"...the first thing that one must learn is every little thing in life is the way of unlearning..."
~Hazrat Inayat Khan~

"We cannot steal the fire. We must enter it."
~ Sufi aphorism

Leading is Not Acting: What Roles Do You Play?

This is the sec­ond in a series of five posts on the jour­ney of unlearn­ing roles and life-scripts that inter­fere with effec­tive lead­er­ship and per­son­al ful­fill­ment. If you like, you can hear me read this post.

In my pre­vi­ous post I out­lined the impor­tance of “unlearn­ing” for lead­ers — how play­ing a par­tic­u­lar role such as “mis­un­der­stood vision­ary” or “lone­ly king” can obscure see­ing sit­u­a­tions, peo­ple, and oppor­tu­ni­ties with accu­ra­cy. Uncon­scious­ly play­ing a role reduces the pos­si­bil­i­ties for good deci­sions and action. 

A first step in the unlearn­ing process is to deter­mine the most com­mon role or roles that you play. If you were going to learn how to be an actor, you might go to dra­ma school to learn how to play many dif­fer­ent parts con­vinc­ing­ly. Lead­ing is just the oppo­site. Lead­ing is unlearn­ing the roles that we can’t stop our­selves from play­ing. Good act­ing depends on wear­ing a seam­less mask to tell a sto­ry, and nev­er let­ting it slip. Lead­ing ulti­mate­ly requires sep­a­rat­ing our­selves from as many of the masks and sto­ry-lines as pos­si­ble while encour­ag­ing oth­ers to release theirs, as well. 

In a com­ment to my ear­li­er post, Nick Smith of Life 2.0 says:

We see that the sto­ry can­not affect the sto­ry teller unless the sto­ry teller starts believ­ing that the sto­ry is real­i­ty instead of the aware­ness that cre­ates, strug­gles against and ulti­mate­ly steps back and sim­ply becomes aware of them. And in see­ing this we are healed.

The essence of this work is “unlearn­ing,” “unbe­liev­ing,” see­ing through the appar­ent­ly essen­tial fic­tions of the sto­ry-teller self. And Nick is also right that this can be a moment of pro­found heal­ing. A moment that does­n’t need to take years — but only a moment of notic­ing and insight. More­over, the illu­mi­na­tion can be more than just one sto­ry, one role, but of all of them at once. It can be see­ing how all the con­struc­tions of self are ulti­mate­ly so many snowflakes in a rag­ing fire.


But the trick is see­ing, isn’t it, what these roles are. After all, they may be deeply ingrained, hard­ly vis­i­ble from the sur­face of day-to-day con­scious­ness. Only upon reflec­tion, upon turn­ing inward do we sud­den­ly have a chance to touch the sto­ry-teller’s weav­ings. The “sto­ry-teller,” of course is none oth­er than we, our­selves, cre­at­ing out of the ten­sions and con­di­tion­al nature of life on earth, a sto­ry of who we are and what our being is all about. To free our­selves is to notice, to invite aware­ness, deep aware­ness, of the roles we have set our­selves up to play. Once, I wrote a song that began with this verse:

The weaver’s hands crossed the loom
Lac­ing her bright­est thread,
White she found for the bride and groom
Deep­est blue for the lover­s’ bed.

And when her day was done
And the earth grew cold,
All her sto­ries spun
Nei­ther young nor old.

When the streets were filled
With ghosts that pass,
All the green fields tilled
Into heaven’s grass,

Then she dreamed my life
In the time­less night
Of love and passion.

We dream our lives and then live them, unaware that they began in a dream. We are giv­en a per­son­al­i­ty, the Sufi’s say, as a par­tic­u­lar les­son to be learned and then tran­scend­ed. Yet we are usu­al­ly so much bet­ter at see­ing oth­ers’ sto­ries and roles than our own. In fact, we char­ac­ter­ize (make a char­ac­ter out of) oth­ers all the time. We tell their fables for them, often lac­ing in the pro­jec­tions of our own sto­ries through our feel­ings. That is actu­al­ly a way to begin to unearth some of our own sto­ry-line — to see what we have pro­ject­ed onto the friends and strangers around us. If I am crit­i­cal of some­one with a lot of mon­ey, per­haps I am say­ing, “My script is to not have enough.” If I find myself ridi­cul­ing some­one as “moral­ly weak,” what aspects of moral weak­ness (what­ev­er that means) will I ulti­mate­ly dis­cov­er in my own tale of myself?

Indeed, much of self-knowl­edge is knowl­edge of the fic­tions we weave around ourselves.

Sink deep into your self for a moment. What is your self about — espe­cial­ly when you reflect on your sense of self in your most impor­tant per­son­al and pro­fes­sion­al rela­tion­ships? Can you find a “you”? What emo­tions come up for you in this self-exam­in­ing inte­ri­or space?

A friend, encoun­ter­ing these ques­tions, drew a pic­ture of a Darth Vad­er-like hood­ed char­ac­ter point­ing down at a small, whim­per­ing child at his feet. Think of the sto­ry that image tells; think of the role of the child with whom my friend iden­ti­fied. What role might such a child, hav­ing grown up now, play in the world? The image of the child, of course, (and Vad­er, too) are both essen­tial fic­tions. Indeed, my friend grew up to work in — and against — Cor­po­rate Amer­i­ca as a man­age­ment con­sul­tant, his view of its lead­ers not much dif­fer­ent than the Star Wars char­ac­ter, a favorite neg­a­tive icon being Jack Welch. 

A role, a sto­ry-line, is made up of repeat­ing behav­iors and deep emo­tions that run a pre­dictable course, telling the sto­ry over and over again. So to find out what scripts we hold, we do a search for these behav­iors and for the feel­ings that go with them, and then we tell the sto­ry, and then name the role. If I were to con­struct a work­shop to help peo­ple iden­ti­fy their essen­tial fic­tions, here would be the home­work, answer­ing these four questions: 

1. What are the most impor­tant repeat­ing pat­terns you have expe­ri­enced in your per­son­al rela­tion­ships and rela­tion­ships at work? Per­haps, as you read about the image cre­at­ed by my friend, an image of your­self also came to you — what was it? Describe the pat­terns of behav­ior as if you were watch­ing them on video tape. What hap­pens first, sec­ond, third, fourth, and in conclusion.

2. What are the feel­ings that go with the pat­terns? Where do your emo­tions start out and where do they end up? To what end are you des­tined or fat­ed by the nature of the pat­terns and the emo­tions that go with them? One way to look at this is in terms of what is hap­pen­ing when you feel strongest and when you feel weak­est. Imag­ine, in par­tic­u­lar, moments when you are “offend­ed” and must reply in some way. What then do you feel? What then must you do?

3. Now tell the sto­ry of your life. As if it were a fairy tale that need­ed telling. “Once upon a time, there was a.…” and go from there, describ­ing how a pro­tag­o­nist (you) ful­fills a des­tined path. This is the stage of find­ing your per­son­al myth. Dive down beneath the lay­ers of your cur­rent cir­cum­stances to see what strange images, tri­als, home­com­ings and res­o­lu­tions bolt upward into con­scious­ness from the sheer act of allow­ing imag­i­na­tion momen­tary reign.

4. Name the role. Look­ing back over all this mate­r­i­al, name a role that you play, that has the feel of a thread in your life. The role may not be all neg­a­tive, such as “unde­serv­ing child.” The role is like­ly to have some good aspects and some neg­a­tive ones. This notion might turn “unde­serv­ing child” into “behind the scenes angel” just as my friend’s role as a con­sul­tant and col­league might be bet­ter described as “war­rior of the heart” than “shamed and con­trolled lit­tle boy.” The ques­tion isn’t real­ly whether the role is a “good” one or a “bad” one. It’s only about nam­ing the part, as if it were a char­ac­ter in a play — which is exact­ly what it is. If you are strug­gling with this, you could ask your­self a few ques­tions about your favorite books and movies and the char­ac­ters you most iden­ti­fy with. From an arche­typ­al per­spec­tive (as if they were part, say, of a Greek or Roman myth), who are these characters?

In my next post, I’ll eval­u­ate the costs of hang­ing onto these roles.…

And lest we forget…this work is just plain old human work, in a world which is imper­fect, and for our­selves, equal­ly imper­fect. We have our sto­ries, but we can­not real­ly take on this task of under­stand­ing unless we know how to love our­selves, our fam­i­lies, and all the strangers of the world, and appre­ci­ate the flow of count­less generations…yes, lest we for­get, com­pas­sion, feel­ing, is the name of the game.… 


My mother, 95, and my daughter, 14

Technorati Tags: , , ,


  • Wow, lots of gems here. 

    I have a few ques­tions, though. You say “Lead­ing is unlearn­ing the roles that we can’t stop our­selves from play­ing.” I actu­al­ly find that the more I can embrace the roles I can’t stop myself from play­ing — and thus, be[come] more of who I am — at work or at play (not that I want to make too great a dis­tinc­tion there), the more effec­tive I can be. When­ev­er I try to play roles that are not aligned with the real me, I am not very effec­tive (or hap­py). Per­haps I’m mis­in­ter­pret­ing you…

    I’m also curi­ous about the inter­nal vs. exter­nal aspects of the sto­ries we make up about our­selves. Look­ing with­in for those sto­ries is impor­tant, but some­times in telling those sto­ries (e.g., through blog­ging), we open our­selves to the wis­dom of oth­ers, who can some­times see more than we can, or are will­ing to, see. I imag­ine that when you start offer­ing the pro­posed work­shop, the actu­al telling of sto­ries by par­tic­i­pants will be a cru­cial com­po­nent of the work being done.

    Final­ly (for now), I was dis­ap­point­ed that you read, rather than sang, your song in the audio accom­pa­ni­ment for this post. Now that you’ve put out yet anoth­er fine book, I look for­ward to a future stage / dimen­sion of sto­ry­telling when you will start express­ing the musi­cal part of your self — or express­ing your self musi­cal­ly — more publicly. 🙂


  • Joe:
    Thank you! I’ll take the comments/questions in reverse order.

    1) Yes, I could sing that song! Anoth­er time, my friend. Thanks for the suggestion.

    2) Telling the sto­ries, espe­cial­ly in a work­shop set­ting, is a great exer­cise. Hear­ing the sto­ries can be an almost dream­like expe­ri­ence, and they can be filled with all kinds of sym­bol­ic stuff touch­ing on (hap­py or painful) past expe­ri­ences and untapped poten­tials. We all can help each oth­er with the inter­pre­ta­tions and con­nec­tions. The sto­ries are “mir­rors of the soul” and there is much to learn in com­mu­ni­ty from their telling.

    3) You make a good point that play­ing out the roles con­scious­ly can lead to a kind of world­ly effec­tive­ness in that role. (We are good at what we pre­fer and we pre­fer what we are good at). But what’s also impor­tant is see­ing the lim­its. Ulti­i­mate­ly, roles are reduc­tions of Self, so that’s where the lim­its can inad­ver­tent­ly hin­der us — even trap us — espe­cial­ly when the role has obvi­ous social val­ue (like being a good con­nec­tor to oth­ers). It’s kind of the old say­ing about “once you have a ham­mer, every prob­lem looks like a nail.” If you are good with the ham­mer that’s great, but there are many sit­u­a­tions that don’t call for a ham­mer, are even real­ly inap­pro­pri­ate. I men­tioned in my post on The Jour­ney of Unlearn­ing, that I began to use my role as “fer­ry­man” to inter­pret my rela­tion­ships with sig­nif­i­cant oth­ers — not a good thing. Police offi­cers some­times are affect­ed by some­thing called, “the John Wayne syn­drome,” which means that the per­son is a cop 24/7, even in their per­son­al lives, in turn poten­tial­ly dam­ag­ing close relationships. 

    It’s clear we learn the roles because at some point in our lives they have helped us cope with real­i­ty — they give us a way of being and a way of con­tribut­ing. And just so, beyond the role can lie unre­solved con­flicts and old wounds still wait­ing for atten­tion. When I final­ly got to the moment of say­ing, “I don’t want to be this role any­more!” I could feel the depth of those things that I had par­ti­tioned away in myself. And I had to ask the ques­tion, “If I’m not the fer­ry­man, then who am I?” A won­der­ful moment. We don’t lose the skills we have learned, we lose the uncon­scious­ness of a role “I have to play,” because — with­out think­ing — it seems to be the best one or the only one I’ve got.

  • Hav­ing recent­ly read (and blogged about) “Liv­ing With­out A Goal”, I’m think­ing think­ing that per­haps there is some applic­a­bil­i­ty here … “liv­ing with­out a role” … or per­haps “liv­ing with­out a Role”. I get the sense that you under­stand Ogilvy’s per­spec­tive bet­ter than I do (at least with respect to sublimation).

    In any case, your dis­tinc­tion between con­scious­ly and uncon­scious­ly play­ing a role is very help­ful (thanks).

    Between your orig­i­nal post and fol­lowup com­ment, you may have pro­vid­ed a tip­ping point for a blog post that’s been fer­ment­ing inside for many months…

  • […] Lead­ing is Not Act­ing: What Roles Do You Play? […]

Leave a Reply

Your email is never shared.Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.