Ego and the Appreciative Self
Among the many theories and recommended global best practices in leadership, none stands out more than the universal consensus builder and conversation starter that goes: “self-knowledge and self-management is foremost before anything else.” Of the numerous descriptions of leadership, let’s talk about that which describes leadership as being a catalyst for creating positive and progressive change.
Let’s then narrow down our focus to what a leader needs to do in order to be able to create, catalyze and champion change. It would go without saying that to create change a leader must know (1) where he stands and (2) where he wants to go, bringing others along others with him.
How does a leader know where she stands? She needs to have clear knowledge, deep understanding, and calm acceptance of exactly who she is, what she wants, and what she intends to accomplish in her sphere of influence in the world.
The tricky thing about intentions though is the fact that they are intricately tied to self-perception and ideas of who we are. This narrow, intertwined niche is where the probability exists for our assumptions to go wrong. Here, in this sliver of creative space, is where who we really are clashes with our overblown assumptions of who we think we are. Let’s consider this anomaly of true self versus overblown perception of self from the Eastern philosophical perspectives. Side stepping a bit from Sigmund Freud’s theory of the ID and the Superego, let’s simply refer to it as Ego or our own distorted view of ourselves.
In the course of leading, driving change, and living up to our fullest potential, this misrepresentation or Ego does get in the way not only of what we intend to create in the long-term but also in our interactions in day-to-day living. It can stonewall us just as Walt Kelly’s hero, Pogo, once claimed, “I have found the enemy and they are us!” It can side-track us just as a wise old man once said, “If not for me, there I go!”
Thus, hurdles to progress and innovation constantly appear and surface within the change initiatives of an organization or an individual. They arise mostly from a false, distorted perception of the self.
In the early-to-mid-1980s I had traveled around the world to sell and promote Philippine-made apparels and textiles. On my first few sales trips to the Americas and the Middle East, I failed to bring back any sales not just once but three times. Each trip had taken months of preparation, weeks of travel, and thousands of dollars. After every trip during that period, I’d come back empty handed and unsuccessful. The effect on my self-esteem was devastating. The organization I worked for knew the reason and I too, gradually learned the reason. It had very little to do with the products, the business knowledge, or the market conditions then. It had all to do with me.
Several months of humbling reflection and pondering made me realize that what seemed like external challenges were really my own internal shenanigans. I was playing with my own mind and myself. It was all about how I perceived and positioned myself in the world and to the world. My self-image was inflated and unreal. It needed work; lots of work!
Months after that deadly year of professional failures, disappointments, and humiliation, I remember a moment sitting by my mother’s feet and sharing my most recent, eventually successful trip across the world. Her hand rested on my head as she gently asked, “What was different this time, son?” I recall taking a very long pause while fighting back my tears, I responded, “It was me, Mom. It was my own over-inflated perception of myself that got in the way of my dealings with others and my attempts at creating value. It was my ego, Mom. ” She patted my head gently and tears that I was fighting with began to roll down from hers.
Our egos, or misrepresentations to ourselves and to the world, create majority, if not all, of our work-life challenges. No sure-fire way exists of eliminating or curing this chronic ailment that occurs and recurs in every one of us persistently and maliciously. But since that emotional realization of my malady in the presence of my mother, I had set out on a quest to find a remedy– a solution–to benignly manage or tone down the excessiveness of my own ego-driven, exaggerated perceptions of self. That was over two decades ago.
Nearly a decade ago I have found a balm in a new way of life inspired by the philosophy and practice of Appreciative Inquiry, originated by Dr. David Cooperrider of Case Western University, USA.
Three of the many guiding principles of this way of life are most relevant to us in evoking a true perception of self and in nurturing the possibilities and potential brought forth by such a benign and beautiful awareness.
Principle 1: Trusting that every Human System and every Human ( a system too) has innate and untapped potential.
Of paramount importance is the fact that this belief is innate and exists in all of us. It can also be very easily be unleashed with care and compassion. The quality, quantity, and comparative value of this hidden potential is priceless.
This perspective allows me to look at the external world as a world of abundance and opportunities. It allows me to leap onto unchartered waters, take risks and to be open to all that this dynamic life has to offer. With this belief, I can live with confidence, courage, and optimism. It allows me to declare to myself that regardless of my size, shape, or skin color I am part of an unfolding universe and I need not protect myself any sort of pretensions and machinations.
Principle 2: Acknowledging and adapting to Diverse and Constantly Changing Perspectives.
By recognizing that people and organizations are different; by accepting that these individuals and organizations are in a state of flux and change allows one to hold back from being judgmental. With this principle, self-awareness takes on a systemic swing and allows one to view and regard people and institutions that are different, in a compassionate and holistic way. It helps us mingle with all others with a sense of wonder and enthusiasm.
For me, this approach sparks off an attitude of adaptability and strengthens the muscles for seeking synergistic possibilities. From “I know,” I can move to “I am interested in knowing, learning and adapting.” In this way the sense of my true and authentic self takes the lead and gently dissolves my ego.
Principle 3: Asking Questions instead of Telling and Opinionating.
This principle and practice of learning, leading, and guiding resets a dramatic pathway into uncovering and unleashing untapped potential in oneself and in others.
A few years ago, I had conceptualized and hosted a TV Talk Show called ExPat InSights. My core intention for the program was to highlight similarities between cultures and therefore, enhance the bond between the Philippines and the scores of foreigners living and working in the country. Diplomats of different nations, business leaders, NGO heads, members of academe, and any individual who represented anything different were invited to share their passions about their business or advocacies.
Two seasons into the program, and after close to 300 interviews, I had covered Cambodia, Afghanistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, and Canada, among other countries. One day, my program assistant (whom I had given carte blanche to invite guests based on the above criteria) announced that the Ambassador of Pakistan had accepted the invitation to be on ExPat InSights. I nodded acknowledgement and smilingly showed my approval.
A couple of weeks before the set program date, I sat down to plan for the interview and my questions. And that’s when it hit me! Pakistan? Wait! Isn’t that the country that borders India? Isn’t that the country that once used to be India? I realized that I’d lived too long away from my birth country and had forgotten that Indians and Pakistanis live across a blood-drenched border drawn 65 years ago.
Neither the Pakistanis nor the Indians have forgotten the pain, the trauma, and the bloody events from that past. They have had several wars and have continued until present day to deploy men armed and ready to kill anyone who crosses the barb-wired border. These two groups go to war even when they play cricket or compete at the Olympics!
How in heaven’s name was I going to appreciate a representative of that country? How was I going to find and highlight the good? I realized that I was in an extremely difficult situation. My trust and adopted belief in the appreciative way of life had locked horns with a terrible past and with my own, unconscious fears. Even if I did manage to be proper and professional as a host, I’d be ostracized and hated by a billion Indian people. I was faced with a fierce conflict of values within myself.
During the next few days I began to check for any loopholes in the invitation that had been sent to the Ambassador. Maybe the date was wrong? Maybe it was another show? Maybe the weather would announce a holiday for one of those infamous Philippine typhoons. Anything that would let me chicken out of my dilemma!
Meanwhile, the Ambassador had gone ahead and sent me his picture, his profile, current updates, and news about Pakistan-Philippine relations. I was getting deeper into the muck. I began to have nightmares. In those dreams, all Indian people from across the world were throwing sticks and stones at me and calling me unmentionable names. The eggs and tomatoes flew right at me through the TV screens. The Indian government had gone declared me a traitor.
A night before the interview date, I called up my mentor, Dean Rose Fuentes, who embodied the appreciative way of life.
“I don’t know what to do. This is a real mess, I’ve gotten myself into!” I screamed through the phone.
“Yes, I agree, this is a mess and I appreciate you calling me. Now, how is it that you want me to help you?” I realized that she’d appreciated my action and asked me a question right back. This late at night, she was setting a good example of walking the talk of appreciative inquiry.
“Do you, Dean, have any suggestion on how to sit across a person whose fore fathers might have killed some of my forefathers and be nice to him?”
“Wait,” she said, “Let me switch off my favorite episode of Sponge Bob Square Pants and let me think.”
After what seemed an eternity of moving chairs, clicking switches and grunting noises, she came back on the phone and said, “There’s this wonderful little book called Dynamic Relationships by Jacqueline Stavros, and I think you ought to read it before you on live.”
I was a day away from dying in front of the cameras and she was asking me to go buy a book. I gently bid her good night and let her go back to Sponge Bob Square Pants.
I then called up another friend of mine; a wise old soul of Indian origin but Burmese by birth. He was in his 70s and I was sure he’d be able to give some practical advice. Not only was mature and smart but he also was a diplomat’s son. He knew tact and diplomacy.
“Tell the Ambassador that you are sick,” he suggested.
“But, I don’t want to lie, and especially not about illness,” I replied.
“Then tell him that the TV station does not approve of your program content,” he offered.
“I can’t do that! I created the show and I own full autonomy over programming. The station has nothing to say about the content and I’d still be lying,” I wailed.
“Hey look, you asked me for advice and given the fact that I need to be jumping into bed, here’s a last idea.”
“Ughh, okay, tell me please,” I begged.
“Say no, the Asian way,” he chuckled.
“And, what is the Asian way?” I asked.
“Tell him, that the show needs to be postponed and that you will call him … and then don’tever call him again,” he ended.
It struck me at that time that no matter what I do, it will be out of fear, out of a warped sense of reality. It would also amount to being a total cheat. I did not want to do that. The war of values inside me had ended. I trusted living the authentic and appreciative way.
The next day, there I was happily chatting with the Ambassador of Pakistan in front of three cameras. Our interview would soon be broadcast nationwide and across the world through the internet. I had swept my mind and heart clean of all biases; of all negative assumptions. I framed my questions such that each question appeared to lighten up the face of the Ambassador and he opened up his heart to me. He shared stories of struggle, success, and synergistic wisdom.
I even managed to ask him about why and how Osama Bin Laden had made Pakistan his hideout in his last days. He answered every question politely and warmly. He expressed optimism and shared his insights about possibilities and hopes for a peaceful world. Not for a moment during the interview did I feel any enmity or friction. The interview, which is still up for anyone to view over the internet, is proof of the power and beauty of Appreciative Inquiry.
Yes, the process of gentle inquiry, of warmly exploring memories and stories of strength, success, and synergistic action works massively towards empowering others and driving change. The amazing thing about the process of inquiry is that it also works exceedingly well with conversations with our selves.
No, let’s not label it self-talk. Rather, let’s claim the use of appreciation and inquisitiveness as the backdrop for healthy, life-giving debate between our true selves and our inflated perceptions of self, our ego.
You have to understand though that the ego can never be totally eliminated. It can, though, be tamed with conscious efforts at aligning with an appreciative and an inquisitive way of life. You also have to know that eliminating the ego totally is NOT necessary. All we need is to keep it in check and maintain a healthy sense of self.
This belief and approach has become a way of living for me. This way of life is the air that fuels the fires of engagement, innovation and excellent execution towards growth and success at work. It is the belief system that strengthens my ties with family, friends, and the community at large. In every other aspect of existence, I depend on this life-giving oxygen to learn and innovate; to consult and facilitate; to coach and train. Appreciative Inquiry constantly equips me to build bridges from where I am to where I want to go. It makes me humble and strong enough to have an impact on my own destiny.
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