Leadership Is a Self Portrait

Linda and I had the great pleasure of being invited to attend The Learning Network’s meeting this year. TLN is a small, by invitation only group of luminaries in the fields of leadership development and organizational change. They have been meeting together for the past fourteen years. Why? To simply connect, relax, let their hair down, share experiences, and ask for and provide support to each other.

Authors on Organizational Change and Change Leadership

Jim Kouzes, Linda Ackerman Anderson, Bev Kay, Marshall Goldsmith, Dean Anderson at The Learning Network

The minds in the room where huge. Most have written great books that you have likely read, and have been major contributors to the fields of organization transformation and leadership for most of their careers. But what was most present was not their minds, but their huge hearts and deep commitment to make a real difference in people’s lives and the effectiveness of our organizations. I didn’t come away from the weekend with great new ideas. Instead, I came away with wonderful new connections and a sense of renewal to keep at this work, to step up my game, and to contribute more to make this world a better place for all. And that was far more valuable to me than some new idea.

But one idea that really struck me, I believe, came from Nancy Adler. In a sentence she got to the heart of leadership: “Leadership is a self portrait.”

What does this mean to you? To me, it means that every word, decision, behavior, and action we take as leader is a reflection of who we are. In other words, my self is always with me, at all times, and is the source of my leadership. It generates everything I think, say and do. Others, looking at my leadership, see who I am through how I lead and behave. My leadership style and performance is a picture of me, and I am constantly painting my own portrait through how I am at any moment. My leadership is a reflection of my self.

But I have multiple selves, multiple sides to who I am, don’t you? One side I’ll call my ego, my conditioned self, and it has all kinds of strengths and weaknesses, different color tones of behaviors and actions. Sometimes it paints a pretty picture; other times not. Sometimes it helps me achieve, other times it derails my efforts. 

My ego has conditioned beliefs, values and ways of seeing the world. Sometimes these fit the situation I face and are helpful. Other times these worldviews are far too limiting and I just cannot see the solution through my ego’s lens. Because my ego is primarily concerned with me, it often does not take others and their needs into account adequately. It tends to look inside the boundaries of my own self-interest rather than outside to larger perspectives.

Luckily I have another side of me, my Being. You have that part of you too, don’t you? This is my best Self, the part of me that generates those moments of brilliance where I think more broadly, feel more deeply and act beyond my self-interest to what is best for the greater good. My Being reaches out to others, even if they are different, and provides support and care. In my leadership, my Being invites others “into the space” to be heard and to contribute, where my ego usually wants to fill the space with my own pontifications. My Being delivers leadership that unleashes other’s potential, where my ego is mostly concerned with my own power and control of things.

My intuition and best ideas come from my Being. When I operate from my Being, I see beyond my ego’s conditioned worldviews and generate more “aha’s”. I am able to suspend my assumptions and beliefs to perceive more accurately the systems dynamics at play so I comprehend complexity more easily. I perceive inter-relationsips that my ego’s downward, self-centered, myopic view misses. From my Being, I also see and understand human dynamics better because I am able to witness my own self and my interations with others objectively, rather than through my ego’s judgement and emotional reactions.

Your leadership, like mine, is an ongoing self portrait, with both your Being and your ego painting colors and shapes on the canvass of your life and career. Whatever part of you shows up at any moment has the brush in its hand. When you look at your self portrait, what do you see?

Which parts of your leadership self portrait do you like?

Which parts would you like to change?

Jim Kouzes, good friend, all round wonderful person, and co-author of The Leadership Challenge and The Truth about Leadership, says that introspection is one of the key leadership behaviors that leaders do the least. We simply don’t turn into and look at our own self portrait. We don’t assess our painting, find its flaws and do the touch ups necessary to craft a masterpiece. My question is simple: why not? Are our egos so big that we cannot look in the mirror and work on ourselves? Are we that threatened by what we will find?

The formula for successful leadership is simple: the best leaders are the most evolved human beings. They have resolved the self-limiting or dysfunctional parts of their egos so they – and those they lead – benefit from its strengths, not its weaknesses, and this allows them to operate more from their Being. Put your Being first, and your leadership will thrive and your portrait will become a true work of art. 

As we start 2011, what aspect of your self portrait are you going to work on this year?

Happy painting!

One Comment

  1. Sep 8, 2013
    2:18 pm


    I have found that I am able to pull from my “being” more often when I am surrounded by other self-aware leaders and we are pursuing the same purpose. The challenge is to find these people or to promote the growth of the ones who are near you.

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World-renowned executive coach
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Marshall School of Business
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