Do As I Say*


(*But not as I say to myself.)

Contrary to my company name and personal philosophy, I haven’t done much initiating lately. The last 90 days have held a number of significant personal changes – some intended, some not – which have wreaked havoc on life. It’s safe to say I’ve been in “go” mode at work, focusing on the immediate task at hand, then the next, then the next. It’s also safe to say it’s been driving me nuts. My ability to be intentional and to focus has been greatly compromised.

While the circumstances that brought this about for me might be unique, this kind of reality certainly isn’t. Many leaders operate like this as a way of life.

What I want to write about is the mental talk track that often accompanies us when we’re not leading in a way we intend. I’ve been beating myself up for not doing the things I know I “should” and want to be doing.

Do I know that this kind of talk isn’t helpful? Yes.

Do I catch myself doing it anyway? Yes.

Am I the only one who does this?

(Um, no.)

“Make sure your own worst enemy isn’t living between your own two ears.”

– Laird Hamilton

If we said the things to our friends or colleagues that we say to ourselves, most of us wouldn’t have any friends left.

In particular, leaders are incredibly tough self-critics. They usually have very little patience with themselves when figuring things out and trying to learn something. What’s interesting is that most leaders truly want and encourage their teams to do the very things that they themselves struggle to do. They aren’t intentionally being hypocritical (in most cases!). There is real struggle; as leaders, they “should” know what to do, or how to do it.

Here’s the thing: even when we don’t share our mental talk track out loud, you do know that those around us sense it, right? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone through 360° results with a leader and heard him or her say: “I didn’t realize people knew that about me.”

The other danger for leaders is that when people know how hard we are on ourselves, they often assume they have to live to the same standards. They may be jumping through ridiculous hoops, wasting time trying to get things just right by the boss’s standards. They may be unwilling to try new things altogether. None of this is productive.

 “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?”

– Abraham Lincoln

I’m not suggesting that we shouldn’t aim for improvement in what we do, or shouldn’t be critical thinkers. Those elements are key parts of leadership. The distinction is noticing when we’re aiming a slingshot back at ourselves for the sport of self-recrimination, instead of an arrow toward where we want to go.

I was recently with a client who is attempting to proverbially boil the ocean as it relates to an area of growth for himself. He was frustrated with his inability to figure out where to start, and truthfully, afraid of a challenge that he didn’t instinctively know “how” to solve. His goal is more than attainable, but it won’t be achieved overnight. Intellectually, he knows that, yet, his mindset of frustration and annoyance with himself remains. Beyond a discussion of some initial steps he could take, we focused on the fact that he’d get nowhere if he weren’t able to disarm the enemy of his own voice. It continues to thwart him by either telling him it won’t work or that he “should” have figured this out by now.

Disarming the Enemy

As leaders, our enemy voices often stem from a few common situations:

  1. When we’re avoiding things we know we need to address
  2. When we say things we wish we hadn’t (or wish we had)
  3. When we’re trying to develop an aspect of ourselves
  4. When we spend too much time reacting to things rather than leading intentionally
  5. When we don’t know how to do something (and we assume we “should” know)

My challenge to you is to start to pay attention to the negative talk. What are the things you say to yourself when you’re most frustrated or annoyed?

Then take one step towards quieting the noise by asking: what would you say to a colleague or employee who is struggling with these things? What is one word or a phrase you’d offer them that might encourage or motivate them? Can you offer those thoughts to yourself?

Negative thinking diminishes us, and those around us.  In the words of Janis Joplin: “Don’t compromise yourself. You’re all you’ve got.”


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