when not appropriate. Sometimes values conflict (e.g., truth vs. loyalty). Rationalization entails choosing based on one “privileged feature” (e.g., total loyalty regardless of the truth). This creates “blind spots” in ethical thinking. Examples of rationalization are legion:
My boss told me to do it.
Everybody else is doing it.
It’s just this one time.
No one will find out.
It’s not my responsibility.
It’s not lying. (It’s just not telling the truth.)
We really need/deserve this.
I didn’t do anything. (I just looked the other way.)
You don’t understand the pressure we’re under.
“Business is business”: we’re just “maximizing shareholder value.”
“Politics is dirty”: we have to do this so we can do X, Y, Z….
“I… rationalized that what I was doing was OK, that it wasn’t going to hurt anybody.” / “I will live with this pain, with this torment, for the rest of my life.”–Bernie Madoff, former financier and operator of a Ponzi scheme considered the largest financial fraud in U.S. history
the sense of not being personally involved in something or of having no interest or stake. On ethical matters, Goodpaster raises the alarm when our actions are detached from our personal values. When detached, people bypass their heart and soul as they privilege only their head, and they anesthetize their humanity in the face of temptations to win or be perceived as successful. Here he draws on psychoanalyst and author Michael Maccoby, who warned that “careerism” was a self-destructive affliction suffered by many successful executives (and politicians, presumably), fueled by an obsession with winning and a “gamesman” view of all actions in terms of whether they will help you succeed in your career or campaign. The person detaches from his or her sense of identity (e.g., as a mother or father, citizen, etc.) and integrity, and one’s sense of self-worth becomes measured by performance in the market, game, or arena. Such detachment corrodes character and degrades mental health, with people leading divided lives between work and home.
Ethical Fading and Moral Disengagement
Two related dangers here are “ethical fading” and “moral disengagement”:
Ethical fading: “when the ethical aspects of a decision disappear from view,” such as when people focus so much on things like profitability or winning that they do not register unethical and illegal behavior (and the related aspects of harm, pain, conflict).
Moral disengagement: restructuring reality to make our actions seem less harmful than they are, convincing ourselves that ethical standards do not apply to us in a certain context, such as a political campaign. We mentally reframe destructive behavior as acceptable, and our brains are masterful at this misdirection.
Each one of these three symptoms is dangerous, but the real problem is that they converge into a single, terrible pattern. Goodpaster calls this “teleopathy”: the unbalanced pursuit of purpose. The word “teleopathy” combines two Greek roots: “teleo”: goal, target, or purpose; and “pathos”: disease or sickness.
We can think of it as a goal sickness—as being so focused on a goal that we pursue it destructively. Here’s the rationale:
We must win…. And we must be the best… We must rule.
Antidotes for Ethical Hazard
Thankfully, Goodpaster notes that there are “antidotes” for the three symptoms of ethical hazard:
1. From fixation to perspective.
We must see that our goals are part of a larger mission, the common good. We need to transcend our perpetual busyness and reactivity and build in reflection time, renewal rituals, and sanctuary. Without a larger and longer term perspective of community, duty, stewardship, and sustainability, we will spiral down in self-destructive patterns.
2. From rationalization to frankness.
Since our rationalizations tend to be subconscious, coming from the older and faster parts of our brain that do not engage our most advanced reasoning capacities in our prefrontal cortex, we need radical honesty and candor through searching and piercing dialogue and healthy conflict with colleagues who recognize the tremendous value of vetting and pressure-testing our ideas and decisions and inviting conversations about whether we are upholding our shared values. We need people who are willing to “speak truth to power,” even when they are a voice of one. Ideally, our organizational culture fosters such questioning and conflict, all in service of making wise decisions and proper actions.
3. From detachment to engagement.
This requires engaging our heart as well as our head. A powerful way to do that is to be clear about the higher purpose of the work you are doing (beyond winning a campaign or maximizing profits:
What will you do once elected?
What value can you create for all stakeholders through the profits you generate?
What positive impact can you have via serving others, and are you doing your part for the common good?
Now more than ever we need to identify and hack away at the root causes of our ethical failings and political dysfunction. We need to stop our senseless race to the bottom—in business with our myopic pursuit of profit and growth regardless of the consequences on people and planet, and in politics with our zero-sum game mentality of “I must win and you must lose” with all its attendant cynicism and disdain for fellow citizens who happen to disagree with us on some issues. We need to look for shared values and mutual interests instead of stoking mistrust, anger, and resentment. This race to the bottom is so dangerous because it threatens to destroy the very foundations of our communities and society. With perspective, frankness, engagement, and a healthy pursuit of shared purpose, we can redirect the race upward.
With a pandemic and all of its attendant human suffering, with economic devastation and so much loss of livelihood and dignity, with painful but overdue and much-needed conversations about structural and systematic racial injustice and inequity, and with so much division, disdain, and distrust, we need good leadership more than ever. Not because it is a cure-all, but because it is a prerequisite for stemming the crises, healing the wounds, and getting us moving in the right direction. Not just leadership at one level, but leadership at all levels of society and organizations. Not top-down, but leadership all around.
Yet too often we encounter not just mediocre but bad or even toxic leadership, the kind that not only fails to match the moment but that takes us in the wrong direction.
“Most books about leadership tell us what a person ought to do to become effective and powerful. Few tell us what to avoid. But the latter may be even more valuable because many people on the road to success are tripped up by their mistakes and weaknesses.”
No leader is perfect. We all have faults, flaws, blind spots, and shadow sides. But we have to understand and grapple with the problem of bad leadership if we are to figure out what kind of leadership is needed today and to develop the leaders needed for tomorrow.
Bad leadership comes in various degrees, starting with lacking desirable behaviors, moving to missing essential elements, and falling off a cliff when it comes to toxic leadership. We address each in turn below.
There are many things that can “derail” our leadership. We can avoid difficult tasks. We can be a bottleneck on decisions. We can struggle with effective communication, listening, or delegation. We can get caught up in firefighting—reacting to events without moving toward a worthy vision. We can be too hard or too soft (what we call “steel and velvet” in Triple Crown Leadership book). We can be overly rational and not sufficiently emotional, or vice versa. We can be impulsive, insecure, or intimidating. We can be overly optimistic or pessimistic. We can be perfectionist, people pleasers, or procrastinators. There are many derailers, and most leaders have multiple derailers. Those willing to learn and develop and can turn to coaches, mentors, advisors, feedback, training, books, and more.
Some modern leadership frameworks can inform this discussion. Authentic leadership from Bill George incorporates purpose, values, commitment to relationships, self-discipline, and heart, and these in turn generate passion, connectedness, consistency, and compassion. It is easy to see how some leaders may struggle in some of these areas.
Relevant Leadership Frameworks
Servant leadership from Robert Greenleaf emphasizes that the leader’s essential role is to serve others—the team, the organization, the community, the nation, the world. At its best, servant leadership involves listening, empathy, persuasion, stewardship, commitment to people’s growth, and building community. Greenleaf wrote that its best test is this: “Do those served grow as persons; do they, while being served, become healthier, wiser, freer, more autonomous, more likely themselves to become servants?” Again, it is easy to see how many leaders might fall short in some or many of these areas.
Transformational leadership (from James MacGregor Burns, Bernard M. Bass, Bruce Avolio, and others) causes significant change in individuals and social systems. In contrast with transactional leadership, which focuses on exchanges of expediency between leaders and followers via contingent rewards, transformational leadership involves emotional influence, vision and inspirational motivation, stimulation of creativity and reflections on values and beliefs, and consideration of the needs of followers. Clearly, this is a high standard, and many leaders fall short of it.
Leadership scholars James Kouzes and Barry Posner, authors of the best-selling classic, The Leadership Challenge, have been surveying people around the world for decades on the “Characteristics of Admired Leaders.” More than 100,000 people worldwide have responded, and the findings are powerful and surprisingly consistent across nations: “for over three decades, there are only four qualities that have always received more than 60 percent of the votes… for the majority of people to follow someone willingly, they want a leader who they believe is
Clearly, leaders who lack honesty, competence, inspiration, and the ability to rise out of the present moment and look forward are not ones who will motivate and bring out the best in their followers. Honesty and credibility were far and away at the top of the list of things people want from their leaders:
“In every survey we’ve conducted, honesty is selected more often than any other leadership characteristic. Overall, it emerges as the single most important factor in the leader-constituent relationship…. First and foremost, people want a leader who is honest…. people want to follow leaders who, more than anything, are credible. Credibility is the foundation of leadership. People must be able, above all else, to believe in their leaders. To willingly follow them, people must believe that the leader’s word can be trusted, that they are personally passionate and enthusiastic about the work, and that they have the knowledge and skill to lead.” -James Kouzes and Barry Posner, The Leadership Challenge
What we want from leaders can be greatly influenced by the context. For example, during a crisis we want leaders who show humanity and grace under pressure; seek credible information from a diverse array of experts; form a brilliant crisis response team; communicate reality, urgency, and hope; make themselves present, visible, and available; maintain radical focus; make big decisions fast; empower leaders at all levels; restore psychological stability as well as financial stability; use purpose and values as a guide; create a sense that people are all in it together; build operating rhythm with small wins; maintain a long-term perspective; and anticipate and shape the “new normal.”
Bad leadership gets much worse in a hurry when leaders are deeply flawed with what I call mega-derailers. In my experience, ego and fear are the mega-derailers that are most pernicious, and that underly many of the other derailers. Cynicism, derision, and hate are also candidates for this list.
In her book, Multipliers, researcher and executive advisor Liz Wiseman notes that some leaders are “diminishers” who stifle others for their own benefit and aggrandizement, as opposed to “multipliers” who use their intelligence to amplify the smarts and capabilities of those around them. Diminishers include:
Empire builders who hoard resources and underutilize talent
Tyrants who create anxiety and suppress thinking
Know-it-alls who showcase their own knowledge and tell people what to do
Decision makers who make abrupt decisions that confuse people through the attendant chaos
Micromanagers who take over and control things without trusting others to do their work
Importantly, Wiseman notes that there are also “accidental diminishers” who unintentionally shut down the intelligence and potential of others, for example by making others dependent on them by always rescuing them, overwhelming others with a flurry of ideas, consuming all the energy in the room, driving so hard or fast that others become passive spectators, or being so optimistic that others wonder if they appreciate struggles and risks.
Another version of bad leadership takes the benefits of transformational leadership noted above and twists it into pseudo-transformational leadership, which is characterized by self-serving yet inspirational leadership behaviors, discouraging independent thought in followers, and little caring for them. According to leadership scholars Bernard Bass and Ron Riggio, pseudo-transformational leaders are self-consumed, exploitative, and power-oriented, with warped moral values.
Recently, there has been increasing attention given to the “dark side of leadership,” often focused on narcissism (excessive need for admiration, disregard for others’ feelings, inability to handle criticism, and sense of entitlement), hubris (foolish pride or dangerous overconfidence), and exploitation (taking unfair advantage). To those we can add the scourges of bullying and harassment. And of course there is a long history of authoritarian and autocratic leadership, and unethical and criminal leadership.
Toxic leadership, according to Jean Lipman-Blumen of Claremont Graduate University and author of The Allure of Toxic Leaders, is “a process in which leaders, by dint of their destructive behavior and/or dysfunctional personal characteristics, inflict serious and enduring harm on their followers, their organizations, and non-followers, alike.”
Clearly, there is a range of bad leadership behaviors, ranging from mild to severe, but the important question remains as to why people continue to follow bad or toxic leaders.
Some scholars have written about a “toxic triangle,” a confluence of leader, follower, and environmental factors that facilitate destructive patterns:
Toxic leaders: charisma, narcissism, power, negative life themes and ideology
Susceptible followers: unmet needs, low self-evaluation, ambition, similar world view
Conducive environments: instability, perceived threats, lack of effective institutions and checks and balances
For years, many have pointed to the allure of charisma (compelling attractiveness or charm that can inspire devotion in others) and charismatic leadership, with people being seduced by leader characteristics such as wealth, power, or confidence. We can also look at the “psychodynamics of leadership,” including the psychological underpinnings of leaders’ behavior. Harvard’s Joseph S. Nye, Jr. wrote in his book, The Powers to Lead, “People persist in looking for heroic leaders.” Abraham Zaleznik, a leading scholar in this field, asks, “Is the leadership mystique merely a holdover from our childhood—from a sense of dependency and a longing for good and heroic parents?” Many people just long for somebody to come along and fix things, abdicating their own agency and responsibility, and they believe it when some leaders make unrealistic promises.
Ethics scholar Kenneth Goodpaster has done important work that I believe may shed light here. He notes that many leaders and followers get caught up in “teleopathy,” an unbalanced pursuit of purpose (e.g., winning in politics or sports, being a market leader in business, launching a space shuttle by X date), which is driven by fixation on set goals, rationalization of questionable behavior and decisions (e.g., everybody is doing it), and detachment from our personal values as we pursue those aims. I wonder if people are willing to stick with bad or unethical leaders because they are so caught up in winning and will do whatever it takes to prevail.
“People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives. Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds…. If you think about moral reasoning as a skill we humans evolved to further our social agendas—to justify our own actions and to defend the teams we belong to—then things will make a lot more sense.”
Our brains have evolved to seek and defend tribes, and to be exceptionally good at rationalizing the behaviors and decisions of our tribe (and its leader), a phenomenon that is often unconscious (so exceptionally difficult to defend against).
As we can see, there are many reasons why good people continue to follow bad leaders, and these neurological, psychological, and social phenomena are complex and powerful (and subject to exploitation by savvy operators and marketers).
In the end, we want leaders who add and multiply, not subtract and divide. We want leaders who get great results, with integrity, and sustainably. And we want leaders who create more followers and serve the larger good rather than themselves. We want leaders we admire, who make us better, and who call on our better angels.
Yes, we need better leaders, and we need them now. But most of all, we need to be our own best advocates and changemakers.
More Articles from Our Series on Ethical Leadership
We face a barrage of challenges these days: rapid change, a barrage of demands on our attention, tension between work and home, and more. There’s one meta-skill that shapes how we respond to all these challenges: self-leadership.
Without it, we cannot sustain ourselves for long.
Leading self may be obvious, but it’s far from easy. We neglect it at our peril.
The task of leading self is the task of a lifetime. Here are ten keys to self-leadership:
1. Healthy Habits.
When we are leading self well, we develop an energizing rhythm of self-care. It includes the “fundamentals” that many of us take for granted: good nutrition, vigorous exercise, consistently good sleep, breaks during the day, and regular check-ins to take stock of the big picture. Too often we protest that we don’t have time for such things. That is shortsighted. It is when times are tough that we need these habits the most. Without them, we unravel.
2. Inner Life.
Today, we are so consumed with daily obligations and distractions that we can lose ourselves in them. Our inner voice is drowned out by noise and shuffle. John W. Gardner once wrote, “By midlife, most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves.” We numb ourselves with compulsive smartphone use and binge-watching. In the process, we are rewiring our brains and sabotaging our ability to engage in deep reflection and work. Knowing ourselves means discovering our:
Purpose: our reason for being (or what infuses our life with meaning and significance)—including a sense of why we do what we do, and why we want to lead
Values:what we value most in life (and the behaviors that manifest those things)
Strengths: what we are good at
Passions: what we get lost in, or what fills us with energy
Often, it takes time to discover these foundational elements. They become clearer over time if we “listen to our life,” as Parker Palmer encourages. We must build these essentials into our life and work. It helps to share them with loved ones about for input, support, connection, and follow-through.
“All you have to do is to pay attention; lessons always arrive when you are ready, and if you can read the signs, you will learn everything you need to know in order to take the next step.” -Paulo Coelho
3. Authentic Integrity.
When we act with integrity, we are not only honest, truthful, and trustworthy; we are also whole. In today’s world, it is easy to live what Parker Palmer calls a “divided life,” with a chasm between how we live and who we really are.
“One man cannot do right in one department of life whilst he is occupied in doing wrong in another department. Life is one indivisible whole.” -Mahatma Gandhi
Instead of dividing ourselves, we must integrate all aspects of our self into one coherent whole. In doing so, we must be who we really are, not a projection of something crafted to please or impress others. In our book, LIFE Entrepreneurs, Christopher Gergen and I called this “authentic integrity”: integration of all aspects of our lives in a way that coheres with our true nature. When we live this way, we develop what Palmer calls a “hidden wholeness.”
“Wholeness does not mean perfection; it means embracing brokenness as an integral part of life.” -Parker Palmer
4. Brutal Honesty.
Our brains are wondrous creations, with incredible capacity for sensing, thinking, remembering, learning, calculating, pattern-spotting, imagining, creating, associating, dreaming, and regenerating cells, all while subconsciously regulating our internal bodily functions and sleep.
But our brains are prone to subconscious shortcuts and biases and we are exceptionally good at rationalizing our behavior, whether good or bad. In short, we are masterful at deceiving ourselves and explaining hard truths away.
Are we needy for recognition or approval? Desperate to impress? Losing ourselves in work? Hiding our brokenness? None of us is perfect, but without brutal honesty, we will not be able to break out of unproductive patterns that cause pain for us and others.
“If you want to be successful, you must respect one rule: never lie to yourself.” -Paulo Coelho
Take the Traps Test
We all fall into traps in life. Sometimes we’re not even aware of it, and we can’t get out of traps we don’t know we’re in. Evaluate yourself with our Traps Test.
There is much to be concerned about in the world today. Just look at the headlines. Sometimes we should switch off the frenzied feeds of doom and gloom and turn our gaze elsewhere: What fills us with life? What makes us crackle with energy? What lifts us up? Inspiration can come from different sources: Love. Dreams. Connection. Adventure. Opportunity. Wonder. The coming of spring. The hope of healing. The sense of having helped.
What inspires you? Have you lost touch with it?
We tend to put courage on a pedestal. Typically, we think of people suddenly reinventing their lives or leaping into the line of fire. We think of fearlessness. In truth, courage does not come without fear. We show courage when we act even though we are afraid.
“Feel the fear and do it anyway.” -Susan Jeffers
Courage is a prerequisite for everything that is necessary and valuable in life. What use is a good idea not launched into the world? A conviction not defended? A precious relationship not fiercely guarded? A talent that stays backstage? A manuscript that never ships?
It is not enough to have convictions: we must act on them, even when–especially when—they are hard. Courage is not always about acts of heroism. It is much more often the day-to-day hard work of showing up, getting started, putting ourselves out there, doing our best, and persisting. It requires mucking through the swamp of uncertainty.
Too often, we live and lead just from our head. We think, reason, assess. Pros and cons. Cost/benefit. We avoid the mysterious territory of the heart. Brené Brown reminds us that we fall into the trap of trying to impress others, with fear and shame driving that fool’s errand.
The alternative, she says, is vulnerability, and embracing what she calls the “gifts of imperfection,” which can lead to connection, joy, and wholeheartedness.
“Connection is why we’re here…. Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen…. True belonging only happens when we present our authentic, imperfect selves to the world.” -Brené Brown
Jeff Spadafora talks about achieving a level of success in his life with a family, prestige, and a big home in the mountains—and yet feeling surprisingly unsettled. Over time—with an increasing disconnect between his life and his values, driven by his focus on ego and accumulation—that feeling grew into what he calls “smoldering discontent.”
In his book, HalfTime, Bob Buford wrote about the struggle that can occupy much of our lives for those fortunate enough not to be consumed with survival matters like disease, hunger, and poverty. If we are fortunate, perhaps we can transform that struggle into success. Too many people stop there, as if wealth and status were the point of life. Buford points instead to a longer journey: from struggle, to success, to significance. Significance ensures that our success matters, that we have a legacy beyond self-aggrandizement and accumulation. A legacy of service and impact.
Many people today exist in a precarious state, from the cumulative effects of stress, poor sleep, and burnout. For starters, we need to build renewal into our days. Despite our willpower and ambitions, there are limits to our energy. Without exception, we need good habits of rest and renewal.
“In life itself, there is a time to seek inner peace, a time to rid oneself of tension and anxiety. The moment comes when the striving must let up, when wisdom says, ‘Be quiet.’ You’ll be surprised how the world keeps on revolving without your pushing it. And you’ll be surprised how much stronger you are the next time you decide to push.” –John W. Gardner
At a deeper level, we need “sanctuary” in our lives: places and practices of peace that restore our hearts. Places of quiet and tranquility. Together, renewal and sanctuary can lead to serenity. Beyond the striving, beyond the chase, beyond the willfulness, there is an acceptance, a yielding, a comfort with the present moment and a willingness to see things for what they are and ride with the flow of life. The serenity beyond the stress and struggle.
Leading self ultimately takes us beyond the self. We must look to the “far horizon,” as Dag Hammarskjöld urged, not just at the place where we are walking. We must tame our egos and find a deep and abiding humility about the vastness of our universe and a shuddering gratitude for our place in it. This is the place of soulfulness.
“You don’t have a soul, Doctor. You are a soul.” -Walter M. Miller Jr., A Canticle for Leibowitz
This is the place where we pause and get quiet, and instead of pushing and fighting, we sit and listen. Sometimes, with grace, we open up a space in our lives where we can begin to make out a call—quiet but steady—that had been sounding all along. Wrapped up in our own struggles and dramas, we were too preoccupied to notice, too consumed to hear.
If we stay with it, really listening, we can begin to fathom its depth.
In the vast well of soulfulness, we come to realize that our lives are not about us alone. Our lives are vessels of connection—a precious, sacred, and mysterious gift.
Gregg Vanourek’s Newsletter
Join our community. Sign up now and get Gregg Vanourek’s monthly inspirations (new articles, opportunities, and resources). Welcome!