Liberating Beauty

What is it that most peo­ple don’t “get” about leadership? 

This is actu­al­ly not an easy ques­tion to answer. Not so much because dif­fer­ent peo­ple don’t get dif­fer­ent things, but because the essence is tru­ly hard to name. It’s not reducible, I don’t believe, to a sense of per­son­al respon­si­bil­i­ty or self-aware­ness or humil­i­ty or the belief that it is a per­son­al, not just a pro­fes­sion­al jour­ney — although the best lead­ers I have known all share those qual­i­ties. No, there is just that Exis­ten­tial X, that qual­i­ty that can’t quite be explained (although we keep try­ing), that can’t be homog­e­nized into any final formula. 

This is its beau­ty, too, of course, and I often feel that the greater part of the joy in lead­ing is in lib­er­at­ing that beau­ty, work­ing to trans­late it freely into action, try­ing to bring it to the sur­face in any way you can, in as many places and with as many peo­ple as possible.

Not long ago I was work­ing with a man­ag­er strug­gling with a tough per­for­mance appraisal con­ver­sa­tion she was about to have with one of her staff. I asked her to prac­tice her open­ing with me; then asked her to switch roles and report what she thought the staff mem­ber might be think­ing and feel­ing as she did this opening.


As she prac­ticed her words and tone, she spoke in a dis­tant, cool voice using a lot of “you are this…you are that…” lan­guage. When she stopped, she reflect­ed a moment and then report­ed that her staff mem­ber would prob­a­bly be expe­ri­enc­ing a strong sense of futil­i­ty: “Noth­ing I do will ever be good enough for this man­ag­er,” she said, refer­ring to her­self. “I’ve tried and tried but I can’t get any of her time and all she does is crit­i­cize me.” 

So then I asked the man­ag­er, giv­en what she knew about the staff mem­ber’s feel­ings, to try it again to see if there was a way to bring this knowl­edge into her tone and her state­ments. She seemed to do a bet­ter job but it was still pret­ty dis­tant and intel­lec­tu­al (in my opin­ion), so I asked her to try one more time, and again she did an even bet­ter job, soft­en­ing her tone con­sid­er­ably and get­ting rid of a lot of the you language. 

Then she said, “Let me see you do it.” So I did, rather soft­ly and sin­cere­ly say­ing some­thing like, “Let’s put this appraisal aside for the moment — you can read it lat­er and then we can talk about it anoth­er time. I’d rather talk about what I see hap­pen­ing to us. What con­cerns me the most is that you might not feel respect­ed by me, and that real­ly hurts.” As I said it I invol­un­tar­i­ly choked up ever so slightly.

The man­ag­er drew back with a gasp, “Oh my God,” she said, “I could nev­er say any­thing like that!”

I said, “Well, you know, of course it’s just my words, but I sense it might be pos­si­ble to get a lit­tle clos­er to your staff mem­ber and what I said is just what showed up for me at this moment. You would­n’t have to do it this way; in fact I don’t know exact­ly how you should do it at all. It just seems to me that when you take the risk to go into an awk­ward space inten­tion­al­ly, espe­cial­ly to con­nect with some­one that is impor­tant to you, that’s when you are lead­ing more than managing.”

The man­ager’s demeanor at that point seemed to change marked­ly. She let out a sigh and phys­i­cal­ly relaxed. Her voice become calmer. There was a qual­i­ty of soft­ness and also resilience. “I had this thing wrong,” she said. “And I feel so much bet­ter now that I know. Yes, it’s awk­ward, that’s exact­ly what it is.” She said this to me as if she’d believed her only job had been to deliv­er bad news and make it stick, and that she was sup­posed to exem­pli­fy some kind of con­trolled per­fec­tion as she car­ried it out. It was as if she “got” her real task in an entire­ly new way.

Do you think you can get a lit­tle clos­er in your own way to mak­ing the con­ver­sa­tion more real?” I asked.

Well, I’m scared, but yes, absolute­ly. I know what I want to do. I’m glad I talked this through.”

What is it that lib­er­ates the real beau­ty of the human spir­it? There’s so much that poten­tial­ly inter­feres. And, today, for what it’s worth, lib­er­at­ing the beau­ty of the human spir­it does seem to be that Exis­ten­tial X, what makes lead­er­ship lead­er­ship, what makes the jour­ney from fear to love and joy and free­dom emi­nent­ly worthwhile. 

And in this it is so clear we are all tied togeth­er. For I can­not help you lib­er­ate your beau­ty unless in some way I am also able to lib­er­ate my own.


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  • What a won­der­ful and use­ful exam­ple to share Dan. The mag­ic of the moment seemed to occur when vul­ner­a­ble and authen­tic hon­esty is tapped into and con­veyed with com­pas­sion and sin­cer­i­ty to the oth­er person. 

    I also like how you refer to lead­er­ship as hav­ing the Exis­ten­tial X fac­tor to it. As much as we try to box up lead­er­ship the­o­ry into a cook­ie cut­ter, one size fits all approach. In real­i­ty, it cer­tain­ly does­n’t work that way.

    For me, the jour­ney seems to be reveal­ing that cer­tain val­ues exist at the foun­da­tion of ‘good’ lead­er­ship. And from this evolv­ing authen­tic­i­ty as we learn and grow with each new expe­ri­ence, we can then sort of move like water flow­ing amidst the events and expe­ri­ences. Shift­ing and adapt­ing as need­ed to what­ev­er and who­ev­er comes along. While our core ‘prop­er­ties’ and val­ues remain fixed. As they are the source and true essence of who we are. 

    Thanks again for such an insight­ful post Dan.

  • skip bieber wrote:

    great post Dan!

  • Thanks, Skip! Glad you liked it.

  • Saman­tha — Thanks so much. I like your thought about core prop­er­ties. That gets at it bet­ter for me than val­ues. It’s not that I have a prob­lem with look­ing for those val­ues or their impor­tance, but some­times they seem to become rigid recipes and for­mu­las — rather than what I hear you say­ing about the qual­i­ty of your own flow among events and expe­ri­ences. Much appre­ci­a­tion for these words and the beau­ti­ful insight behind them.

  • Dan, I think this approach/attitude comes from the com­mon advice giv­en to new­ly pro­mot­ed man­agers: don’t get too close to these peo­ple; you may have to fire them.
    I always took the oppo­site approach: if you get close to your team, they will take great care not to do things to get them­selves fired.
    I am print­ing this out and giv­ing it to some cowork­ers and man­agers who need this wisdom.

  • Hi Rick

    I’m in total agree­ment about where the approach comes from — the notion that dis­tance pro­tects pow­er. But that’s true only if for­mal pow­er is ulti­mate­ly more impor­tant than per­son­al con­nec­tion. I think tra­di­tion­al work­place hier­ar­chy is very con­fused about this issue. Per­son­al con­nec­tion to me is ulti­mate­ly where the real pow­er resides. Thanks again for drop­ping by and shar­ing your won­der­ful obser­va­tion. All the best!

  • Your heart shows us the beau­ty of leadership.

    Mean­ing­ful com­mu­ni­ca­tion shows deep connection. 

    Thank you.

  • As always, Lol­ly, thank for your love­ly comment!

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