Sheryl Sandberg popularized this expression recently when talking about women in business. It was such a simple and powerful way to put career wisdom into words that the expression grew into a bestselling book worldwide. Well, I’m going to borrow Sheryl’s expression today to write about how women AND men fail to lean in to their own leadership growth.
Spain is quite the example of leaning back, looking away, bending down and ducking under any visible table within a ten mile radius when anybody starts talking about self-awareness, introspection and growth. I often wonder what I’m still doing here, in a market where an overgrown coaching offer makes demand look like a teeny-weeny, shy little kitten.
Lots of executives take up coaching careers when they lose their jobs. But they all want to coach somebody else. It’s tough finding an executive who is serious about getting coached. Maybe I’m a little suicidal. Maybe I love a difficult challenge. Maybe it’s just my destiny. Whatever the reason, I still haven’t given up after ten really hard years of executive coaching and leadership training in this country. Of course I work a lot outside of Spain too. I might be dead otherwise. Still, nothing builds purpose and tenacity like repeated rejection.
And Spain is not the only country where top executives lean far back from their own leadership growth. Sandberg’s core message is inspiring to women because it states an obvious truth. If you take yourself off the table nobody else is going to bother to keep you involved in the game. Women lean back out of fear that they won’t be good enough, smart enough, strong enough. It’s not that different to what keeps executives away from serious self-evaluation and soul searching. Both men and women avoid conversations, events and people who confront them with scary shadows inside themselves.
Both men and women leaders fear they won’t be good enough, smart enough, or strong enough to overcome their own inner darkness. The problem is, if you don’t lean in to your own self-improvement, you are also erasing plenty of unsuspected business opportunities from your future career.
If you don’t proactively search the best possible version of yourself, nobody else can do it for you. And what’s worse, nobody under you will try to do it either. You will nurture a company culture of avoidance, lazy complacence and over-inflated egos. The more you fear who you really are, the bigger an ego you need to hide yourself when facing your colleagues.
So how do CEOs get from “not me” to “me first” in leadership development efforts? In my experience timing is key. An old oriental saying says that “when the student is ready, the master appears”, and I have found it to be true lots of times, both as student and as master. Clients who fall into my hands are seriously looking for intense awakenings. People who appear in my life, in fact, and stay in it, are also in search of something meaningful.
It’s very humbling to accept that something inside you is somehow operating on others, despite you and whatever it is you may think you’re doing. So I do strongly believe there is some kind of synchronicity or magic randomness bringing the right coaches to the right executives at the right moment. But if you have to push a CEO to show up to his executive coaching sessions, you’re probably too early for him or her.
Everybody needs to build up some personal strength before looking at ugliness. This specific kind of strength can’t be imposed by will power. It can’t be forced, pushed or bullied. It’s not hard. It’s a kind of strength that is soft and relaxed. Unwavering and often unbreakable. It comes from years of painful experience. It is built by suffering the consequences of your own repeated mistakes again and again and again. Every executive has a minimum required number of erroneous repetitions before he’s ready to question himself. The distance between “not me” and “me first” is paved by an unknown number of well-known falls.
This is a very interesting fact of behavioral change that very few coaches or therapists dare to realize or admit: repetition is absolutely necessary to growth and sustainable change. We need X number of blind repetitions in order to accept that we are doing something weird, and start observing ourselves. Then we need Y number of aware, self-analyzing repetitions in order to gradually undo the pattern altogether. And nobody knows how much X+Y will be. We always wish for a low number. We’re often exasperated by how high a figure it turns out to be.
Any coach or therapist who pretends to reduce a client’s number of repetitions is acting out of an over-inflated ego. No master can impact his student’s learning path. No master should. Learning and growing as a leader is not a destination. It’s a journey full of emotion that makes the student strong, interesting, seasoned, humane. And youthfully attractive, I might add. Exhaustion, frustration, fear of internal shadows and grief over past mistakes are all crucial ingredients of that unique learning journey. Facing and overcoming these demons is the mark of true, irresistible leaders. Executives who don’t lean in, will never be inspiring or visionary or worth following in any way.
They will need plenty of botox and hours at the gym to get any attention at all. ;-)! Yesterday I was discussing this notion with a colleague and I wondered out loud what Spain was repeating in order to get from “not me” to “me first”. He sent me a quote attributed to XIXth-century German aristocrat and statesman Otto von Bismarck, also known as the Iron Chancellor: “The strongest nation in the world is undoubtedly Spain. They’ve always tried to destroy themselves though they’ve never been successful. The day they stop trying, they will once again lead the world!”
Maybe this is why I’m still here, coaxing Spanish leaders to lean in to their leadership growth. Maybe I’m just a suicidal coach acting out of an over-inflated ego. But maybe, just maybe, we’re in for a really wild ride of leadership growth in this beloved country of mine. God knows we keep repeating our patterns like crazy.
We must be getting very, very strong. Lean in, my friends! I guarantee you won’t look back.