Research shows that the number one characteristic people want from their leaders is honesty.
Leaders struggle with being honest with themselves, however, because of our propensity to hide parts of ourselves from ourselves.
As Carl Jung, one of the fathers of modern psychology, explained, “Everyone carries a shadow, and the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.”
In other words, we are able to withhold uncomfortable truths from ourselves in the “shadows” of our minds.
This can often be explained by distress intolerance: if we cannot handle the discomfort of seeing certain truths about ourselves, we block them from ourselves and hide them in the shadows of our psyche.
Unfortunately, this creates the capacity for astonishingly hypocritical behaviours.
I was running a leadership skills training program for senior managers who reported to executive team members. During the training the senior managers declared, “Our executives have no integrity.”
A few days later, I discovered that the people reporting to the senior managers had exactly the same complaint of their leaders, “Our managers have no integrity.”
The senior managers were self-righteously pointing at the lack of integrity of their bosses while engaging in the very same behaviour themselves. This is not unusual at all; in fact, it is the norm.
This is why focusing on leadership skills training is pointless if we don’t use mindfulness to expose self-deception.
Self-honesty is required for leadership skills training
The human mind has a limitless capacity for self-deception. We hide our values violations from ourselves so skilfully that many times we are completely unconscious of when we have crossed a line.
It’s like we are playing a game of hide-and-seek with ourselves, and we usually don’t want to listen to the external hints we receive that we may not be everything we think we are.
One of my least favourite parts of leadership skills training is when people catch on really quickly and very easily see my shadow and hypocrisy when I am teaching.
For example, one group let me know that I was clearly angry with them for being argumentative. How could I be angry and claim to be a mindfulness teacher?
Every part of me wanted to deny it and run from the shame I felt at being exposed. Most importantly, I didn’t want to admit it to myself. I had begun to believe my own PR that I was beyond that, more advanced than that.
But once I had owned my shadow and admitted to it non-defensively, we were able to get back on track. I learned that it’s okay to fail, that failure is our constant companion through life. But it’s not a great idea to deny the failure, especially when our credibility is on the line.
Fortunately, recognising and admitting our dishonesty gives those we lead permission to do the same, thus opening a gateway for change and improvement that otherwise remains closed.
Self-honesty serves in this way as an important foundation and pre-requisite for trust and inspiration. Those we lead come to recognize that even if we have blind spots, we’re at least willing to look in the mirror and see what they’re seeing, which allows them to trust themselves to our leadership. Without self-honesty, leadership skills training isn’t much help at all.
Mindfulness: The foundation of effective leadership skills training
Mindfulness is an important tool in developing honesty as it gives us the ability to “make the unconscious conscious” by uncovering our shadow.
We all seek peace and wholeness within ourselves, yet, as Jung concluded, as long as we are split from ourselves and deceive ourselves, this wholeness will forever elude us.
I have seen leader after leader not only improve their leadership, but also heal family relationships and their own life by “owning their shadow” and getting honest with themselves. To use mindfulness language, they became willing to be fully awake and present to their darker side, their less pleasant thoughts and behaviours. And by doing so, they became progressively more liberated from them.
Leadership skills training is about cultivating that ability to look in the mirror, to deepen our inner strength to stay true under fire, to stay kind and respectful when the heat of anger and frustration is coursing through our veins. It’s about learning to courageously hold ourselves and others accountable when we want to slip into avoidance and self-justification.
And, perhaps above all, it is to stay real, to keep coming back to honesty and humility, and by so doing unleashing our greatest leadership potential.