Recently I came across a book that deeply touched me in my new endeavors here at SLI and as I prepare to get married in the coming days. Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box, had one particular example that resonated with me.
One night, as new parents Bud and Nancy slept, a sudden wailing cry came from the room of their baby son, David. Immediately, Bud had a sense that he should do something: Get up and tend to David so Nancy can sleep. Instead of acting on that initial feeling, Bud started to view his inert wife lying next to him as a lazy, insensitive mom and began to see himself as the victim—a hardworking, important employee who needed to get up in five hours. His undisturbed rest seemed fair ground for Nancy to tend to David. As Bud lay in bed, more thoughts and feelings streamed through his mind that justified why he thought he should not get up.
What I really appreciated about this story was that it reminded me of a core element of Servant Leadership: that it all starts with how we perceive others in relation to ourselves. Maybe some of us have been there (or like me, are headed there); the baby is crying in the middle of the night, and I’m confronted with what to do. The mere fact that I’m confronted suggests what I should do, but the bed is too comfy and the alarm clock is set too early. So I justify. And in this process, as the book notes, I elevate myself and reduce the other, so that I can justify ignoring that sense of what I should do for others.
What I think this story really addresses, and what attracts me to it, is that this is speaking to the foundation of Servant Leadership. No matter what model or exact steps we decide to employ as Servant Leaders, it begins with the simple paradigm of how we view others in relation to ourselves. Are we allowing those moments where we feel we want to act, or sense that we should act, to slip away because we tell ourselves we’ve already worked too hard, or that person doesn’t deserve it?
The book goes on to show how Bud justifies staying in bed, and his thought process isn’t pretty: I started to see Nancy as lazy, inconsiderate, unappreciative, insensitive, faker, lousy mom and lousy wife. Wow.
Well, unless I’m a particularly hopeless case, this story isn’t that unusual. In fact, for most of us, it’s an everyday occurrence that plays out in mundane traffic or the high-stakes boardroom, and even, as we see here, in the bedroom.
The Arbinger Institute, authors of Leadership and Self-Deception, say that we are “in the box.” We deceive ourselves when these moments to serve others arise and we, instead of acting, allow them to pass by. Therefore, the task is to get “out of the box,” and to see others as possessing value and having real needs, just like we do. I know it sounds like simple lessons we learned in kindergarten, but maybe we didn’t quite ever get it down.
So the question is, “how do we get out of the box?” Without directly answering, the authors suggest that when we start having thoughts like this, we are already on our way. This idea builds off what my colleague Kathy Sivba suggested a couple of weeks ago in her thoughts on humility. It isn’t something that needs broadcasting or radical announcement, (in fact, that often undermines it), but rather a service attitude that emerges from a different type of presence and perception.
As leaders, serving outside of the box is more than an action but a mindset that transforms the lens through which we see people as they truly are. It means we do the best we can without blaming or reverting into a defensive posture, always ready to defend our self-justifying image against assault. Leadership and Self-Deception says that by being in the box, we provoke others to be in the box. As a result, we produce a counterintuitive reaction: we provoke each other to do more of what we don’t like about the other.
What does this mean? It means we need to be a different kind of leader. One who moves quickly to find solutions rather than stubbornly finding worth in problems. Our obligation as Servant Leaders begins with honoring another as a person. In that moment, we see a person with needs as legitimate as our own, regardless of whether that other person is in their own box. And hopefully, having learned from this story, I will refuse to roll over and go back to sleep.
Event Coordinator, SLI