CEO’s Blog: May 2019 Know thyself

In a previous blog (February 2018), I wrote about John C Maxwell’s “Five Levels of Leadership”, and the privilege I have of working alongside other leaders at differing phases of their professional and personal development.  Maxwell compels us to devote time to the coaching, mentoring and supporting of leaders in that their development generates a ‘multiplier effect’ as they impact more meaningfully on those with whom they work and those who depend upon them.

Over recent months I have been asked to work formally with several colleagues across a number of organisations, in addition to the regular and occasional times I spend with leaders within our own Trust.  Initially I found this work a daunting prospect, filled with self-doubt of my own limitations (Michelle Obama’s “imposter syndrome”) combined with a profound burden of responsibility to help in a meaningful and positive way.  In reality, the main antidote to the doubt is via the affirmation and feedback from those colleagues I am working to support, together with others who notice the impact from our dialogue.

One of the first areas usually explored with a colleague on their leadership journey relates to their explicit efforts towards self-awareness and self-development.  The extraction of solutions from within is almost a definition of coaching, and so it makes good sense to engage in dialogue that relates to the learning they have undertaken, if any, relating to their own sense of self.  When considering the future, it is so important to have as clear an understanding as we can of ourselves and how we relate to our contexts.  The argument is a simple one:  If you are going to buy a new house for your future, with a complex range of features and a history of change over time, you would inevitably want a detailed survey of its current state before you move in.  Likewise, we should want a “structural survey” of ourselves even more.  We can always reconsider the house purchase, or move elsewhere.  We have no such luxury with ourselves, where our personality and our preferences and prejudices are very much “sitting tenants” with whom we co-reside!

Until I undertook several myself, I was quite cynical of personality profiling or diagnostic testing.  However, I was convinced otherwise once I’d sat the Kolbe A test, and the Gallup StrengthsFinder survey.  Working several years ago with a group of students each of whom by their own admission “didn’t have a plan” and an external facilitator, I took the tests (as much to make the point that I wouldn’t expect them to do or share anything that I wasn’t prepared to).  Through both the initial results and then through deeper reflection and discussion with others, I gained a huge amount of self-awareness from them.  I recommend such tests to others quite frequently, and certainly to those with whom I’m working in a developmental capacity.  Not only do the results give rich conversation themes for us and reduce the ‘imposter syndrome’ risk on my part, but they also signal the willingness of the colleague to look at themselves as a starting point before looking at their career development.  As Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, a long time before Simon Sinek, “He who has a why to live can bear almost any how.”

Such diagnostics are also useful in that they are inherently positive.  They highlight what we’re good at, scenarios that make us productive, situations that make us happy.  All too often, we focus on comparison with others that can almost inevitably leads to disappointment at falling short.  On a planet with seven billion residents, there will always be someone “better” – stronger, richer, wiser…  Self-improvement is the putting away of the childhood comparisons with others that psychologists argue is necessary for children to generate rapid learning, and turning to the much healthier pursuit of comparing oneself today with oneself yesterday.  Here, our ‘structural survey’ lets us know which features of our personality are going to withstand the tests of time and the elements, and perhaps where we need to get our tools out.  Working with young people, we know only too well that the tools we all have for such improvement are those readily to hand, and of our own making.  Faulty or inappropriate tools will lead to a faulty outcome.  Using the same faulty tools repeatedly will create an inherently unstable and unsustainable building of a life in which to live.  Arguably then, our key responsibility is to be there to help those whom we care about, and care for, to fashion and then select the best tools they can – and the positive outcomes will follow.  Sounds easy, doesn’t it?!

Finally, the phrase “know thyself” dates back to the temples of Ancient Egypt at Luxor, and was perhaps placed into more common usage by the Ancient Greeks.  It has stood the test of time through its openness to interpretation and universal application.  Its earliest meaning related to a rejection of the adulation and criticism from others.  Later, it became a compulsion to seek enlightenment and peace from within.  Alexander Pope wrote: “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan.  The proper study of mankind is Man.”  The phrase even endures into the modern age, with the phrase in its Latin form temet nosce inscribed on the Oracle’s door in the movie blockbuster The Matrix (see below).  But of all these cultural usages, the one that resonates the most with me – especially having worked with so many young people – is Benjamin Franklin’s assessment that “There are three things extremely hard – steel, a diamond, and to know one’s self.”  We can but try!

Thanks for reading.

Mike