Real Leaders

When Leading Is Not Belonging

Do you remember the tale of the ugly duckling? Hans Christian Andersen reportedly described this popular fairy tale as the story of his own life, and today it is still a classic loved around the world. It depicts a swan whose egg accidentally hatches in a duck’s nest, and after going through all kinds of rejection, abuse and solitude, turns out to be a magnificent swan. Was he a leader, then? In our world of convenience, success and avoidance at all cost of troubles, the answer is no.

The ugly duckling was a total loser from the very beginning. Born in the wrong place, he was rejected and excluded once and again by every group he joined. He didn’t belong anywhere, and he didn’t lead anyone. Still, we don’t know what became of him once he flew away with the flock of wild swans he found at the end. Could he have turned out to be the strongest and bravest swan of all?

The dilemma of belonging is a huge one for us humans.

The dilemma of belonging is a huge one for us humans. It affects all mammals, in fact, because in mammal design, we are born in total dependence of our mother and/or father. Mammals are born helpless, only learning the necessary skills to socially navigate their packs of peers after birth. More importantly, to a mammal animal, not belonging is the equivalent of death. Mammals can’t survive on their own. Belonging becomes, therefore, a universal instinct of survival that no human being goes against intentionally. Yet history isn’t always fair, is it? Belonging to the pack can often set a very high price for us.

Especially if we want to one day lead such packs. Not because we want to demonstrate how much more powerful we are than the others, but because we believe there is something else out there. We want to innovate, to solve the problems others don’t want to look at, to push our peers into a new evolution, beyond today’s mediocre status quo. This is one of the most delicate and crucial questions would be leaders encounter in their lives. To belong or not to belong. How much to belong and when to break the rules in search of a bigger meaning, or a better game for all. Intellectually we all accept that at some point we may have to fly solo in order to follow our own truth. What we hardly understand at all, however, is how much that actually hurts. Both physically and emotionally.

It hurts so much if fact, that no duck has every experienced it. Only swans can know this pain. Many bright, talented executives have become superior to others precisely because they were especially challenged during childhood, just like the ugly duckling. Great charisma’s are often built on a child’s instinctive need to survive in an environment where engaging adult’s attention was the difference between life and death. Gifted negotiators may have grown up in families where adults relied on one of their children to create agreement and move the family forward.

Shameless conquerors have unavailable parents who had to be seduced by all and every possible means in order to focus their attention back on their children’s needs. And especially talented individuals may have always been the sad, ugly ducklings of their families and schools, desperately trying to be accepted by other ducks for decades. Being smarter, better athletes or becoming attractive characters will have been an instinctive survival strategy to buy acceptance or even a certain popularity. Deep down, however, they still know they’ve only bought a temporary duck passport which may expire at any minute.

If they are once again discovered as swans, something terrible will surely happen. Because though the duck was able to survive on its own in the fairy tale, a human baby or child could not. Human babies need affection, physical touch and inclusion into the family pack. When they are rejected by their parents for reasons beyond their control, these lonely kids become the perfect targets for playground bullies. And so these kids undergo the same public lynching ceremonies again and again and again.

Until one of two things happens: either they succumb to the pressure and simply die, or they become truly proud swans. As swans, however, they still pay high prices in every organisation they join. They are often innovators, fearless adventurers, breakers of the status quo. They can’t stop playing the ugly duckling role, even if they set their mind to it. Somehow they always find themselves right back where they started, facing full frontal opposition from everybody around them. Between the crowd and the deathly cliff. This leads to a tricky choice: who would you say is better prepared to lead their peers through adversity and uncertainty? The ducks who always play it safe to stay inside the group, or the swans who are ready to pay the highest possible price—exclusion, or even death—in order to succeed? It’s a tricky one, isn’t it?

What if the swan leads everybody over the cliff? Even if he does it with the best of intentions? The more pertinent question here, however, is this: Are you a swan or a duck? Because if you’re still the swan who is trying to behave like a duck, you can’t lead anybody anywhere. You’re still stuck in that life-long struggle of acceptance you remember from childhood. No, it isn’t fair. And no, it isn’t your fault. It’s your test. In traditional folklore heroes became outstanding after going through tests. Big tests. Long, long, very long tests. It took years of battle. Decades of facing the same challenge in different forms. And lots of unfair villains.

True leaders have always been forged through decades of unimaginable hardship. But lately we’ve become quite infantile about our tales: all we talk and write about is success, wealth, how to accomplish anything, and role models who made lots of money with lots of effort (and lots of unconfessed luck).

A noisy, repetitive and fairly obvious distraction we love to buy into these days on twitter and the like. Ducks quacking all day long. So if you were born a swan, rest assured, you do have an incredible opportunity in front of you. You just don’t know when it will materialise. Forget tweeting or quacking about it because none of the ducks will get it. As long as you’re still trying to fit in with the ducks, or trying to be the leading duck, or building an anti-duck club of your own, you won’t be ready.

And your heroism will not be recognised or accepted by anybody. Ducks or swans. The only way for a swan to stop behaving like a duck is to address the pain. Believe me, this pain is excruciating. It engages our deepest mammal feelings of survival and motivation to live. The pain of not belonging does require many years of introspection, learning and falling over and over and over.

It involves letting go of dreams we didn’t even know we wanted, and recognising how innocently our mammal bodies have been trafficking with our talents to escape from the certain death of pack rejection. One day you no longer let the fear of not belonging blind you. That day you will have become the true heroic leader you were always meant to be. That day your charm will be irresistible, and your swan like magnificence will be unquestionable.

That day everybody will know without being told that the test you have overcome is the highest possible challenge any mammal animal can overcome. Our world is becoming more and more uncertain as we speak. We need true swans to lead humanity into our shrinking planet paradox.

Stop trying, stop asking the ducks to follow you, stop waiting for duck success to come find you. All you need to do is transcend the pain of not belonging. The rest will all fall into place.

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