Three Ways to Be a Leader Fully Alive


For no one can be alive on a pedestal. – Anthony de Mello, in The Song of the Bird

“It would really mean a lot to us if you also came to our house for Thanksgiving. We’d be so disappointed to spend the holiday alone.”

In the US, it’s the season for giving thanks…and for guilt trips.

As a client, who is also a grandmother, said to me last week, “My son should feel guilty for not joining us for Thanksgiving!”

“Perhaps,” I questioned, “he’s setting healthy boundaries between his identity and other people’s expectations?”

And that’s when my client made a connection.

“Maybe you’re right,” she replied. “Other people in my company do that to me all the time. We’re a matrix organization, so people across the organization expect me to respond to their needs, accept their priorities and always be available. Sometimes it’s suffocating.”

Most of us balance on a pedestal of other people’s expectations. And our fear of falling off the pedestal drains the life out of us. It’s confining to be what others celebrate rather than what you really are. Burnout comes not from overwork but from being defined by others’ expectations.

To care about people without being drained by their expectations, remember these three requirements of good leadership:

1. Firm identity. As Alexander Hamilton said, “Those who stand for nothing fall for anything.” Standing firm against the demands and expectations of others requires understanding where you end and they begin. As a people-pleaser, I too often set my identity in the approval or opinions of others. If other people are disappointed in me, I must be disappointing. If other people are in pain around me, I must not be strong enough to take it away. Instead of connecting your identity to the opinion of others, secure yourself in your own values, value and capacity.

2. Willingness to disappoint. John Ortberg said, “Leadership is the art of disappointing people at a rate they can stand.” Too often we are willing to accept and shrink at the demands of others because they have perceived power. Their power could be:

  • positional (they could get me fired)
  • relational (they could make me feel bad)
  • opportunistic (they apparently need me right now)

It’s important to fulfill their needs when we can. But there are times when it’s appropriate to decline their requests. Risk disappointing others by refusing their demands when appropriate. It will empower them to greater maturity and free you from the tyranny of their expectations.

3. Congruence. Professional boxer Mike Tyson wrote in his new book Undisputed Truth that many wondered why he strayed from the poster-boy image he owned early in his career when he was doing Pepsi commercials. He says he “felt like a fake.” His managers were “intent on stripping away all the Brownsville from me and giving me a positive image. But Brownsville was who I was.” Acting the part can only last so long. Eventually we either collapse on the pedestal or lose the joy of being alive.

Freedom is being who I am meant to be despite how others respond. And it’s the only way I can be true to myself as a leader and as a human being. How do you stay off the pedestal of other people’s expectations?

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