Another Quality Book: Leadership on the Line–Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading

One thing I’ve latched on to tremendously in my doctoral work is the idea of separating who I am as a person (the self) from who I am as a leader (the role). In the past, I think I have constantly defined myself by my job(s). When someone would ask me to tell them about myself, I generally started with “Well, I’m a teacher,” or “I work for a school district.” In fact, the more I think about it, I believe I have always defined myself by various roles: student, parent, teacher, wife, etc. With all the reading I’ve been doing (and am continuing to do ) this summer, I think I’m finding there is another person beyond all these roles—perhaps a state of being that I’m finally beginning to explore and try to reach.

In leadership, one of my greatest flaws is taking everything too personally. When I’ve expressed an idea or offered a solution and the collective disagrees or there is any semblance of conflict, I tend to think my idea was dumb—or that the “opponent” doesn’t think I know what I’m talking about. As if they distrust me or my expertise. I used to chock this off to my age, as if I always felt like I had something to prove to people and when they questioned me, I was failing to prove myself. I am realizing, however, this is a challenge of leadership for me, and it’s such an important distinction to make in an organizational institution (schools) that requires productive relationships.

This book I’m reading right now (Leadership on the Line by Heifetz and Linsky) reinforces the separation of self and role with which I am (have been) personally struggling throughout my career:

“To anchor ourselves in the turbulent seas of the various roles we take in life, professionally and personally, we have found it profoundly important to distinguish between the self, which we can anchor, and our roles, which we cannot. The roles we play in our organization, community, and private lives depend mainly on the expectations of people around us.” (pg. 187)

**How to separate role from self**

“Confusing role with self is a trap. Even though you may put all of yourself into your role—your passion, values, and artistry—the people in your setting will be reacting to you, not primarily as a person, but as the role you take in their lives” (pg. 188)

“…if you are to be authentic and effective, you must play your role in accordance with what you believe so that your passions infuse your work. You need to realize that you cannot have it both ways. If you are attacked, discredited, ostracized, or fired, you may feel that you have experienced a kind of assassination. But you cannot expect people to seriously consider your idea without accepting the possibility that they will challenge it.” (pg. 190)

This is absolutely a huge challenge for me. While in my research I am using a framework for thinking that explicitly separates the self from the leader role, it is more challenging to actually enact in practice. It is difficult to hear people get angry about something you have said or done; it is even more challenging to hear dissidence when you strongly believe in what you’re proposing. What I’m trying to figure out is how to create that aesthetic distance between my own perspective and thoughts as a leader and who I am as a person. My work is focused on how to be a leader when so many conflicting pressures (such as politics and accountability) are weighing on the psyche. I wonder how do leaders resist burnout? How do they have physical, psychological, and emotional stability in such challenging professional contexts? I am learning the means by which to make this possible is this separation—an appreciation for constructive conflict (as well as having to bear the consequences when others choose to “release the demon” to you) in fulfilling a professional role WHILE ALSO separating these conflicts and discussions from being personal in nature. This book specifically states that even when people may say, “I hate you,” or “Are you some kind of idiot?” to you in a professional context, their anger isn’t about you—it is about their own frustration with their professional expectations of your role (and generally, their frustration with personal loss associated with whatever initiative or change is happening).

I think the closest I get to this at this point is in my relationships with colleagues. I am completely capable of compartmentalizing professional disagreements away from personal relationships and conversations. Whereas we may be on opposite ends of thought at work, we can still go out for drinks and chat about our children—that, to me, is a separation of self and role.

I do hope to keep working on this throughout the course of my dissertation work and as a professional both as a way to prevent my own professional burnout and to be a healthy, well-balanced person.

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2 thoughts on “Another Quality Book: Leadership on the Line–Staying Alive through the Dangers of Leading

  1. This reminds me of when I was in the classroom and a student would tell me that some activity we were doing was stupid. When I first began teaching I would take this personally and be hurt because I knew I had put the time and effort into my teaching to create activities that were relevant learning experiences. As I became more experienced I began to see that student comment more as a cry for help as if they were saying, “I can’t do this and it makes me feel stupid.” Teaching is so personal that it is sometimes hard to view it objectively. That is the same with leadership in anything you are passionate about. That is why practicing reflection, on teaching a lesson, leading a meeting of peers, listening to feedback regarding a new policy, etc., can help us take things less personally in a negative way.

    • What a great point (and hi, by the way!!). It was much easier for me as a teacher to provide the distance and tell myself “kids are kids.” Perhaps the challenge in hearing it from adults is seeing people as my peers and colleagues. This book focuses on adult’s fear of loss–so when change is happening (even something as minute as putting forth a question that stimulates a new way of thinking), people become angry not with the change or suggestion, but with the loss they will feel in accepting the change or suggestion. It goes so far as to connect this kind of “loss” to one’s values and identity. For example, if a teacher teaches in a particular way because their favorite teacher taught that way, maintaining that method is like honoring that person. When someone suggests that a change should occur, the teacher may be struggling NOT with the suggested change, but more so with the loss of “honoring” that favorite teacher.

      Good to hear from you!

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