Leader Pathways

The Life of Leading Greatly  
January 2011

Mentoring Leaders for Bold Tomorrows

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In this Issue:

A Conversation
About Self-Trust

   A Conversation About Self-Trust

Michael Shenkman Welcome to the New Year.

One of the joys of the holidays is receiving cards sent by friends from far away, from parts of life left long ago. One of those missives came to me from Jane Kane (her real name withheld on request). I have known her and her husband for more than thirty years. Following up with each other on the states of our lives, she responded to my work on leader mentoring with a thoughtful reflection.

Her comments demonstrate what I saw as “self-trust” in action, and I thought the readers of Leader Pathways might enjoy our exchange:

Jane: “For the past eight years I’ve been a boss, a nurse manager, a director of a 25-bed inpatient psych unit. I work my tail off, but not in managing so much as leading I like to think. Here’s one of the quotes I just harvested that rings true for me for the work I do:

‘All of the great leaders have had one characteristic in common: It was the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time. This, and not much else, is the essence of leadership.’ — John Kenneth Galbraith

“Which is to say that people want somebody to be in it with them [my italics – MS], and take the lead facing the hard stuff, the unknowns. It’s not so much the content of my answers to the questions I get asked, but that I am willing to give answers. Daily I am approached:  Jane, I have a question. I got answers, I say with humor, but even so, just that, and the anxiety goes down.

“The usual answer is that yes, what you were thinking is spot on. Good job. I have a phenomenal staff and we have a norm of respect and support for each other. There supposedly is this thing in nursing called lateral violence. It’s a hot topic, with articles and conferences. I have no patience with it. I think it is ridiculous and exaggerated because I do not see it here where I work, but folks from other systems tell me, ‘Oh it's real.’ Co-workers stressed and unsupported, screwing each other with competition, rage, etc. That’s so sad to me.”

Michael: “I think your humor opens the way for people. You really get it: You lead because you are able to make that next, difficult step seem to be what is exciting and joyful to do. You and Gerry [a name I am using for her husband] always did that for me, always uplifted my life with that sense that ahead something sparkling awaits.

 “Thus, I see the Galbraith quote, which is right on the mark, from the other side:  A leader is only needed when people are in a state where change is upon them. When that is the situation, anxiety is the primary and dominant state that they are in – along with excitement and curiosity, for some. When you offer your humor, they see a leader who exhibits ‘self-trust,’ a state in which she has just as much anxiety as everyone else, but takes a different approach to it. She proceeds with resolve, trusting that each step will be worthy and will offer up something from which everyone learns, and so improves on the next step.

“Some people retire from jobs, but ‘Arch Three Leaders’ like you and Gerry never retire from life. Whatever form that leading takes, wherever you and Gerry go, leading happens.”

Thinking of Jane and her constant, irrepressible humor, I am reminded that great leading is not a matter of grave pronouncements on the one hand or prosaic motivators on the other. Great leading exhibits steady, modest resolve that is ready and willing to take the next step and accept that it is worthy. A worthy step is one that may be imperfect, but enables people to learn and see forward to the next step.

Great leaders often exhibit exquisite humor. I think of Lincoln, who used stories to ease people to the next step. Of course, with speeches like the Gettysburg Address and his second inaugural, he rose to transcendent levels of eloquence. But it is his self-trust, lived lightly with humor from day to day in his endlessly dire decision-making, which kept his way clear and open to a grander vision. (To appreciate this, I recommend strongly that you read Eric Foner, Fiery Trial, as well as William Lee Miller’s Lincoln’s Virtues and President Lincoln: The Duty of a Statesman).

Self-trust comes first, before the vision. It is a matter of living close to and at ease with minutiae, answering one question at a time, so that a real concern, a real sense of what is at stake, can mold the heart and soul to the terrain ahead. It is that resolve that keeps one’s feet on the ground even as one’s hopes are given wings.

And so I wish the readers of Leader Pathways good humor, self-trust and great leading in 2011. 

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