Being An Officer

Chief Executive. Operations. Financial. Information. Wellness.

Officers.

What’s it like to be one, I wonder? How do you see yourself? What is your purpose? Whom do you serve?

I recently heard some business executives refer to themselves as ‘officers’ of their company, and it struck me, as if I were hearing the word for the first time in this context. The vibe was not arrogant or self-aggrandizing. It came off not as corporate speak, as some label used to separate (elevate) themselves from others in the organization. The feeling really reminded me of how Simon Sinek describes marine officers in his books–the ones who lead from the front, who put themselves in harm’s way first to accomplish a mission. The leaders I heard spoke with an air of respect for the role ahead of themselves personally. It was almost reverent, in a way, like being an ‘officer’ of the company meant, as Sinek puts it, not just caring about being ‘in charge,’ but caring for the people ‘in your charge.’

Officers sit at the top of organizational hierarchy. They enjoy rank, default status, and the highest pay and benefits. They also shoulder the greatest responsibility (and ideally, accountability). In the military this includes for people’s very lives. In business this includes people’s livelihoods, and thus also their lives and those of their families. Setting aside for now the premise that boards, and thus the execs who report to them, function to advance the interests of shareholders above all, I’m thinking about how hierarchical corporate structure and its attendant attitudes serve us, each and all of us, relationally.

I perceive three primary, intersecting answers to “Whom do you serve?”: 1. Shareholders 2. Mission 3. People of the organization. The first two can be abstract; the last is very concrete. I strongly believe that leaders who prioritize the health and well-being of their people above all else are the most successful. I don’t necessarily mean success in the conventional business sense–profits, stock price, US News & World Report ranking. I mean relational success–manifest in organizational loyalty/pride, team cohesion, mission focus, low turnover, and high moral and community standing.

I think organizations with relationship-centered leaders cultivate and elevate officers who respect, acknowledge, and attend to workers at all levels in their perspective and decision making. They ask, “How does this affect our people?” before, “How does this affect our bottom line or brand?” When the latter come under threat, they will look for every available solution before sacrificing the health and well-being of their people, even when doing so is the easy and obvious path to balancing books and looking good. Led by this example, lower level leaders can feel safe to behave similarly, and the culture of safety cascades down to the lowest level worker. Cultures like this foster creativity, collaboration, innovation, and then multi-dimensional success.

I write all of this so easily as a non-officer. I understand that leading large, complex organizations is a practice in agile and dynamic balance of disparate interests in the midst of shifting markets and diverse stakeholders. I try to assess leaders fairly, and always with the heavy burden of their work in mind.

Still, I hold our highest designated leaders wholly accountable for their relational output. They set the cultural tone and attitudes for the organizations they lead. As a worker, I want to follow my officers wholeheartedly and without reservation. They have a hand in cultivating that loyalty in me. I want to show up every day proud to be part of an organization that does good–more good than just making money for the folks who own company stock, more good than meeting some external benchmark of ‘excellence’. In order to do that, I need to feel that my leaders establish and uphold a culture that cares about me as a person, as a member of the organization who matters and contributes. I want to be seen as, to feel like a unique and valued individual, not just a money making cog.

The officers I heard speaking of their roles with self-awareness and benevolence inspire me. They palliate my cynicism that corporate power and status bloat ego and ecclipse selflessness. They make me consider my own role as physician. Though I no longer hold any designated leadership title, I still lead–like it, want it, know it or not–just by virtue of my MD and role on the patient care team. I argue, too, that any team member also leads to some degree. We all take our cues from one another; we self-organize around collective priorities and norms of behavior, reinforced implicitly more than explicitly, every day. Even so, we may often think of ourselves as mere minions, that we just come to work and ‘do a job.’

What if we all thought of ourselves more as Officers like the ones I heard? What if we all took some personal responsibility to uphold a culture of valuing one another as important contributors to a mission of caring and meaning? Could we, as a groundswell from the bottom up, elevate and inspire our own officers’ attention to and value of the whole of us, from the top down? Can we all support and uphold one another from all corners, more visibly, audibly, and audaciously? Wouldn’t that be amazing?

Living Large in Seventh Grade

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NaBloPoMo 2018: What I’m Learning

Did you know that Abraham Maslow never represented his hierarchy of needs as a pyramid?  I didn’t either!  To be clear, I have not read the paper I just linked; it was linked in a different article I read today, describing more about Maslow’s work than I have ever known before.  It’s in Scientific American, entitled, “What Does It Mean to be Self-Actualized in the 21st Century?” by Scott Barry Kaufman.

Especially later in his life, Maslow’s focus was much more on the paradoxical connections between self-actualization and self-transcendence, and the distinction between defense vs. growth motivation. Maslow’s emphasis was less on a rigid hierarchy of needs, and more on the notion that self-actualized people are motivated by health, growth, wholeness, integration, humanitarian purpose, and the “real problems of life.”

I was intrigued by this piece because I remember so clearly when I first learned about Maslow’s Hierarchy.  It was in seventh grade, and I can’t remember anymore the class or context.  I just recall that it made so much sense, and I felt such a swell of joy at the possibility that something so complex could be distilled and explained so simply.  It would have been fair to predict at that time that I would go on to become a psychologist.  The boy I had a crush on that year (and all through high school, actually) asked me where I saw myself on the pyramid.  I remember looking at the tiers and thinking, very clearly, oh, I’m at the top.  I felt a little sheepish, afraid I would be seen as bragging, but it was the honest answer, and I said so.  “Bullshit,” was his reply.  I can’t remember our verbal exchange thereafter, but I think I was able to convince him that I really felt like I was ‘there.’  And I left that encounter feeling both a bit more self-aware and also proud that I had stood my ground and defended a truth.  You could also have guessed I would later entertain a brief interest in law school.

Kaufman has revisited Maslow’s work, including his hierarchy of needs, and evaluated the components in the context of modern life.  Reassuringly, 10 of 17 of Maslow’s self-actualization characteristics still stand up to ‘scientific scrutiny,’ (not sure how he measured this).  He names the ten characteristics in the article, and you can ‘take the quiz’ to see how self-actualized you are today.  I love quizzes like this.  I have done the Myers-Briggs at least 5 times.  Others I love are Gregorc Mind Styles, Insights Discovery, and the Gallup Strengths Finder.  The most useful ones tell you what you already know about your strengths, and also offer advice and insights on how to manage your blind spots.

But the most interesting aspect of Kaufman’s article to me was Maslow’s interest in self-actualization and its relationship to self-transcendence.  We can understand self-actualization as ‘achieving one’s full potential’ and self-transcendence as ‘decreased self-salience and increased feelings of connectedness,’ (again, not read the paper; it’s linked in Kaufman’s article) or basically subsuming and/or integrating oneself within a greater whole.  At first you may think that these are mutually exclusive states of mind and being.  The coolest thing is that it’s not actually an either/or proposition; it is absolutely both/and:

While self-actualization showed zero relationship to decreased self-salience, self-actualization did show a strong positive correlation with increased feelings of oneness with the world.

Self-actualized people don’t sacrifice their potentialities in the service of others; rather, they use their full powers in the service of others (important distinction). You don’t have to choose either self-actualization or self-transcendence– the combination of both is essential to living a full and meaningful existence.

It reminds me of another subsection of Chapter 3 in Leading Change in Healthcare, wherein Suchman et al discuss holding the tension and balance between self-differentiation (clear sense of individuality) and attunement (deep awareness and acceptance of how we are connected and resonant with those around us).  It also reminds me of Brené Brown’s work on trust; she describes eloquently in Rising Strong how we can neither trust others nor be trustworthy ourselves without clarity and boundaries around who we are and our core values, and living in that integrity all of the time.

Once again, I find encouraging and validating evidence for something I really feel I have known since an early age:  We are all our best selves and our best communities not in competition, but in collaboration.   Cohesion in diversity weaves a stronger social fabric of connections, more flexible and elastic.  But that means we need to know exactly what we as individuals each bring to contribute.  Personal, intrinsic meaning and purpose are foundational for substantive interactions with others and resilient communal relationships.

Our world can meet each and every one of our physiologic, psychologic, and self-fulfillment needs—we can provide this for one another.  We can each strive for our own goals, alongside our peers, and still help each other on the rocky, uphill parts.  We really need to stop with the scarcity thinking and get on with the business of working together, maximizing each of our strengths, and making society better for all of us.

Onward.

Fear, Ego, and Control

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NaBloPoMo 2018:  What I’m Learning

In this post I will attempt to describe some exciting connections between readings from the Harvard Business Review, Dr. Anthony Suchman and colleagues, and Carol Dweck.

An HBR article landed in my inbox this week, catching my inner Imposter’s attention.  The title, “Ego is the Enemy of Good Leadership,” triggered my ‘Is that me?’ reflex.  Because much of the time, I think I’m a pretty good leader (“I’m awesome”).  But I’m forever fearful that my ego will get the best of me and make me exactly the kind of leader I loathe (“I suck”).  I saved the article to read later.

Meanwhile, I continued to Chapter 3 of Leading Change in Healthcare: Authentic, Affirmative, and Courageous Presence.  Basically this chapter deals with earning and building trust.  Chapter subsections include self-awareness, reflection, emotional self-management, clarifying one’s core beliefs, and accepting oneself and others.  In the part on core beliefs, the authors reference Dr. Suchman’s 2006 paper, “Control and relation: two foundational values and their consequences.”  In it, he differentiates between these two ‘foundational world views’:

Control

The beliefs, thoughts and behaviors of the control paradigm are organized around a single core value: that the ultimate state to which one can aspire is one of perfect willfulness and predictability. What one desires happens, with no surprises; all outcomes are intended. For the clinician, the control paradigm is expressed in the questions, ‘‘What do I want to happen here?’’ and ‘‘What’s wrong and how do I fix it?’’  Personal success or failure is judged by the clinical outcome, the extent to which one’s intended outcome was realized.

Relation

In the relation paradigm, the most valued state to which one aspires is one of connection and belonging. In this state, one has a feeling of being part of a larger whole – a team, a learning group, a dance troupe, a community, even the world itself. One’s individual actions seem spontaneously integrated with those of others to a remarkable degree, contributing to the evolution of a higher order process, i.e. one at a higher system level than that of the individuals of which it is comprised…  One asks the question, ‘‘What’s trying to happen here?’’ and, according to one’s best approximation of an answer, seeks to shape others and the world while also remaining open to being shaped oneself. This balance between control and receptivity puts one in the best possible position to recognize and make use of serendipitous events.

In Leading Change the authors write about control, “…This is a fear-based paradigm in which one trusts oneself more than others and holds tightly to power…  It predisposes leaders toward dominance, distracts them from cultivating relationships and leads them to set unrealistic expectations of control.”  And about relation, “This is a trust-based paradigm, anchored in the belief that the sources of order, goodness and meaning lie beyond one’s own creation…  It predisposes leaders to do their best in partnership with others, to attend to the process of relating and to personal experience (their own and others’) and to remain open to possibility.”

When I finally read the HBR article, the message about ego reflected the control paradigm:

Because our ego craves positive attention… when we’re a victim of our own need to be seen as great, we end up being led into making decisions that may be detrimental to ourselves, our people, and our organization.

When we believe we’re the sole architects of our success, we tend to be ruder, more selfish, and more likely to interrupt others. This is especially true in the face of setbacks and criticism. In this way, an inflated ego prevents us from learning from our mistakes and creates a defensive wall that makes it difficult to appreciate the rich lessons we glean from failure.

The ego always looks for information that confirms what it wants to believe [confirmation bias].  Because of this, we lose perspective and end up in a leadership bubble where we only see and hear what we want to. As a result, we lose touch with the people we lead, the culture we are a part of, and ultimately our clients and stakeholders.

Going to bed last night, I wondered, “Is Fear actually driving when we see Ego in charge?”  I think the answer is undoubtedly yes, but it’s more complex than that.  It’s not a fear that we feel consciously, or that we are even aware of.  It’s not sweaty palm, palpitative, panic attack fear.  Rather it’s a deep, visceral, existential fear—of being found out, of not being enough—akin to imposter syndrome, if not exactly that.  Control, Fear, Ego—they all seem lump-able with/in the Fixed mindset, as described by Carol Dweck.  The simplest example of this mindset is when we tell kids how smart they are, they then develop a need to appear smart, lest they lose their identifying label.  So they stop taking risks, trying new things, risking failure.  Their experiences narrow as they, often inadvertently, learn that control of outcome and outward appearance of competence is the primary objective of any endeavor.

Back in August I listened to Dweck’s book, having heard about it and already embraced its theory in the last few years.  I had already started making the connection between fear and fixed mindset, but this day I saw a sudden, reciprocal relationship between fixed mindset, confirmation bias, and imposter syndrome.  I love when these lightning bolt moments happen—I was in my car on the way to work, and this triad came to me.  As soon as I parked and turned off the engine I tore into my bag for the journal I carry with me everywhere and scrawled the diagram as fast as I could, as if the idea would evaporate if I didn’t get it down in ink.  Later I added the comparison to Growth mindset—holding space for learning, integration, and possibility.  I held it in mind for a while, and then forgot it (which is okay—that’s why I wrote it down!).  Then today, putting together this post in my head, I remembered it with excitement.

8-31 triad update

The point of it all is that we are at our best, both individually and as groups, when we are in right relationship with ourselves and one another.  It all starts with relationship with self.  If I live in fear of being found out as flawed or imperfect, then I project that fear onto others.  I act out in an effort to control how others perceive me—when in reality I have no control over that whatsoever.  The negative perception of my ‘Ego’ by others then provokes myriad responses including fear, insecurity, false deference, resentment, disloyalty, and subversion, and the team falls into disarray.  If, on the other hand, I cultivate self-love and connection with others, I never feel that I am going it alone.  I am an integral member of a high-functioning, mutually respectful team, one in which I can admit my weaknesses and maximize my strengths.  We all feel confident that we can handle whatever adversity comes our way, and we rise to each and every occasion–together.

I’m still putting it all together, working out how it translates into daily behaviors, actions, and decisions.  For now I’m definitely paying closer attention to my feelings, especially in conflict, and taking a lot more deep breaths before speaking or replying to triggering emails.  I ask a lot more clarifying questions.  I try to make the most generous assumptions about people’s intentions, and remember always that we are on the same team—Team Humanity.

More learning happening around the clock, I say!  Hoping to articulate better in the sharing hereafter…

What do you think about all of this, does it make any sense at all??