I was attending an assessment session for my certification in reflective learning. Reflective learning was a significant anchor in my life transition, and completing the course was a milestone in supporting other people in their careers and life transitions. While changes teach us that old habits require a transformation, I still evaluated myself primarily based on performance and outcomes. In addition, my teacher and peers observed the session, so I was under additional pressure.
After wrapping up, I received a few observations: I was talking about myself in the 3rd person (i.e. "it's hard for me to…" instead of "I find it hard to"). I was afraid to share what my intuition surfaced concerning the challenges brought up in the session. These patterns and experiences have been so familiar my entire life that I didn't even observe them. However, the experience surfaced some questions that stay with me to this day:
When do I dare, and when I play safe? What does this say about me?
What would happen if I owned all parts of myself?
The initial answers surfaced a few insights about the specific learnings that I could integrate to become a better reflective learning partner in the upcoming days. But soon after, they started to be the common thread to everything I was doing and, most importantly, what I was not doing. With every action, I observed myself when I was daring and playing safe, exploring what that says about me.
Bravery and fear are sensitive topics. I liked to believe I was brave, and I was, sometimes. But looking deeper, I was afraid to say something that would bother the person in front of me or when I was going to share something against the agreed norms of the environment. So, of course, I was holding back even when I had something authentic to share, but I felt that the audience might not understand the message.
I realised I had masked many decisions under the umbrella of bravery, taking a bold step forward, when in reality, it was my fear driving me away from the things I feared most: failure, pain and rejection. And so, I found it easier to phrase my statements objectively, talking in 3rd person, removing my subjectivity on the subject and not seeing my limitations and fears.
Discovering these aspects of myself was challenging and a real threat to my performance image. I reflected for weeks, accepting the insights a little more as time went by.
The surprising thing was that the more I acknowledged the unknown parts of myself, the greater my results in working with people. I allowed them to be themselves, which allowed them to take more significant risks.
As a result, they became more open, braver, and empowered to make a difference in their teams and organisations in scenarios they didn't believe they could even influence before. They inspired others through their real stories and pushed existing boundaries for their beliefs. They contributed to organisational structures and strategies by playing a little less safe and became the leaders that unexpectedly showed up in the messy middle of the organisational transformations.
Disconnecting from self and focusing on extreme performance may make us feel and look good in the short term, but it creates splits in our integrity and identity in the long run. We then develop unrealistic expectations of ourselves and others. Such unrealistic expectations find a way to crumble at the first obstacle. I am not advocating for lower performance; on the opposite: the more we reflect on these splits and integrate them into ourselves, the greater the coherence between who we are and what we do - the only way for sustainable performance.
"It is terribly important that we be what we are, that we affirm our own destiny. Each person has a story to tell. If it is not told, it becomes the rock against which we are shattered. We must each accept our own nature, as we happen to be, with an unconditional "yes" to that which is, without subjective protests about the conditions of existence" - C.G. Jung.
So, I did discover my answer to the last question, "What would happen if I owned who I am?"
When I own who I am, I become the instrument of change. Because people learn from who we are, not who we want to be. I don't need to be limitless, just aware of my limitations. I don't need to be perfect, just whole.
I invite you to reflect on the same questions, bringing into awareness parts of you that will empower you to see yourself more clearly, accept yourself and others and give you tools to take the next step towards your growth as a leader. With this, you can create much more meaningful connections and sustainable results through your teams.
When do you dare, and when do you play safe? What does this say about you?
What is the fear behind playing safe?
How is this fear influencing your discernment when you make decisions?
Leadership comes with a great deal of responsibility for our people, organisations, and ourselves. This responsibility is for both the things we do consciously and unconsciously. It's there even when we would want to look sideways. Stepping into this self-exploration is what requires bravery.
What parts of you and your leadership story are calling you to own them?