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Delusions of Everyday Leadership

I understand a delusion to be a statement, belief or behavior that contradicts generally accepted reality.

I have warmed up to the idea that delusion is widespread. What’s helped is seeing it in myself. The jarring recognition that my assumptions are sometimes faulty, has led me to conclude that perhaps everyone has their share of unfounded ideas and mentally-disordered beliefs.

In my work and at home I hear certain delusions time and again from my clients and family members. I am listing below four of the most frequent in the hopes that I might inspire your own course correction, or at least help you to spot the delusions of others.

Reflecting on my delusions has helped me become more reality-based and honest with myself. I offer the descriptions below as a similar reflection exercise for my readers.

Delusion #1: “I am Superior,” or “I am Inferior”

When we compare ourselves to others too carelessly, we can fool ourselves into thinking we are accurate judges of character.

The shorthand we develop to label ourselves or others as superior, or inferior, is almost always flawed. It likely reveals impulses and biases instead of measured discernment.

For some reason, it’s not easy to acknowledge that we are all a mixed bag. Something tribal in us wants to put ourselves above or below.

Unsupported judgments of inferior and superior beg for correction. A correction that takes into account the prominence of luck in the lives of “the superior.” A correction that considers the truly heroic accomplishments of “the inferior.” A correction that spotlights the devil’s play of many who are considered “successful.”

Declarations of inferior and superior serve to buoy the speaker. That the speaker doesn’t know he is self-soothing, is the heart of the delusion.

Delusion #2: “My good intentions matter more than my impact”

How often does “I’m just trying to be helpful” result in more harm than good?

Acting out of a concern for others is a good thing. Yet like all good things, it can easily become automatic and clouded.

For example, even though it feels satisfying to help our children or co-workers, what if they don’t need or want our help?

What if our efforts to feed others prevents them from tasting the self-confidence of feeding themselves?

Believing we are being helpful when we are not is an example of a delusion.

In your own efforts to help, how do you know if your help is actually helpful? To what extent is your “helpfulness” blindly serving yourself?

As one who loves to help others, it’s important for me to consider whether my help is tied to self-interest. In fact, it almost always is.

Misguided helpfulness often brings about more harm than good.

Delusion #3: “I’m indispensable”

Drew was raised in a middle-class family, hated school, worked hard, started his own heating and air conditioning business, and grew it to 70 employees. Constantly playing catch-up at the office, Drew hired Roland to head his sales division.

Roland is money-motivated and consistently exceeds his sales goals. He also talks down to staff in a way that disrupts good will and work flow.

Drew depends on Roland’s revenue-generation, and is fearful Roland will leave if Drew doesn’t meet his bonus demands.

Drew told me: “Roland is indispensable.” Roland believes it too, and is effectively holding Drew hostage.

I encouraged Drew to question the delusion that Roland is indispensable and consider how to hold Roland accountable for rude behavior. I also invited him to thoroughly explore his options for finding talent that can match Roland’s.

Is Roland indispensable, or has Drew simply not made the effort to manage the situation with clear thinking and determination?

Delusion #4: “I know myself and others well”

“I know her like the back of my hand!” A well-worn phrase that means…what?

Just how well do you know the back of your hand? How carefully have you observed the meandering lines of your hand veins, those faint freckles and indentations, the subtle color variations, the looseness of flesh that comes with age?

This is how it is with self-knowledge. Too often, we claim high awareness while our family histories, our motives, our feelings, our wants, remain invisible to us.

Though self-ignorant, we insist we know our spouse, siblings, parents, children, and even more far-fetched, our business partners and direct reports.

Pure delusion.

We are gigantic jigsaw puzzles whose edges are barely in place. We have a long way to go, and, unlike the puzzle, we will never be finished.

Bring on more exploration and less certainty.

Stop with the preposterous notion that you know yourself. It can only curtail your efforts to become genuinely curious about who you are and want to be.

It can be a bit of a shock to see oneself in any of the four delusions above, or in any others that you discover. The key is to take time to self-correct.

This humble reckoning can help us move on from faulty thinking to seeking accuracy. In that journey, we become believable leaders.


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