I lied to my students last week.
At the time it didn't feel like a lie. I thought I was being truthful, honest, transparent. I thought it was ok to reveal myself as I really was, flaws and all.
Sure. But it's not ok to invent flaws.
Fiction: I am the picture perfect absent minded professor - a bit flighty, a tad scattered, forever losing my clicker, designing convoluted class plans I cheerfully ignore. I try to be organized, then give up. I mix up my handouts. Take me as I am.
Fact: It's true that I cheerfully ignore my plans - and it's also true that I keep losing the clicker. It's not true, however, that I'm disorganized. In fact, I'm almost absurdly organized at work. I'm always prepared for class, often with several days to spare. I review everything multiple times - plans, slides, materials. I create beautiful handout packages, including everything my students could possibly need (no power point handouts for this professor!). I plan my time methodically, making a list, checking it twice, regularly estimating the urgency and importance of each item. Time management and discipline keep me sane and productive, even as I handle a work load that would daunt most of my friends and well-wishers.
Why the fiction, then? As I puzzle over this question I consider the great work of two authors: Dan McAdams and Sheryl Sandberg.
Psychologist Dan McAdams describes a three-layered model of personality. The first layer are the traits - the so called "Big Five" neuroticism, extraversion, openness to experiences, agreeableness, and conscientiousness. Traits tend to change little in adult life - a young agreeable child is likely to be an equally agreeable adult. The second layer includes values, goals, and motivations. Those change as we age, as we contemplate adult responsibilities and our own fears of mortality. The third layer? Life stories. These are the films we watch (and direct) in our head, the characters we want people to see (Read about McAdam's life stories here).
Perhaps that's where my absent minded professor character comes from. I make it up - oh, using grains of truth and traits I really do possess. I exaggerate a natural propensity towards complexity. I laugh at the number of pieces I bring to class - index cards, post its, game pieces, and so on. I have a bit of fun with my extensive plans - the ones I change so happily on the fly.
Problem is - my life story is a caricature. This caricature ignores my real strengths - imagination, flexibility, the ability to read the class and notice a change in energy, a need for more movement, an interest in something new. The caricature ignores years of teaching and training experience guiding necessary changes in plans.
Sheryl Sandberg's great book Lean in: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead suggests another source for my life stories: Fear. Fear of power. Fear of competence and experience. Fear of leadership. It's easier to put myself down, pretend that I'm weak and distracted. It's easier to pretend I'm not in control.
As I write this blog, I wonder who else is out there - who else is reading this and recognizing herself in my experience. I'd love to hear from you. Are you too sharing a fictionalized version of yourself? If so, why? How can we help each other tell the real story?
Don't miss the Disney movie Frozen. The movie is a joyful modern fairy tale, with gorgeous Broadway-style music, amazing voices, and yes, powerful lessons of engagement and leadership.
First, a brief synopsis of the story: Young princess Elza's magical powers allow her to create winter at will. Elza and her sister Anna have a lot of fun with Elza's magic - what child wouldn't like to instantly create enough snow and cold to build snowmen, play with snow angels, or ice skate? One day, however, Elza accidentally hurts Anna. After that incident, Elza becomes desperately afraid to hurt others. She refuses her sister's friendship, hides in her room and wears gloves when in public.
When Elza's parents die, she becomes the Queen of the land - and must, at least for one day, show her face to the world. During that day, people discover Elza's magical powers. Elza now has nothing else to lose and realizes that she can "let go" of secrets and lies. If you haven't seen the movie, watch this one scene below.
Like Elza, we all have special powers. Some are able to plan and follow their plans to a "T." Others need no plans at all - they move freely through their days, tackling several tasks at once, surprisingly able to keep them all straight. Some are quiet and contemplative, thinking before they speak, observing before they reach a conclusion. Others are bubbly and outgoing, thinking as they speak, relying on the energy of others to help them go through the day.
Yes. I am talking about personality.
Few people would see anything wrong with the picture I painted above - in theory. Practically speaking, however, we value certain personality traits over others. In fact, deeply embedded cultural norms may determine which personality traits are seen as "better." In the U.S., for instance, extraverts are clearly favored over introverts (check out an interview with Susan Cain on this topic). Other U.S. culture preferred personality-related characteristics (some connected to a blend of traits) may include ambition, energy, calmness, focus, and organization.
Fortunately, most of us are able to stretch. Introverts can act extraverted for an hour or so, during a party. Free spirits learn to create plans and follow them - at least during a critical meeting with the powers that be. Original souls force themselves to implement - again - blueprints of a project they would really like to toss and start over. We wear gloves. We pretend.
To be clear: There is nothing wrong with occasional stretching. In the real world, people must learn to do things they may not like so much. It's part of growing up. The problem is when occasionally becomes always. When we are asked to develop traits we are not wired to express.
Here are a few key lessons for leaders about human personalities:
What about you? What strengths are you hiding? How effective would you be if you could take off your gloves?
About the Author
Dr. Cris Wildermuth is an Assistant Professor at Drake University, where she coordinates and teaches at the Master of Science in Leadership Development.