Over many years of coaching and consulting with leaders in a variety of organizations to assess and develop executive leadership, our conversations inevitably begin with the subject of self-awareness. In responses to my question of the meaning of self-awareness to that individual, I hear, consistently: Knowing your state of mind; understanding your thoughts and feelings, tendencies; knowing what you’re good at and not so good at. All what you’d expect to hear. What is often missing is a connection to what do you do with that self-awareness once you become conscious of it. It is similar to the distinction between empathy (internally stepping into the suffering of others) and compassion (showing a form of loving kindness to another). Both valuable and essential traits for carrying yourself in the “now” of each present moment. One internal, the other external. Yin and yang.
The descriptions of self-awareness that most of us use relate to an internal, neutral zone (the Yin in this equation). What we do with that self-awareness will mirror our understanding (and belief in) our thoughts and feelings, our perceived strengths and weaknesses. The challenge with that is judgment. If we believe, for example, that our strengths are eminently good and our weaknesses equally bad, we run the risk of over or under indexing a particular trait often leading to poor choices. We may overuse our strengths (“every virtue becomes a crime” – The Count of Monte Cristo) or retreat from our weaknesses, perhaps even denigrating them on the way, thereby reinforcing our belief that it is only good and bad that rule the day.
Consider instead that acting from a place of self-awareness requires a transcendence from the duality of good and bad & right or wrong. Choose instead to understand your tendencies from the perspective of a reservoir. Imagine, if you will, that when you consider implementing a solution to a present problem, you may think that your solution will inevitably rely heavily on your persistence. It is, after all, a hallmark of how you see yourself behave when faced with significant challenges. Leaders I have worked with often describe this persistence to me as: Regardless of what obstacles may lie ahead there is no way I’m not doing this/getting there. Often with an epithet thrown in. Or, I’ll/We’ll make it happen and if we hit a snag, we’ll figure that out too.
It’s as if that individual could glance over their shoulder and notice that they have a giant reservoir of Persistence right there at the ready. Empowered by that, they could “dip their cup” into that proverbial reservoir in order to deploy that trait, and simultaneously, notice that the reservoir hardly depletes at all and replenishes right away. No need to ever worry about that reservoir of persistence. Seems to be mostly always available and I don’t ever go to bed at night thinking – I’ve got be persistent tomorrow….The larger the reservoir, the stronger it feels and that strength feels like it comes directly from your DNA.
This same person may also notice that they sometimes can get entrenched in one “known quantity” way of accomplishing something. Well, we’ve been successful here before, it’s tried and true…and perhaps miss an opportunity to get a better outcome as they try to innovate an idea or implement a solution. We can easily classify this person as stubborn but that wouldn’t tell the whole story. More likely that person will have a limited reservoir of creativity or experimentation. It’s not that they can’t do that or be that way, it’s just that they have a more limited reservoir of that trait. It’s as if they would glance over their other shoulder and notice that indeed, they have a reservoir of progressive, out of the box thinking; but it is a smaller reservoir to begin with. When trying to deploy that trait by “dipping their cup” into that “creativity” reservoir they notice immediately that this reservoir depletes easily and replenishes…ever…so…slowly. So they get the immediate biofeedback that I have to be much more judicious in my use of this reservoir than my reservoir of persistence; because, yes, I can be an out of the box thinker but not too frequently and not for too long a period of time. The ability to act on this aspect of self-awareness is what I call reservoir management.
Much of the inspiration I have had in first observing and then understanding this comes from a 20-year relationship with Dr. Dan Harrison, a mentor, colleague, and friend. Dr. Harrison introduced me to Paradox Theory™ which is a key underpinning of his Harrison Assessment www.harrisonassessments.com. In the example referenced above Dr. Harrison would maintain that a substantial reservoir balance of both persistence and experimentation provides the clearest path to focused innovation. He applies his technology to a dozen of these paradoxical balances that leaders face in the realm of interpersonal acumen, achievement, and the exercise of authority.
I have been heartened over the years to hear my clients talk about gaining the recognition of how their patterns of behavior, when dealing with limited reservoirs of key leadership traits, have often served them well. Not to say there aren’t challenges. As one client succinctly expressed it: Sometimes I find myself needing to use more of a trait’s reservoir than I have available to me. That puts me into “deficit spending”, and that causes stress. Exactly. So, it calls the question. What should I do, what can I do? To the western mind the two traits of any paradox (Persistent and Experimentation in our example) seem like they’re on a pulley system; If one reservoir increases the other must decrease. Not actually true. In the eastern way of looking at things the two traits are yin and yang to each other. They can coexist. In fact, they need to co-exist to complete the paradox. Only by appreciating both together can we truly access the best of both traits.
The overuse or underuse of any trait is often the result of a long-held belief system about the benefits or detriments of that trait. In another pairing from Dr. Harrison’s work we have the paradox of Communication; the seemingly opposite traits of how frank, forthright and direct you are when communicating with others, paired with how diplomatic or tactful you come across. Both equally useful tools to be able to communicate with respectful candor. Those individuals who over rely on their frankness to the minimization of their diplomacy will often come across as blunt. Just tellin’ you straight up here, not pulling any punches, it’s for your own good. They may even equally demonize and trivialize their overly tactful counterpart with C’mon, stop beating around the bush, why can’t you just speak directly and tell it like it is. At the same time, that overly tactful colleague tends to be perceived as someone who gets from A to B by way of L. You can only imagine how the low tolerance of that kind of evasiveness from their blunt counterpart plays out in their relationship.
The good news coming out of this understanding of paradox theory and reservoir management is that there is always a work-around. You can actually develop a depleted reservoir without fear of the pendulum swinging the other way. A typically blunt person can both learn to use their limited reservoir of diplomacy more prudently in key relationships while at the same time learn the skills to raise up that reservoir to a greater capacity. More often than not the limiting factor is not their ability to do so but productively confronting their self-limiting belief that there is no need/benefit to doing so in the first place.
It is a great fallacy of leadership that leaders are born and not made; and vice versa. This debate of nature vs. nurture has raged on for decades in corporations and organizations who desire to grow and place individuals in positions of leadership to accomplish certain targeted ends. The topic engenders a lively debate around everything from evolution of species to cultural anthropology. My experience is that a leadership mind needs to be a spacious mind. Spacious enough to hold conflicting ideals and contrary values in the same space. To be able to embrace paradox rather than fear it and to manage our reservoirs judiciously.