I have often thought that the best way to define a man’s character would be to seek out the particular mental or moral attitude in which, when it came upon him, he felt most deeply and intensively active and alive. At such moments, there is a voice inside which speaks and says, “This is the real me.” —William James Letters of William James
By the time we reach puberty, the world has reached us and shaped us to a greater extent than we realize. Our family, friends, school, and society, in general, have told us—by word and example—how to be. But people begin to become leaders at that moment when they decide for themselves how to be. For some leaders, this happens early. Former Secretary of Education Shirley Hufstedler has spent her life in the legal profession, but she was something of an outlaw as a young girl. She told me, “When I was very young, the things I wanted to do were not permitted by social dictates. I wanted to do a lot of things that girls weren’t supposed to do.
So I had to figure out ways to do what I wanted to do and still show up in a pinafore for a piano recital, so as not to blow my cover. You could call it manipulation, but I see it as observation and picking one’s way around obstacles. If you think of what you want and examine the possibilities, you can usually figure out a way to accomplish it.” Brooke Knapp, a trail-blazing pilot, and businesswoman, also fought her way out of the mold. She said, “I was raised in the South, and I was raised to be a wife. When I went to college, the definition of success was to get married to a gentleman and help him succeed and have children . . . [but] I was a little savage, in the best sense of the word, because I was stronger than my mother, and there was no way to control me.”
As Knapp learned, however, breaking out, being yourself, is sometimes anything but easy. She said, “In high school, I realized that I was going to be voted the most athletic, but I didn’t want the ‘lady jock’ label, so I decided to become the most popular. I learned the name of every single person casting a ballot and called them all by name and won.” Her popularity took a nosedive when “the mothers of the girls in my class started taking potshots at me. I concluded that success means that people don’t like you and you become a bad person, so I shut down for a lot of years. It wasn’t till after I got married that I began to experience my need to achieve again.” Know thyself, then, means separating who you are and who you want to be from what the world thinks you are and wants you to be. Author/psychiatrist Roger Gould also declared his independence very early.
He said, “I remember, during arguments with my father, there seemed to be arbitrary rules, which I never understood. I used to ask ‘why’ all the time. One time, I must have been six, I was lying in bed and looking up at the stars and thinking, ‘There’re other planets out there, and maybe there’s life on some of them, and the earth is enormous, with millions of people, and everyone can’t be right all the time, so my father could be wrong, and I could be right.’ It was my own theory of relativity. Then, in high school, I began reading the classics, and they were my transition in my own life, away from my parents. I had my own private life, which I could appreciate on its terms, and never talk to anyone else about it until I had digested it for myself.” Hufstedler, Knapp, and Gould clearly invented themselves, just as the other leaders I talked with did.
They overcame a variety of obstacles in a variety of ways, but all stressed the importance of self-knowledge. Some start the process early, and some don’t do it until later. It doesn’t matter. Self-knowledge, self-invention are lifetime processes. Those people who struggled to know themselves and become themselves as children or teenagers continue today to explore their own depths, reflect on their experiences, and test themselves. Others—like Roosevelt and Truman—undertake their own remaking in midlife. Sometimes we simply don’t like who we are or what we’re doing, and so we seek to change. Sometimes events, as in Truman’s case, require more of us than we think we have. But all of us can find tangible and intangible rewards in self-knowledge and self-control because if you go on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll go on getting what you’ve always got—which may be less than you want or deserve. All of the leaders I talked with agreed that no one can teach you how to become yourself, to take charge, to express yourself, except you. But there are some things that others have.
Lesson One: You Are Your Own Best Teacher
Gib Akin, professor at the McIntire School of Commerce, University of Virginia, studied the learning experiences of sixty managers. In his classic study, published in Organizational Dynamics, Akin found that the managers’ descriptions were “surprisingly congruous. . . . Learning is experienced as a personal transformation. A person does not gather learnings as possessions but rather becomes a new person. . . . To learn is not to have, it is to be.” The managers Akin interviewed cited two basic motivations for learning. The first was a need to know, which they described, he said, “as rather like a thirst or hunger gnawing at them, sometimes dominating their attention until satisfied.” The second was “a sense of role,” which stems from “a person’s perception of the gap between what he or she is, and what he or she should be.” In other words, the managers knew that they were not fulfilling their own potential, not expressing themselves fully. And they knew that learning was a way out of the trap, a major step toward self-expression. And they saw learning as something intimately connected with self. No one could have taught them that in school. They had to teach themselves. Somehow they had reached a point in life where they knew they had to learn new things—it was either that or admit that they had settled for less than they were capable of. If you can accept all that, as the managers did, the next step is to assume responsibility for your education as well as yourself. Major stumbling blocks on the path to self-knowledge are denial and blame.
Lesson Two: Accept Responsibility. Blame No One
The wisdom of this seems intuitively obvious to me. So I’ll let you listen to Marty Kaplan, who is the best example of accepting responsibility for oneself that I know of. Today, Kaplan is a research professor at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication who holds the Norman Lear Chair in Entertainment, Media, and Society. He is an accomplished screenwriter and producer as well as a regular contributor to the Huffington Post. But he was only in his 30s when, in the mid–1980s, he embarked on his third career—as Disney Productions’ Vice President. He went to Disney with a wide-ranging background—from biology to the Harvard Lampoon, from broadcast and print journalism to high-level politics. He knew a lot about a lot of things, but very little about the movie business. His description of his self-designed university illustrates how he accepted the responsibility for creating his own success: “Before starting this job, I put myself through a crash course, watching five or six movies every single day for six weeks, trying to see every successful picture of the last several years. Then I read as many of the scripts as I could get my hands on, to see what made these particular movies great. I kind of invented my own university, so that I could get some sense of both the business and the art. . . . I’ve always been in worlds where knowing the community has been important. In graduate school, when I was studying literature, to know the writers and critics was to know a universe. In Washington, I had to learn the political players, and here I had to learn the players. It became clear to me that there were about one hundred core writers, and I systematically set out to read a screenplay or two by each of them. When I got here, I was told it would take me three years to get grounded, but after nine months, the head of the studio told me I’d graduated and promoted me. Within a year I found—with some stumbles here and there—that I could perform the way my peers, who had spent their entire careers here, did. I attribute that partly to discipline, partly to desire, and partly to the old transferability of skills. You use many of the same muscles in molecular biology, politics, and the movies. It’s all about making connections. “One thing I did when I first got here was to sit in the office of the studio head all day, day after day, and watch and listen to everything he said or did. So when writers would come, when producers would come, I would just be there.
When he was making phone calls, I would sit and listen to him, and I would hear him contend with what a person in his position contends with. How does he say no to someone, how does he say yes, how does he duck, how does he wheedle and coax? I would have a yellow pad with me, and all through my first many months, any phrase I didn’t understand, any piece of industry jargon, any name, any maneuver I didn’t follow, any of the deal-making business financial stuff I didn’t understand, I’d write it down, and periodically I would go trotting around to find anyone I could get to answer. “There was no situation that I could fail to learn from because everything was new to me, and therefore no matter what it was, however obtuse the person I was meeting with, however stupid the idea, however, low-powered the agent pitching me something, it was a useful encounter, because I would be for the first time in that position. Every single thing was new, and so I had a complete tolerance for every conceivable experience, and as I learned from what other people would regard as real tedium, and stupid and avoidable experiences, I would then begin to filter those out of my input until I was ultimately only doing what I thought was useful and important for me, or things from which I could learn, or had to do.”
Lesson Three: You Can Learn Anything You Want to Learn
If one of the basic ingredients of leadership is a passion for the promises of life, the key to realizing the promise is the full deployment of yourself, as Kaplan did when he arrived at Disney. Full deployment is simply another way of defining learning. Learning, the kind Kaplan did, the kind I’m talking about here, is much more than the absorption of a body of knowledge or mastery of a discipline. It’s seeing the world simultaneously as it is and as it can be, understanding what you see, and acting on your understanding. Kaplan didn’t just study the movie business, he embraced it and absorbed it, and thereby understood it. In our discussion, I suggested that this kind of learning has to do with reflecting on experience. Kaplan said, “I would add a component to that, which is the appetite to have experience because people can experience averse and therefore not learn. Unless you have the appetite to absorb new and potentially unsettling things, you don’t learn. . . . Part of it is temperament. It’s a kind of fearlessness and optimism and confidence, and you’re not afraid of failure.” “You’re not afraid of failure.” Keep that in mind, because we’ll get back to it later.
Lesson Four: True Understanding Comes from Reflecting on Your Experience
Kaplan didn’t simply watch all those movies and read all those scripts and spend all those hours in the studio head’s office. He did all that, and then he reflected on what he’d seen and read and heard, and he came to a new understanding. Reflecting on experience is a means of having a Socratic dialogue with yourself, asking the right questions at the right time, in order to discover the truth of yourself and your life. What really happened? Why did it happen? What did it do to me? What did it mean to me? In this way, one locates and appropriates the knowledge one needs or, more precisely, recovers what one knew but had forgotten, and becomes, in Goethe’s phrase, the hammer rather than the anvil. Kaplan stated it forcefully: “The habit of reflection may be a consequence of facing mortality. . . . To begin to understand any great literature is to understand that it’s a race against death, and it’s the redeeming power of love or God or art or whatever the artist is proposing that’s the thing that makes the race against death worth racing. . . . In a way, reflection is asking the questions that provoke self-awareness.” Nothing is truly yours until you understand it—not even yourself. Our feelings are raw, unadulterated truth, but until we understand why we are happy or angry or anxious, the truth is useless to us. For example, every one of us has been yelled at by a superior and bitten our tongues, afraid to yell back. Later, we yell at a friend who has done nothing. Such displaced emotions punctuate our lives and diminish them. This is not to suggest that yelling back at a superior is a useful response. Understanding is the answer. When you understand, then you know what to do. The importance of reflecting on the experience, the idea that reflecting leads to understanding, came up again and again in my conversations with leaders. Now executive director of the National School Boards Association, Anne Bryant was executive director of the American Association of University Women when she told me she has made reflection a part of her daily routine: “Every morning after the alarm goes off, I lie in bed for about fifteen minutes, going over what I want to get out of each event of my day, and what I want to get done by the end of the week. I’ve been doing it for two or three years, and if I don’t do it, I feel I’ve wasted the day.” To look forward with acuity you must first look back with honesty. After spending four days a week at her Washington, D.C., office, Bryant spent the balance of the week at her home in Chicago, where she read, reflected on the week just past, and planned for the days ahead. Those, then, are the four lessons of self-knowledge. But in order to put these lessons into practice, you need to understand the effect that childhood experiences, family, and peers have had on the person you’ve become. All too often, we are strangers to ourselves.
In his classic The Lonely Crowd, David Riesman wrote, “The source of direction for the individual is ‘inner’ in the sense that it is implanted early in life by the elders and directed toward generalized, but nonetheless inescapably destined roles,” while “what is common to all the other-directed people is that their contemporaries are the source of direction for the individual—either those known to him or those with whom he is indirectly acquainted through friends and through the mass media. This source is internalized in the sense that dependence on it for guidance in life is implanted early. The goals toward which the other-directed person strives shift with that guidance: It is only the process of striving itself and the process of paying close attention to the signals from others that remain unaltered throughout life.” In other words, most of us are made by our elders or by our peers. But leaders are self-directed. Let’s stop and think about that for a moment. Leaders are self-directed, but learning and understanding are the keys to self-direction, and it is in our relationships with others that we learn about ourselves. As Boris Pasternak wrote in Doctor Zhivago, Well, what are you? What is it about you that you have always known as yourself? What are you conscious of in yourself: your kidneys, your liver, your blood vessels? No. However far back you go in your memory it is always some external manifestation of yourself where you come across your identity: in the work of your hands, in your family, in other people. And now, listen carefully. You in others—this is what you are, this is what your consciousness has breathed, and lived on, and enjoyed throughout your life, your soul, your immortality—your life in others. How, then, do we resolve the paradox? This way: leaders learn from others, but they are not made by others. This is the distinguishing mark of leaders. The paradox becomes a dialectic. The self and the other synthesize through self-invention.
What that means is that here and now, true learning must often be preceded by unlearning, because we are taught by our parents and teachers and friends how to go along, to measure up to their standards, rather than allowed to be ourselves. Alfred Gottschalk, chancellor emeritus of Hebrew Union College, told me, “The hardest thing I’ve had to do is convey to children, my own and others, the necessity of coming to terms with themselves. Their interests aren’t deep. They don’t think about things. They accept what they’re told and what they read or see on TV. They’re conformists. They accept the dictates of fashion.” Asked to define his philosophy, Gottschalk said, “I value the need for the individual to feel unique and for the collective to remain hospitable to diversity. I believe in unity without uniformity and in man’s capacity to redeem himself.” Given the pressures from our parents and the pressures from our peers, how does anyone of us manage to emerge as a sane—much less productive—adult? William James wrote, in 1890 in The Principles of Psychology, A man’s Self is the sum total of all that he can call him, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands and horses, and yacht and bank account. All these things give him the same emotions. If they wax and prosper, he feels triumphant; if they dwindle and die away, he feels cast down.