Taking a mirror and holding it up to yourself has to be the most difficult thing that a leader can do. When you hold the mirror to yourself, you have to accept what you see looking back at you – flaws and all. The flaws are the things that are difficult at times to swallow and accept.
Last week, I was having a conversation with one of my good friends who has been struggling to find her place in the corporate work environment. She is struggling because she is new into an organization that has quite a different culture than the one that she came from. People are super nice and this has equated to a lack of transparency and not being willing to be upfront with their coworkers about downfalls and providing necessary feedback. When she pushes the boundaries of the current culture, she is met with feedback that she is aggressive, stubborn and not a team player like this new culture requires of her.
In different circumstances, I would question if the new culture has a diversity issue, and if she being labeled a specific thing based on her identity as a woman of color. But, I didn’t go there because I know her closely as my friend and I have been around her to know who she is – sometimes I think better than she knows herself at times. The reality is that she is hard to get along with sometimes and she often has her defenses up, not willing to accept where she is wrong or where she has made a mistake. When someone critiques her work, she thinks that it is an attack on her as a person, and she finds it hard to separate her own identity from her role or her job title. This thinking forces her to believe certain things about others and herself and influences how she sees reality in the situations that she needs to be grounded and logical. Instead, she sees things in her own ways and acts according to those beliefs – which aren’t effective ways for her to lead in work and life.
Although my friend is a bright, ambitious and motivated leader, there are two barriers I have identified that get in the way of her leadership effectiveness – ego and inability to recognize blindspots.
One of the tools that I use frequently when working with corporate clients and their teams is the Leadership Circle Profile. This is a 360° tool that helps open awareness to your strengths and blindspots and which of these are most attached to your identity. I describe your identity as the part of you that operates from a sense of safety and survival and without the coaching necessary will lead you blindly throughout life.
Let’s look deeper at what makes ego and blindspots a barrier to effective leadership.
Your ego is that thing in you that wants you to always look good and get it right. It makes it hard for you to accept your mistakes and weaknesses. Your ego wants to survive and wants to ensure its safety. The Leadership Circle Profile defines this area as the reactive state or the places where you comply, protect, or control. It is similar to saying fight, flight, or freeze. If we go further this response or reactivity is driven by the primitive part of your brain called the amygdala that processes emotions such as fear and gives those emotions meaning. The impact is that you may oversimplify or react instinctively to situations in your life by tying it to old situations that have happened in the past that look similarly to what you are going through today. When you are critiqued you may respond defensively and see it as an attack versus being open to the learning that constructive criticism can offer you. If you continue to allow your ego to get in the way, you are more likely to be an ineffective leader.
A friend of mind introduced her team to a practice called Bright Spots, Blind Spots, that was a pathway to give feedback. The way to do it, is to be paired with someone for 5 minutes and then rotate to different people – think speed dating. What was clear, is that when people would be made aware of their blindspots, they were shocked, confused and sometimes even disappointed. Here you are going along thinking you are doing a great job, and then BOOM! You get hit like a ton of bricks about areas where you may not be showing up effectively as a leader. Naturally, people do not appreciate what they can’t see and so when you hear something new about you, it makes you want to crumble. For example, a color-blind person doesn’t know what it is like to see color, when they have never been able to see it. They think everything is perfect in black and white. When they eventually find out that the world has color and they are color-blind, such as when a person sees that their actions or ways of thinking has made them blind, they have to look in the mirror and examine what’s there. Don’t crumble, learn. We don’t like to see ourselves as having blindspots, but it is necessary for our learning and growth.
The ego and your blindspots can be operating like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, you must become aware, slow down, pause, and make conscious choices. It is costly to your effectiveness when you allow these things to keep you in the reactive state and take control of your leadership.