Find out who you are and do it on purpose

As I turned on the radio, on my way home from the airport yesterday, having just arrived back from Toronto, I was delighted to catch the last 5 minutes of Radio Q, and hear those words from Tracey Davis, daughter of Sammy Davis, Jr. Nice transition, I thought. Not only did it bridge Toronto and Portland (Radio Q on CBC is hosted by one of my favorite radio hosts Torontonians, Jian Ghomeshi), but hearing Tracey’s comment in Jian’s interview connected directly to what the group and I worked on all weekend — excavating and using our strengths and gifts, especially those we may disregard, often buried in a painful past.

It turns out, finding out who you are is not so easy, but living it on purpose, is even harder. And as a leader, it’s even harder still.

I was having dinner with a friend the other day and she told me what someone else had said about me. It wasn’t particularly nice, in fact, it was mean. But it was also wrong.

I felt hurt and angry. But there’s nothing to do. Because you can’t control what someone thinks about you. Sure, we can do a lot to influence perceptions, but at the end of the day, if you have any kind of public presence, people will criticize you, compete with you, disapprove of your actions, and tell you how to do it better.

It’s a good reason not to be public, not to speak up, and definitely not to lead. But that would be a terrible loss.

Dave Chappelle talks about it in this wonderful interview he did with Maya Angelou.

The hardest thing to do is to be true to yourself, especially when everybody is watching

Dave Chappelle walked away from his 5-year, 50 million dollar contract and brilliant career as a comedic genius because “people laughed in the wrong way:”

…you get sensitive to how people laugh. When I left my show it was because I did this sketch, and I knew what I intended, but somebody laughed differently than what I intended. And I caught it. …And it was painful.

Back to my story. I ruminated about it for a few days, and then put myself in context. I thought of Chappelle and other celebrities. I heard a piece of gossip that’s untrue, from someone I don’t even particularly like, and who doesn’t have a whole lot of influence. What if I woke up and had to read a piece in the New York Times criticizing my performance, or a sports blog said I was “washed up?” What if some jealous troll hacked into my account and posted nude photos of me online (not to worry, I don’t have any)?

Leadership is a public process. Whether we step forward to help people out of the goodness of our hearts or we have a title on our door, whenever we step forward, we take a risk. And for every person who takes that risk, who sacrifices their anonymity, there are hundreds of critics ready to take aim. And it’s harder now than ever before, because we live in an echo chamber. Everything we do and say is instantly amplified, distorted, taken out of context, and used against us. This is what drove Chappelle out of the public eye:

I don’t want to be co-opted or subverted. I don’t want to be my own worst enemy or be used against myself. That’s what happens to famous people

So what do we do? There’s not much to do, but there are some things to remember:

It’s the cost of privilege. At the seminar we discussed the privilege of being able to assert yourself, to lead, and to put yourself forward. I made this off-the-cuff remark, and it rings true here: when you’re being yourself, you have to remember, you’re a handful for others. And that incurs jealousy, resentment, and criticism.

Everyone grows in public. A leader is not a finished product, and you don’t step out only when you’re fully ready. If you get behind this, admit it, embrace it, even though people will criticize you, it will make it easier to make mistakes.  It’s not just being comfortable making mistakes, but being comfortable being a work in progress.

Let Your Freak Flag Fly. You are powerful because of—not in spite of—your peculiarities. When you try to fit in or hide things about yourself, acting out what you think others want, you become vulnerable to criticism. You’re dependent on others’ perceptions when you attempt to live up to their expectations. But when you have nothing to lose—when you embrace your quirks and use them—you become unassailable. People can criticize you, but your best defense is to know yourself, and love yourself, especially your foibles.

Thank your critics. Critics keep you humble. If you’re in a leader role, critics help you develop critical self-analysis. They help point out the gap between our intention and behavior. And if we’re leading in the context of an organization, they become even more helpful, because the  stronger our organizational identity and brand becomes, the harder it is to see our own shadow.

Don’t take it personally. A social role is public property. It’s an archetype whose power extends beyond the individual occupying the role. Josef Ackermann, former CEO of Deutsche Bank, tells this story:

After I became CEO, the former head of the Bundesbank one day took me aside and gave me some valuable advice: “From now on, you must remember that you are two people. You are the person whom you and your friends know, but you are also a symbol for something. Never confuse the two. Don’t take criticism of the symbol as criticism of the person.” It’s just not possible to be seen as yourself.

It’s a see-saw. Being a public projection means that if you’re a hero today, go to bed tonight prepared to be a villain.  If you goof, people won’t see it in context. They won’t weigh it up against your whole record. You can’t judge yourself by what people say about you on any given day. It’s a see-saw, one minute your up, one minute your down, in the public eye. You have to set your own benchmarks for success and failure, not just use public perception. 

And finally, do it for the future and the past. The moment is fickle. The 24/7 news cycle makes us forget that our actions are part of a long line of history. Remember your lineage, those who came before, and whose work you are continuing. And think of those who will benefit from what you do in the future.

What helps you step forward? What helps you lead in the public eye?