As leaders, we have two choices about the way we show up: responsive or resistant. There are only two ways of being. And it is a choice although we are rarely conscious of making it.
In the responsive way, I see others as they are—as people. I am responsive to their reality: their concerns, their hopes, their needs, their fears.
Seeing others as objects, I am resistant to their reality. If I see them at all, they are less than I am: less relevant, less important, less real.
I can compliment or correct them because it will help them. Or, I can compliment or correct them because it will help me.
Let’s say one of my managers, Henry, is struggling to make progress with a strategic project. Responding to his needs is my deepest sense of what is right to do. Maybe I am tired, busy, distracted or frustrated with something else, so I resist his needs instead.
My initial feeling was to help Henry but I don’t. I betray my deepest sense of what is right, and in so doing, I betray myself.
Now I need to justify my behavior. So I blame Henry. He is senior. He should know better/ do better. Why should I be expected to get involved in a lower level project like this?
Henry, who was once a trusted colleague, is now an obstacle to me (or a vehicle to be used for my own purposes, or an irrelevancy that offers me no advantage).
Responsive is who I was. Resistant is the way I became. I betray my own feelings to help, and I fall into a cascade of:
- Magnifying Henry’s shortcomings
- Blaming my own resentful emotions on him
- Feeling victimized
- Distorting my own values to build my case against him
- Clinging to my need to be right
I betray myself and all of a sudden my thoughts and feelings lie. I betray myself and I become totally preoccupied with myself. I come up with self-justifying images to prop myself up:
“I am the kind of person who is fair, won’t be taken advantage of, is smarter than others, deserves more because I work harder…”
I thought I was the kind of person who thinks of others but who am I thinking about when I am portraying myself above? Myself!
I will think that I resist others because they have mistreated me. In truth, I am resisting others because I have mistreated them. It can happen that others will actually mistreat me. Sadly though, in most cases, it will simply be my self deception at work.
Betraying myself, I invite in Henry, the very behaviours I say I hate. And I cause Henry to betray himself and invite the very behaviours he may say he hates in me.
And the cycle continues. And at some level, I might find this drama strangely delicious. In my resistant, alienated way of being, I am unhappy, insecure and alone. But at least I know I am justified?? And I am bonded with Henry in anguish. So that’s something right??
In resisting others, I may explode often. Or I may control my temper and be self-righteous. Or I may drown others in sweetness to get what I want. Or I may ignore them. Or I may just spend all my time berating myself.
Once I realize all the drama I am living, I may decide to change in the hopes of freeing myself from it. But any change I make when I am resistant will only be a surface change of style.
Is change even possible then?
Not as long as I am in the resistant way of being. The only thoughts I can have are resistant thoughts. I cannot will a change to become responsive.
So is change even possible?
YES. It’s just different than we suppose.
Other people’s reality is constantly beckoning. It is that reality I have been resisting. I can cease resisting. I can change by forgetting myself in response to others. It’s as simple (and as complicated) as that.
To help me practice responsiveness, I can ponder:
- Do I show any of these signs of self-betrayal toward others?
- What is the full truth about myself toward others?
- What is the full truth about those I am blaming?
- What is the right thing to do toward others that I am resisting right now?
When I can see the truth, I feel care and compassion. I see things I can do, things I should do, things I must do. The responsive way of being always involves taking action in service of others.
My daughter needs attention. My partner needs a helping hand. My friend needs an encouraging word. My team needs guidance. Henry needs a few minutes to talk through his struggles.
Every moment offers the choice of two ways: Will I be responsive to others and see them as people. Or will I be resistant to others and see them as objects?
The quality of our lives depends on our choice in each moment. I’m going to be choosing responsiveness (as often as it takes) to see the quality of my life and leadership soar. You?
*The concepts in this post come directly from The Arbinger Institute. Even some phrasing in this post is borrowed from their book called The Choice because there is no better way to say it. The Anatomy of Peace and Leadership and Self Deception are two excellent reads to further your understanding of this simple and powerful concept. They’re available as audio books for busy leaders who don’t find time to read.