We are detectives of genius when it comes to pointing out the flaws in others. But there’s real wisdom in understanding how people that irritate or upset us, hold a mirror for the qualities within ourselves that it would benefit us to strengthen. Almost certainly, you’ve got a bone to pick with your boss. The reason why your boss gets under your skin is that he reminds you of the untapped leader within you.
In a perfect world, leaders should do so much for us: lend us a vision and a sense of direction, be a role model and a beacon of strength for us. But invariably, something goes wrong: only half of companies in the world believe that their leaders are ready to lead, and a surprisingly large number of people would gladly forgo a pay raise in lieu of seeing their boss fired.
We tend to blame the leaders for the mess: they are not equipped for the role, our leadership development frameworks are deficient, the system is corrupt. Yet for all the truths that this finger-pointing might contain, many of the factors why our expectations go up in smoke, have more to do with us, than with “them”.
To blame the “system” or our leaders is to misunderstand the nature of reality and to deprive ourselves of an opportunity to affirm our own leadership.
Condemnation, they say in Buddhism, “is like taking poison and waiting for the other person to die.” Condemning a problem moreover is as effective in resolving it as bringing sand to the desert.
Our ideas about leadership are shaped by proxies and popular culture. We know Evita through Madonna, Nelson Mandela through Idris Elba and Abraham Lincoln though Daniel Day-Lewis. Madonna may the greatest pop star, but she’s never been a First Lady. Idris Elba may be one of the World’s “Most Beautiful People” but he’s hardly a National liberator. And Daniel Day-Lewis has very little in common with Lincoln’s rise out of the ashes of poverty.
Mandela, the father of South African freedom, spent 27 years in a two-square-meters prison cell with a slop bucket. Viktor Frankl, the father of meaning in life, was stripped of everything and sent to a concentration camp. Benoit Mandelbrot, the father of fractal geometry was born into extreme poverty and deprived of access to education.
- paying it forward
Most of us, today, have fortunately not experienced a greater adversity than an empty phone battery. Being a leader today is nothing more, nor less, than a comfortable, safe and steady progression up the career ladder.
Harry Fosdick wrote a book called: ’On Being a Real Person,’ which in other words means, “how to be fake”. ‘Person’ is the root of the word “persona” – it means an ‘actor’s mask’. In a similar fashion, managers learn how to become real leaders in leadership training. What they’re in fact being taught is how to play a role. If someone has to teach you how to be anything “real” – a real person, a real leader – that means that in his or her eyes you’re on probation – not really a leader yet – just a candidate – a proxy.
“Proxies may not be the perfect leaders we all wished we had, but they play an important role. They are there to remind us of the leader archetype. Archetypes represent qualities that are in the rest of us only a potential. The Mandela-leader is not a one-off gene that lays buried under the ground with Nelson’s decaying body. His archetype is merely the epitome of selflessness, unconditional love, and humility — qualities we all have within us. You and I have the leader DNA in us just as much as Mandela had. Owning it… requires practice. But how can you practice without the heart-rending adversities that some of the greatest leaders have had to face?
The best moment to practice is next time your boss gets under your skin (next week). Instead of letting grievance get the best of you, recognize that this situation too is a form of adversity. A smaller, less threatening kind. Everything that irritates us about others can help us better understand ourselves. We are only irritated because something within us gets triggered.
When these places get touched, we feel negative emotions: pain, hurt, anger, frustration. The reason some people irritate us more than others, such as our boss, for example, is because they mirror something of ours, such as our own leadership shortcomings.
Every situation in life presents you with a choice: to respond as a victim, or emerge as a leader. When someone does something that irritates us, the key is to recognize that he or she is just a trigger…a catalyst.
The emotion that they trigger within us…. belongs to us. How we handle this trigger determines whether the leader within us will rise out of the flames like a phoenix, or whether it will burn to ash.