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Leadership and the Human Stain

Leadership and the Human Stain
Use a Wiki for Better Note-Taking

    Wired Magazine recently posted an interesting profile of Getting Things Done author David Allen. A similar profile ran in Business 2.0 over the summer. The pieces detail a history of drug abuse and addiction, mental breakdown, drifting, and divorce, before Allen eventually encountered the spiritual leader John-Roger, the Mystical Traveler, and began assembling the philosophy that would come to stand as the core of GTD.

    While there’s little in GTD that’s explicitly cultish (despite the Wired article’s title, which calls GTD Allen’s “cult of hyperefficiency” — a representation the article itself goes to pains to dispel), the connection between Allen and John-Roger causes some people a great deal of concern. For them, Allen’s sullied past and spiritual leanings are marks against him.

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    Not to me. In fact, reading about Allen’s difficulties coming to terms with his life and, ultimately, himself makes him seem more worth listening to, not less. I say this as a man without a spiritual bone in my body, someone with no great respect for those who offer salvation or Truth to the misguided and confused. In short, I say this as someone who is not impressed with Allen as a believer, but is still impressed with his work and the role he’s taken as a leader offering tools to empower others to deal with their lives.

    In my first post here at lifehack.org, I wrote that “Leaders empower those around them” and this is the quality I admire in Allen. Knowing that he is, was, and will continue to be “only human” doesn’t diminish his leadership qualities; rather, I believe it enhances them. Too many would-be leaders assume a mantle of superiority, distancing themselves from their “mere” humanity with all the faults and weaknesses that implies. They hide their weaknesses, pretending to be above the trivialities of day-to-day life, and presenting a front of super-human strength and competence. These are the people who wear hairpieces and cap their teeth to avoid the impression of bodily imperfection and scoff at those of us who wear our hearts on our sleeves and worry over-much about the right thing to do.

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    There’s nothing empowering about this model of leadership, though — it’s leadership through fear and intimidation, through appeal to low self-esteem and insecurity, and it falls apart at the first sign of the so-called leader’s everyday humanity. Allen’s leadership is premised on something different; in interviews he comes across as humble and approachable, and in these profiles as eminently human. He has achieved the success he has attained not only in spite of his earlier failures but because of them — the failures are part and parcel of his success.

    Knowing his story makes his advice and his work more real to me somehow — it’s the work of a man and not a god. It creates a leadership that is not bestowed from Heaven but the outcome of worldly living. It comes, that is, from a life much like mine — maybe not in the particulars (as far as I know, I’ve never been addicted to drugs or spent time in a psychiatric institution) but in the overall quality.

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    This kind of leadership is far more compelling to me than the model of leadership by brute strength. It is the kind of leadership practiced by someone like Mahatma Gandhi, who led the Indian people to independence from the British not by hiding his faults but by emphasizing them, by displaying them for the world to see. Gandhi understood well the importance of human frailty and built his strategy of nonviolent resistance around it. Knowing that his peaceful protests would be met by violence, Gandhi embraced the fragility of the human body — knowing that the brutality that colonial forces would inflict against unresisting protesters would hang heavy on the consciences of both the present attackers and the rest of the world witnessing it via the media. Throughout his career, Gandhi demonstrated the frailness of his own body and the tenuousness of life itself by embarking on hunger strikes, inspiring millions with his own humanity.

    Or, to take an example from the opposite end of the moral spectrum, consider Bill Clinton who, regardless of what you thought of his politics or his morality, could make believers in a few moments of personal contact. Hunter S. Thompson, the drug-addled iconoclast and inventor-advocate of Gonzo reporting, a man who despised the politics of appeasement the Democrats arrived at over the span of the Reagan years almost as much as he despised the institution of organized politics altogether, still found himself admiring Clinton when he covered his campaign in 1992. Though he never learned to like Clinton’s centrist politics, he was compelled by Clinton’s very presence — not because of his strength but because of his weaknesses: the gusto with which he wolfed down his food, the womanizing and philandering that Clinton barely concealed, the squareness of his amateur sax-playing, the raw “humanness” of the man. America agreed, apparently; Clinton’s victory in New York clinching the Democratic nomination came hard on the heels of the revelation of Clinton’s affair with Gennifer Flowers. In contrast, George H.W. Bush (and later Bob Dole) was all too stiff and formal to be real.

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    The mark of human weakness is at the center of Phillip Roth’s novel The Human Stain, a meditation on human physical and, more importantly, moral frailty set against the backdrop of the Lewinsky Affair. For Roth, it is the “stain” of moral confusion, physical degradation, sexual and emotional need, and ultimately failure in every and any arena of life that marks us as purely and utterly human. And it is the reality of temptation, of moral misstep, of wrong turns and tortuous recovery that makes for true leadership, for leaders that lead by example and by sharing their unreserved humanity. That is the kind of leadership I see in Allen’s story, and it is the kind of leadership that a mere human like myself can embrace.

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    Last Updated on October 14, 2020

    The Art of Humble Confidence

    The Art of Humble Confidence

    To be confident or not to be confident, that is the question. I’m not sure about you, but I’ve been a bit confused about all this discussion about the subject of confidence. Do you really need to be more confident or should you try to be more humble? I think the answer is both – you just have to know where to use it.

    East VS West – Confidence, It’s a Cultural Thing

    In typical Western countries, the answer to the confidence debate is obvious – more is better. Our heros are rebellious, independent and shoot first, ask questions later. I think this snippet of dialog from The Matrix sums it up best:

    Agent Smith – “We’re willing to wipe the slate clean, give you a fresh start. All that we’re asking in return is your cooperation in bringing a known terrorist to justice.”
    Neo – “Yeah. Well, that sounds like a pretty good deal. But I think I may have a better one. How about, I give you the finger”
    [He does]
    Neo -“ …and you give me my phone call.”

    In Eastern countries, the tone is often considerably different. Elders are supposed to be revered not dismissed. The words ‘guru,’ meaning a teacher, and the philosophy of dharma, loosely translated to mean ‘duty,’ come from here. In Eastern cultures humility and respect are more important than confidence.

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    These perspectives are generalizations, but it shows how the confidence debate goes back deep into our culture. I think that both extremes of pure confidence or pure humility are misguided. Instead of rectifying this situation by simply blending the two: becoming somewhat humble, somewhat confident all the time, I believe the answer is to know when to be confident and when to be humble.

    Humble Confidence – Know When to Use It

    I’m going to make another broad generalization. I believe that virtually every relationship you are going to have is going to fit into one of two major archetypes, either master or student. In peer relationships this master/student role may switch frequently, but it is extremely rare that the relationship never leans to one side.

    In the master role, you are displaying confidence to get what you want. This is public speaker, leader or seducer. Being the master has advantages. You have more control and ability to influence from this role.

    The student role is the opposite. You are intentionally displaying humility. This is the student, disciple or follower. Being the student has advantages too. You can learn a lot more in this role and are more likely to win the trust of the other person.

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    Know When to Shut Up and Learn

    If you are a typical Westerner, you are probably already thinking about which role you prefer. Being the leader is great. You get respect and a higher status. Most of all you get a greater degree of control.

    But the problem is that you can’t and shouldn’t always try to be the leader. Trying to assume that role without the skills, resources or status to back it up will lead to conflict. More importantly, there are many times when you purposely want to display humility. Some of the benefits to the student role include:

    • You learn more.
    • Smooths relationships.
    • Makes others more willing to lend a helping hand.

    Knowing when taking the humble route is to your advantage. It is far easier to get mentors and advisors if you use humility rather than arrogance. A small sacrifice to your ego can open up the potential to learn a lot.

    Confidence to Persuade, Humility to Learn

    In reality almost no relationship is as clearly defined as master/student. Within our connections, people have overlapping areas of expertise. I might be an expert in blogging to a non-blogger, but they might be an expert in finance. In each area there are different roles to take.

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    Before any interaction ask yourself what the purpose is. Are you trying to learn or persuade?

    Persuasion requires confidence. If you are trying to sell, instruct or lead you need to display the confidence to match your message. But learning requires humility. You won’t learn anything if you are constantly arguing with your professors, mentors or employers. Taking a dose of humility and temporarily making yourself a student gives you the opportunity to absorb.

    Persuade Less, Learn More

    Persuasion is great for immediate effect, but learning matters over the long-haul. Instead of washing over all your communication with pure confidence, look for opportunities to learn. Persuading someone to follow you may give you an immediate boost of satisfaction, but it doesn’t last. Learning, however, is an investment for the future.

    Whenever I make a connection with someone and realize they have a skill or understanding I want, I am careful to express humility in that area. That means listening with what they say even if I don’t immediately agree and being patient with their response. This method often drastically cuts down the time I need to spend on trial and error to learn by myself.

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    Confidence/Humility Doesn’t Replace Communication Skills

    This approach of selectively using confidence and humility for different purposes doesn’t replace communication skills. Humility isn’t going to work if the other person thinks you’re an irritating whiner. Confidence won’t work if the entire room thinks you are an arrogant jerk. Knowing how to display these two qualities takes practice.

    The next time you are about to enter into an interaction ask yourself why you are doing it. Are you trying to persuade or learn? Depending on which you can take a completely different tact for far better results.

    Featured photo credit: BBH Singapore via unsplash.com

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