The story is told in ancient Buddhist literature of a pampered princess who was walking barefoot in her father’s kingdom when she stepped on a thorn. In pain, she demanded of her father’s advisers that the entire kingdom be carpeted. One adviser made her a pair of sandals and kindly encouraged her to wear them instead of carpeting the kingdom.
This simple story reveals a mentality that all leaders engage in to one extent or another. We yearn for a world of soft carpet and no thorns. We operate under the unexamined belief that our conditions need to be okay for us to be okay. And in this belief, our mindfulness and our happiness become as fragile as a princess’s delicate feet.
This mindset is also at odds with the accountability needed for transformational leadership. Our “carpet” becomes our team, our customers, our boss, the economy—everyone but ourselves.
When we insist on carpeting the world, we’re essentially insisting that everyone but us needs to change. We’re absolving our own accountability, and leaving our happiness and effectiveness in the hands of others. So many leaders are fixated on carpeting the world, consequentially engaging in rationalization whenever they fail or feel challenged.
Transformational leadership is about transforming teams, cultures, and systems. How can we be transformational leaders when we are unwilling or unable to transform ourselves?
Why We Avoid Taking Accountability
The thinking and behaviours we engage in when not taking accountability for our actions are exhibited in many ways, including the following:
• isolation (running away)
• passive-aggressive retreat/withdrawal
• the PR spin (for example, we are told we are not delegating well, but rather than changing we “sell” ourselves by pointing out how excellent our results are)
• deflection (the politician’s favourite)
Intellectually, it makes no sense to engage in these behaviours. We lose credibility, arrest our learning and growth, and become rigid and narrow. These behaviours also prevent transformational leadership. I have personally witnessed these behaviours end careers and cost companies millions of dollars.
So the question is, why? Why would we sooner engage in convincing everyone (ourselves included) that we are right, rather than looking within, and reaping the internal rewards of a deeper integrity, and the external rewards of transformational leadership?
The primary payoff we get for rationalising and blaming is a sense of security and emotional comfort. If we could slow time, we would notice that when we receive uncomfortable feedback and then engage in defensiveness, rationalisation, aggressiveness or blame, we win a temporary reprieve from feelings of vulnerability and discomfort.
We engage in “insane” behaviours for a very sane reason: to gain a sense of security, an easing of our distress and a return to equilibrium. Food, television, drugs and alcohol can offer the same temporary relief. And, like all of these props, the net result is numbness.
We choose numbness over discomfort, fear, or insecurity. But it comes at a high cost: it is a life-stealer. As research professor and best-selling author Brené Brown puts it, “We cannot selectively numb emotions. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive emotions.” And that means we are less present in our lives and less available to experience the wonderful emotions like joy and deep fulfilment. Our life narrows, our transformational leadership is stifled, and we are so much the poorer for it.
Our desire to avoid uncomfortable feelings is referred to by psychologists as “distress intolerance”, which is defined as the “perceived inability to fully experience unpleasant, aversive or uncomfortable emotions, and is accompanied by a desperate need to escape the uncomfortable emotions.”i2
None of us like experiencing unpleasant emotions. But there’s a difference between disliking them while accepting they are an inevitable part of life, and experiencing them as unbearable and desperately trying to avoid and rid ourselves of them.
If we can’t stick with the distress, we have no chance of developing a deeper level of mindfulness and ease in our lives, not to mention our transformational leadership abilities.
The journey to mental and emotional strength, healing and wholeness is through embracing our whole lives and our whole selves, warts and all. This is the heart of an authentic life and transformational leadership.
We cannot heal until we learn to sit with our sadness, pain and insecurity. Ironically, we can even run from the intensity of our deepest joy, love and sense of peace; they too can be overwhelming. Our ability to feel true bliss is proportionate to our willingness to face difficult feelings.
To reach our full transformational leadership potential, we must look deeper. We must pay closer attention to what is happening when we are rationalising or running away.
Leaning In To Challenge
Kevin Pickhardt, the CEO of Pharos, a print management company in the US, teaches everyone in his company the mindfulness principle of moving toward difficult emotions, particularly anger and fear, rather than running from them.
“Anger and fear are not something to try to eliminate,” he explained to me. “They are something to embrace. They are there to teach us, to awaken us and get us to pay attention to something. When we feel those feelings, something important is going on that we need to learn from. And we learn from them by recognising and living with discomfort — we learn to live with the void of ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen.’”
By cultivating our ability to tolerate our difficult feelings and stay open instead of contracting into defensiveness, we can discover so much more about ourselves. Our self-awareness can grow exponentially, and with it our capacity for transformational leadership and real change. This is another gift of truly looking inward without defensiveness — the vulnerable path.
Through mindfulness, a banking executive client I worked with was finally able to discover the deeply rooted childhood trauma that was dictating his self-destructive behaviours, threatening his job, and preventing transformational leadership.
Through mindfully leaning in, and not running from his distressing feelings of fear and vulnerability, he began to break the old patterns, the defence mechanisms designed to protect him. He learned to breathe through the triggers that arose when he felt challenged or criticised. He slowly became aware that it was okay to feel scared or vulnerable, and that he wouldn’t be physically harmed or lose his job or lose respect.
In fact, he discovered that as he allowed himself to be vulnerable, the opposite happened: he won greater respect — and he kept his job. He cultivated transformational leadership by first transforming himself.
Mindfulness is not a process of selecting which aspects of life we want to deal with. It is the practice of embracing all of life, both the joy and the pain.
By “embracing” I mean being present, being honest and compassionate with ourselves and our experience, without negotiation or resistance. This is the way to a truly wonderful life with so much less fear, angst and fixation. This is how we build our resilience, inner strength and equanimity, and therefore our overall wellbeing. This is also how we develop our transformational leadership skills.
Opening up to tough feedback is challenging for everyone, including leaders. But as difficult as it is, there’s something even more challenging: realizing the hidden cost of not opening up, and recognizing too late the credibility and life you’ve lost because of it.
As a mindfulness coach my team and I have had the privilege of guiding thousands of leaders and their teams through the process of opening up to tough feedback, through live leadership feedback sessions. Feedback in these sessions is focused on their leadership, not the team’s performance.
Fascinatingly, about 90 per cent of the leaders we work with immediately start rationalising and defending their weak spots. “I only micromanage the team because they are not delivering quality work!” Or, “I know the team might think I don’t hold people accountable for poor performance, but that’s because I care so much about being kind to people.”
Sometimes I jokingly (and kindly) sum it up for them, “Okay, so are you saying that your behaviour is justifiable in all circumstances and you have nothing to work on in yourself?” they usually backtrack pretty quickly, responding, “Of course not!” But astonishingly, within minutes they are back to rationalisation. One CEO we worked with even asked for a quota of rationalisations in his session, because opening up and really listening and self-reflecting was proving to be very challenging for him.
When I went through this same session with my own team, I’ll admit that I felt pretty bruised afterwards. However, it was an enormous turning point in my own transformational leadership. The absolute, fundamental key was being willing to stop the rationalisation and blaming, and start getting real with myself.
Our lives will never be free of challenges. The thorns will always be there. But with mindfulness, challenges never seem so big they threaten to overwhelm us. We can access that calm centre and see our life and the problem in a broader context.
Inevitably thorns will still penetrate our mindfulness sandals. It’s really not a perfect process — we are human after all. This is another reason to be deeply kind and patient with ourselves on the journey toward full presence, accountability, and transformational leadership. There are more than enough thorns out there; we don’t need to add our own.
Taking accountability may seem like the hard path. But remember, it is easier to wear sandals than to cover the world with carpet. In this insight lies a great freedom, and a truly a priceless gift for yourself and for those whom you connect with every day.