“…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.