In a world of proffered quick fixes — do these four things, take on these five steps — all honor goes to the leader who ignores superficial wisdom and takes on the real task, the inner demon, the one that has been there all along.
This demon, of course, is some aspect of self, and we might as well say it can be an angel, as well. It’s only at first that the task of true self-mastery may seem impossible and all we can imagine is facing something terrible or terrifying. Soon enough, with real commitment, a different feeling comes in.
This is the art of growth, the willingness to probe deeply, face and accept whatever truth is there, work through it and wait patiently for the shift from fear to courage — and joy.
I remember a client from many years ago who was struggling with an employee, a subordinate manager, who could say or do things that were grossly insulting to his employees. Even though the context was a heavy construction culture that could quite rough and tumble and macho, the manager stood out for his abusive tantrums. Usually, the manager was okay, even a cheerful voice in the crowd, but when he came down, he could come down on people in a merciless way. Naturally, my client (the manager’s boss) wanted to gain some control of the situation. It was the classic circumstance of a tough, technically experienced manager who made money for the company but whose style also had a significant downside. Yet my client had a difficult time confronting the manager about his outbursts — he found himself getting so hostile, he felt he was exemplifying the very problems he was condemning.
One day my client meditated on the problem in a particularly concentrated way, literally taking a day off to try to discern what he should do. He found a quiet place in a field among some aspens to think things over. It was then he remembered one particular scene from his own teenage years. The scene had to do with protecting his mother from physical abuse by his father. He’d watched it happen many times before in his early life, but now he was big enough to step in and he’d just watched his father hit his mother. He physically grabbed his father and told him in no uncertain terms that if he ever did anything like that again, he’d kill him.
My client made an important connection that day, years later. He could see that it was only natural whenever his subordinate manager did something insensitive and my client heard about it, that old memories — an old rage — would be triggered and threaten to flood him. The rage he felt was not just anger, but the kind of excruciatingly helpless anger a child might feel when something goes horribly wrong between a mother and father. Suddenly he knew where that feeling came from and he understood the projection: — placing his father’s face on the manager. He found himself back in that horrible, tragic family battle and bullying of the vulnerable; father over mother, father over son — and now boss over employee.
That was a turning point. He began to master his own reactivity and inherited rage, better understanding its origins. He found he could set a reasonable limit for the manager without himself getting “hooked” so badly. He was able to hold the manager accountable in a more reasonable way. Eventually, when the manager continued to act out and failed my client’s expectations for change, my client fired him. Not everyone in the company agreed then or later — it left a hole in company’s technical expertise — but in his heart my client knew he had been thorough about coaching his manager, and it was the right thing.
He had accomplished a most basic aspect of leading: reflection to understand, to make things genuinely conscious, not just to react. Based on that, he’d made a difficult personal call.
Is such reflection ever a perfect process? No, there are no guarantees. Some might read the story and say, “yes, but.” Yes, but how would you ever know whether my client’s actions weren’t at least somewhat unconscious? That his projection wasn’t still overtaking him, that he had exaggerated the manager’s crimes? How do you know the termination was truly in the best interests of the company? Maybe revenge was still hiding somewhere in the wings and the situation really wasn’t that bad. Maybe my client secretly took pleasure in the firing.
I suppose you can never know any of that in any absolute, perfect way.
In this case, however, I’ve preferred over the years to trust my client’s judgment. He made the call, I believe, based on the evidence and the impact of the manager’s behavior. And I’ve chosen to trust the inner angel he had waited for so long.