What’s missing in leadership is what’s missing in ourselves

When I was a young manager, one of my favorite team members came to me to resign. She’d had some personal circumstances that necessitated a move and change of jobs. I was devastated at losing her, and I was flustered in the moment. It took me a day or two to say the right things and focus on her best interests rather than my own sense of loss. It’s always bothered me how I handed that initial exchange, but it taught me something important: I had some growing up to do myself before I could mature as a leader.

The work of leadership starts with the hard work we must do on ourselves.

The times I’ve fallen short as a leader aren’t for lack of understanding what constitutes good leadership. I’ve read plenty of books on leadership, and I’ve attended (and even taught) leadership programs. I’m still growing as a leader because I still have work to do on myself.

Our shortcomings as leaders are usually the unfinished business within our souls, such as the work of healing our old wounds, gaining the confidence to put love over ego, or bringing forth our authentic selves. These are messy, hard and weighty endeavors, and for most of us, they are a work in progress.

Imago is the last stage of an insect’s metamorphosis. It’s also a psychological term that refers to a mental image of someone from earlier in our lives who influences our behavior today. For example, many of us have challenges in our adult relationships that trace back to our early childhoods. If we lacked affection when we were young, we might now be someone who craves adoration and recognition. If we were constantly criticized, we might be overly sensitive and hear any feedback as an attack. There’s a whole psychological field built around this idea — imago relationship therapy — that seeks to use this understanding to heal old wounds and strengthen personal relationships.

If we have not done the work of healing, I think we have a tendency to bring our imago to the office with us. We might look to our colleagues to meet the needs that went unfilled. As leaders, we might be unable to be who we should — people who model shared values, inspire with vision and elevate others — if our past experiences have cracked too deeply the bedrock of our own character. Instead of leading, we become lost in the effort to mend ourselves.

We all have encountered leaders who seem incapable of empathizing with others, encouraging teams or sharing credit. I think this stems from insecurity — a deskside imago that casts a long shadow over that person. I often quote James Kouzes and Barry Posner on leadership. They say, «Leaders are in love — in love with the people who do the work, with what their organizations practice, and with their customers.» If you don’t love yourself — or feel loved — then it’s hard to be this kind of leader.

The other problem with old wounds defining our professional personas is that we start to confuse what happened in the past with what is truly happening now. Our ego can get in the way of truly understanding our experience — and each other. We might start to develop all kinds of personal assumptions about the people around us — and the reasons for what they say and do. This narrative separates us from others in a destructive way. Tara Brach talks about the concept of real vs. true. We might believe Joan in accounting is purposely undermining us — that is real to us — but is it true? Maybe she didn’t invite us to the meeting because she typed the wrong name into Outlook. Or perhaps she thought it wasn’t a good use of our time. I like that my company urges us to assume positive intent in others. What would happen if we talked to Joan from that place — rather than our own, old narrative?

In the face of flawed leadership, the way forward is to more deeply understand how we ourselves can grow, which is the prerequisite to fostering growth around us. That means building on the basis of a presence (the thing we most value) rather than an absence (the lingering pain of what we’ve lacked). The best colleagues and most inspiring leaders know their unique passions, and because they are in touch with their best selves, they are better able to connect to and elevate others. They don’t operate from a place of fear of what they won’t get. They focus on what they can give, because they have found a way to feel whole.

Herb Kelleher says, «A company is stronger if it is bound by love rather than by fear.” So are we.