Get out of your own way.
Buddhists might call this Zen leadership. Positive psychologists might call this a strengths based approach. Leadership scholars might call this authentic leadership. I think of it as, “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet.”
As leaders we each have talents, skills, approaches, and styles that work for us. Good leaders are usually the ones who have found the approach that works best for them. When we care deeply about those we lead and are deeply committed to the purpose of our leadership, it can be tempting to try and change our leadership to be perfect. Often, inspired by another leader’s success, we try to emulate this other successful leader’s approach. Just because it works for another leader doesn’t mean that it will work for us. Although we can certainly learn new styles, strategies, and ways of being from other leaders, we also put ourselves at risk of losing ourselves in doing so.
Recently I found myself being much less effective as a leader than I had been in the past. In fact, I was failing at the very things I had been so good at previously. Frustrated with having lost my way, I tried even harder to be a leader in the way that I saw other successful leaders lead. Trying to emulate others pushed me even further away from what I was good at and led to even greater frustration and ineffectiveness. This led to greater desperation to find a new and better way.
What pulled me out of this cycle was an opportunity to really return to some of my past successes, focus on restoring faith in myself, and returning to being the leader I am good at being. This meant that I needed to provide leadership to shape the circumstances rather than being the leader I felt I needed to be because of the circumstances. I’ve started noticed others who have been pushed away from their best leadership because of criticism or fear of potential criticism. I sometimes even see others become less effective because they try and lead the way that I do. People respond to authenticity. People also respond to inauthenticity. When I see this happen I find myself saying to myself, “Let Bartlet Be Bartlet.”
This scene from the West Wing captures a President who tried so hard to please his critics that he completely lost his way and lost his team. Returning to being the best version of himself was what he and the people he led were craving. Isn’t it what we are all craving?