6 minutes reading time (1291 words)

Leadership, Character, and the "Man in the Mirror"

I was promoted into my first supervisory role 18 years ago. I was the training supervisor for our ERP project team and had 3-4 people reporting to me. About nine months in, Alice, one of my direct reports, set a meeting with my supervisor to tell her how horrible I was as a supervisor. To her credit, my manager asked Alice if she would be willing to tell me directly how she felt. Alice and I met for 90 minutes. For 90 minutes Alice described everything I had done to undermine her success and to ruin her self-esteem. I listened, took detailed notes, and asked for clarification if I needed. When Alice was finished, I thanked her for telling me, acknowledged her courage, and promised to follow up after I'd had some time to digest what she'd told me.

After Alice left the conference room, I stayed and re-read the pages. I cried -- and I tried to make sense of what Alice had told me, how I'd missed all the signs that I was screwing it up. Later that afternoon I met with my manager. She asked me about the meeting and what I was thinking. I showed her the pages and pages of notes and I said something like, "If even only 10% of what she said is true, I have some real work to do."

The next afternoon in my team meeting I addressed the team. I told them I had gotten feedback that I was screwing it up. I apologized to the team for anything I had said or done that had affected them negatively; I asked them to please keep giving me feedback.  I also followed up with Alice and apologized to her directly.

I did not agree with everything Alice said to me that day -- nor did I see every situation the same as she did. Alice was convinced I had intentionally undermined her confidence. I found it difficult to listen to her speak her truth without defending myself. I did not recall some situations she mentioned. I felt attacked, ambushed, and embarrassed. The whole situation could have ended my career before it even really started. My apology to Alice was not an admission of guilt on all charges, but rather, an acknowledgment of her pain, empathy for her experience.

Oddly enough, five years later I had a similar experience with a supervisor. I took a new role with a different business unit; the role was supposed to be a career-builder for me. I knew in four days I had made a mistake in accepting the job. My new manager, Cathy, treated me like I had never worked at a job before. I tried everything I could think of to connect with her, to give her feedback, to help her understand my experience. She rejected my view without hesitation. Cathy insisted she was an amazing manager, that her methods were brilliant, and that my experience was wrong. She did not express care that I was unhappy. When my performance declined, she scolded me for making her look bad. She constantly criticized her previous employees and anyone who disagreed with her viewpoint. I went to her manager for guidance, only to hear how great she was and how my experience had to be wrong.

Not to get political, but as I watched excerpts from the Kavanaugh hearings this week and the testimony of Christine Blasey Ford, I wondered how it might have changed the outcome if Mr. Kavanaugh had demonstrated empathy for Ford, rather than contempt. What if he opened with an apology, rather than an attack? His choices -- words, tone and body language -- told me everything I need to know about his character and his fitness for the supreme court seat.

“Character is destiny,” is a quote attributed to the Greek philosopher, Heraclitus. This quote implies that destiny, or fate, is not a predetermined outside force, but that one's future, or destiny, is determined by his own inner character. The concept of "character" gets lost a lot these days. Most leader performance is measured by business results. Widgets out the door on time at some reduced cost; projects completed on time and on budget. Character building in self and others doesn't always make the list, even though results are temporary while character is enduring.

Having good character doesn't mean you've done everything right or perfect. I guarantee we have all made our share of mistakes. I've certainly done things I'm not proud of -- even embarrassed about. And I suspect you've got your own share of moments you wouldn't mind taking back. There is no perfect past. I see now how my worst blunders were spotlights on gaps in my character, each an opportunity to grow, to transform -- and I'm not done. I'm confident life will offer more experiences that will challenge me, giving me the opportunity to rise and face the truth about myself in that moment -- and the next, and the next. I'm also confident those opportunities will come at what seems like the worst possible times.

A track record of success or results is not a guarantee of good character. If that were true, a resume or CV would get you hired for a job. There would be no need for an interview or any of those "tell me about a time" questions. But that is not how it works. We are human -- and we are flawed. We all have gaps in our character and skeletons in our closets. Depending on the situation, some of those gaps & skeletons we can live with, others not so much.

Leadership is a character building experience. It provides endless opportunities to rise and face the truth about yourself in each moment. It's also an incredible responsibility. Everything you do, everything you don't do, everything you say, and everything you don't say -- it all matters. As a leader, you are not only responsible for your own character development, but you impact the character of all those you lead, directly or indirectly.

Change leadership provides a different angle on character development.  Leaders of change initiatives are commonly asked to lead purely by influence rather than authority. While they may not always get the fiscal results in the time allotted, if we could measure their impact on the character of an organization, on the culture -- then perhaps we would value them and their contribution differently.  Too often change leaders are held accountable for results without credit for their impact on culture -- leading to burn out and turnover.

For the record, if it was my job to hire Kavanaugh as supreme court judge, I'd pass on him and move on to other candidates -- not because of what he did or didn't do 30 years ago, but because of how he handled himself these past days. It's not about who he was; it's about who he has shown himself to be now.

I hurt with Ford and others who have been assaulted. I admire her courage in speaking her truth. We have a problem to fix -- a gap, a flaw -- in the content of our character, in our culture, when it comes to women, people of color, and other minorities. In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr., proclaimed: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character." It has been 55 years; we're not there yet.

As Michael Jackson sings, "I'm starting with the man in the mirror." Me. Every day.
I wonder what character building opportunities today will bring. 




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Sunday, 22 September 2019