In order to really become a great leader and to become fully actualized, we must always consider and acknowledge that which sustains us and that which controls us. In essence, we must be aware of the narratives – unspoken and spoken – that dictate how we live our lives. Some of those narratives may be sustaining. For example, a foreign exchange trip during college may reinforce the value of cultural humility and its role in intercultural dialogue and engagement. Watching a grandparent work tirelessly can indoctrinate us with a strong and sturdy work ethic that seemingly knows no bounds.
However, if we are not careful, those same narratives that at one time sustained us can also be the same narratives that later in life restrict us. Such is the double-edge sword of value, virtue, and the quintessential life lesson. However, a transformational mindset can help individuals recognize the truth of yesterday and integrate it with the learnings of today and tomorrow. A transformational mind sees ideas and knowledge as ever-evolving, and is able to recognize the nuanced and contextual nature of truth in one’s personal life and in our global society.
As an example, when I was growing up, one of the repeated aphorisms I heard from my Mom anytime I was dealing with difficulty was “5 minutes of self-pity.” Her words of wisdom meant that I could only have “5 minutes of pity” before I started to work towards a solution. Hers was an “old school” ode to resiliency, tenacity, and determination. Being the only African American in predominantly white institutions throughout my entire educational career, my mother’s advice inspired me to never dwell on failure or to take “no” for an answer. Whenever I encountered difficulty, whether it was a challenging class, social isolation on my college campus, or the burden of lowered expectations held by my professors or my peers, I was always able to summons the strength to see those occasions as opportunities for growth. I was able to pivot quickly emotionally and forge a path ahead where one may not have seemed possible before. This sense of “grit” (which has been lauded in recent academic journals as an underappreciated cognitive trait that speaks to one’s determination and passion) would help me not only succeed in school, but in my career development as well. When I started my consulting firm, the “5 minutes of pity” mantra was the one piece of sage wisdom that helped me overcome the typical issues that befall new business owners.
However, those narratives that inspire us can also imprison us. Many years later, when I was dealing with a breakup from my long-time partner, the sadness at times became overwhelming. Although we weren’t married, the separation certainly felt like a divorce. I tried to give myself the customary “5 minutes of pity” in order to grieve – grieving in between business trips, work, and the like – but not surprisingly, five minutes proved inconsequential. I struggled mightily. What was worse, I was unaware of how the familiar script was guiding my emotional state of being. During a routine conversation, my Mom, detecting some lingering sadness, said to me reflexively, “Well…perk up. Remember: you only get ‘5 minutes of pity.’”
It was then that I asked what would prove to be a transformative question: “Why do I only get five minutes? What if I need 5 days? Or 5 weeks? Or 5 months? Or 5 years?” It was at that moment that I started to realize how the script had been controlling me.
Of course, the advice wasn’t literal. My mother wasn’t suggesting that I only take 5 minutes to process my grief, nor was she trying to be insensitive to my circumstance. Sometimes it is difficult for people to see their loved ones in pain. Mom inherited that advice from her Mom, who probably inherited it from her mother, who probably needed that mindset to survive the surreal experience of living as a Choctaw and African-American woman in the Jim Crow south. The problem wasn’t in the advice per se; the problem was in my unconscious adherence to a way of thinking without evaluating whether it was still useful for my life.
Yet, by challenging the script I had learned at an early age and by asking the probative question of “why do I believe as I have always believed,” I began to see how my personal and family ideology needed to be revised and modified. I realized through my “divorce” that after years of unflinching resolve and temerity, I also needed to show myself compassion. I needed to consistently give myself space to process my emotions – all of my emotions – in order to be a stronger and more fully integrated person. In other words, I needed to allow for more than five minutes of reflection AND not view that time as “self-pity.”
That is not to say that I was bereft of emotions before, or that I was some unfeeling robot who had little time for people and their emotionality. I was already present for friends, family, and clients, all under the guise of being dutiful, respectful, and loving. But in truth, you can’t give to others what you don’t first give to yourself. And by denying myself greater compassion, I was also denying others greater compassion. I had become controlled by an idea that had become a limiting force instead of a liberating philosophy.
Perhaps no one has described this process more eloquently than Robert Kegan (1994), who discusses this transformational process in terms of “orders of consciousness.” Kegan argued that humans adopt a life script early in their development in order to make sense of the world. This life script can be informed by our communities and families, as well as our respective religions and cultures. However, in order to deal with the complex issues of our time and to tap into our full capacities, a person must be able to see beyond the script and build a new relationship with the script. In other words, a person must ask themselves: does this way of thinking possess me, or do I instead I possess the thinking, while noting its limitations? Once a person is able to see themselves and their from this vantage point, that ideological spark is the beginning of personal growth and evolution.
In this vein, I was possessed by the 5-minute-pity mantra until I realized that I was supposed to possess it, thereby recognizing its shortcomings in a complex, emotional world. That is not to say, however, that the “5 minute” mantra did not still have value; it did. Life requires resiliency, if for no other reason than the fact that the world (and people for that matter) can be poetically unpredictable. Rather than retreat to the other extreme of hyper-expression and emotional paralysis, the challenge was not to view my personal paradigm as an “either/or” proposition but as a “both/and” philosophy.
As a result, I have learned to use the 5-minute mantra when useful, and to exclude it in those situations when it is not useful. This transformation is much more difficult than it sounds, but it begins by asking the simple question: “Why do I think as I do?” By being more present with my own emotions, I believe I have become a better son, brother, friend, uncle, and businessman. I am able to recognize the value of different ideologies, and give voice to the actualizing part of myself that gets to choose more consciously how I want to live and more importantly, who I want to be. This process has happened repeatedly over my lifetime and each time it has happened, I am always amazed at the clarity and freedom it brings. To be leaders, we must live intentionally with full awareness of what informs our perspective(s). To be great leaders, it is important to adopt a transformational mindset with new ways of knowing.