Oct. 2010: Staying Awake in LeadershipOctober 1, 2010
One day when I was 12, and playing outside, a car stopped in front of our house. We lived in the country, so this was quite unusual. The driver, a man about 40, stumbled clumsily out of the car and asked directions to a nearby golf course. Even at that young age, I knew the man was intoxicated. After giving him directions, the man thanked me, handed me a five dollar bill, and drove off.
I was elated about my good fortune to have made five dollars in less than five minutes. When I ran inside to tell my dad about the lost, drunk and generous man I met, He asked me what color the car was.
“White,” I replied.
“Let’s go,” Dad said.
We drove with haste to the golf course, where we found the inebriated man gathering his golf clubs from the trunk. En route, my father explained, “Taking money from someone who doesn’t know what they are doing is stealing.” He also pointed out that the five dollars was not earned honorably – what I gave in return was not worth that kind of payment. I vigorously disagreed, but my father was adamant about me returning the money, which I did.
It cost me five bucks for a lifelong lesson.
What’s Really Going On Here?
Fundamentally, this story is not about morality; it’s about awareness. At issue was my inability to see what was really going on. Did I notice that the man fumbled through his wallet and pulled out the first bill he found without even looking at it? Did I observe how my greed – wanting something for nothing – became animated by his disability? How adept was I at detecting my flawed sense of delight about getting away with something?
It’s hard to do the right thing when you are fast asleep. At 12, my lack of awareness was quickly forgiven. As an adult, the consequences of mindless behavior might be graver.
Staying awake poses what might be the most important challenge for leaders today. Chronic busyness and diversion, fueled by anxiety, makes reflection and self-awareness challenging, even for the most mature. This raises the possibility that the decisions and interactions of leaders – including parents – might be driven more by habit and anxious reactivity than by thoughtful awareness. How often do you think about:
- Where am I going with my life?
- What is my purpose as a mentor?
- What kind of relationship do I want with my son?
- What’s my philosophy about money?
Wakefulness – or lack of it – also impacts less dramatic circumstances:
- A high-potential performer brings a problem to his boss. Without thinking, the leader begins generating solutions. How might the leader become conscious about his solving and fixing impulse? What level of awareness would be required for the leader to listen and probe without giving a solution? What helps a coachee more, answers or questions?
- The mother of a college freshman gets a call from her daughter who is homesick. The next morning, the mother drives two hours to comfort her daughter. Does she think about what she is doing, or is this an automatic reaction to her own anxiety? What message is she sending her daughter by rushing to the scene of a routine challenge?
- Two partners don’t see eye to eye and begin avoiding each other. This goes on for months, while important decisions get put on hold. What are the partners thinking? Can either muster the capacity to rein in the emotional hurricane and think about how to work through the impasse? Does either possess the insight and humility to address his/her own part in the problem?
- A young executive who frequents desserts flips through a recent study about the perils of sugar over-consumption. He doesn’t want to think about it, and moves quickly to another activity. What would it take for him to reflect not only about the sugar data, but more importantly about his avoidant reaction to that information?
There is no one formula for staying awake, and many possible ways to stimulate awareness. Some leaders begin their day with 20 minutes of reflection, journaling, meditation or prayer. Others report that the natural world stimulates calmness; a brisk walk or a dose of landscaping helps them think more clearly. Many derive value from talking with one or two others about becoming more aware. The particular route to greater consciousness is less important than a leader’s desire to increase it. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Benefits of Staying Awake
When a leader becomes more conscious, many benefit. As a mentor, a leader’s increased mindfulness enables her to listen to what might be going on beneath someone’s words, to observe with greater acuity and to deliver more penetrating questions. More awake leaders stimulate awareness in others. High-gain coaching always helps others wake up and grow up.
On the home front, having access to a broader perspective increases the likelihood that garden-variety differences will not expand into federal cases. When spouses more keenly notice their reactions to one another, that self-awareness in itself can reduce their agitation. More awake parents stay off the backs of their kids, giving energy to functional and clever decisions rather than to rants, threats and out-of-control reminders.
I try not to give easy answers to complex questions. But if pressed to name one discipline for transformative leadership, I would not hesitate to state the obvious:
“Become more conscious.”
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