Be·ing – noun
- the nature or essence of a person
Leadership Through Integrity requires the ability to challenge one’s own worldview and to learn from others.
Why is this important? I believe a critical part of Leadership Through Integrity is to allow ourselves to be open to the possibility that somebody else might have an opinion or way of looking at something that’s different from our own. I intentionally used the word ‘different’ since it is neither positive nor negative, it just is what it is, different.
There can be multiple ‘right’ opinions and multiple ‘right’ answers, all based on another person’s unique and valid perspective. Multiple viewpoints can all be correct at the same time. One way of looking at something, your way, isn’t the only way. IMHO, this is a difficult concept for most people to fully understand and accept.
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be someone else? No really, have you? The sad reality is that you probably haven’t thought about it during your adult life. I‘m sure this was a much different story when you were a child. Who did you pretend to be? Perhaps a firefighter, police officer, a princess, an ‘army guy’, no wait, how about a superhero? When did you stop imagining, playing, and pretending what it’s like to be someone else?
Children are very good at that, they have vivid imaginations and a worldview without adult constraints. It’s just the way they’re wired. The reality is, you’re just a grown-up child. Maybe you don’t like to hear that but it’s true. You weren’t born at your current adult age. Even people with the worst upbringings and worst childhoods still had vivid imaginations at one point in their lives.
Unfortunately, at some point in your childhood, it all stopped. Either somebody told you to grow up or you simply lost the ability to be a child. Did you forget how? Whatever the reason, ask your current self – Do I still think I have the ability to imagine what it’s like to be someone else?
A child has the luxury of making it up as they go along. It doesn’t matter if what they imagine is real or not or based in any sort of fact. As an adult, we only know how we feel, we only know how we view the world, we only know how we expect others to behave and we only know what’s in our own heads; at least we think we know. There’s no way to accurately imagine what it would be like to be someone else and most of us stopped trying.
You are probably wondering by now, where is this going? Great question. My big point in all of this: most adults are closed off, seeing the world through their eyes only and, whether they like it or not, judge other people for having an opinion different than their own. I have found this to be the case with people regarding their experiences, worldview and in countless other ways.
Whatever the reason, most adults believe that their experience is ‘all there is’ without truly taking into consideration the experience of others. This inability or refusal to believe there are alternate ways of looking at the world can seriously have a negative impact on leadership abilities. Connecting with someone other than yourself on a deep human level can create trust and understanding in profound ways.
Caution: serious learning opportunity ahead. An example from my life, a very real true story, all too real:
I was tasked with performing mental health assessments and gathering information from socioeconomically deprived youth in an inner-city environment. Okay, let me be real, most of them were gang members in Compton, California. No really. Let me paint an accurate picture, I am a Caucasian male with privilege and I went by myself thinking I could handle the situation. I drove up to a Compton community center in a brand new black Audi. What the hell was I thinking? Fact is, I wasn’t. Hadn’t even considered that this could be a problem until I got there.
First thing I noticed is that I called a lot of attention to myself just by driving down the street and parking my car. I was scared but I had a job to do. This wasn’t the average random people glance over and look at you thing, this was people staring me down and trying to figure out if I was a cop, buying drugs, picking up prostitutes, or just plain old stupid. Bottom line, I was just really, really stupid. I had to stay focused on my task and tell myself that everything was going to be okay.
After gathering my composure, I asked myself, how can I possibly connect with the people I was attempting to interview? We had nothing in common, polar opposites in almost every way. My first interview didn’t go very well, in fact, it was awful. A slow moving disaster that wasn’t stopping. I was asking, questions filling out a form and the person sitting across from me just stared me down showing threatening body language. I got nowhere fast. I had to come up with a different strategy for the next interview. Inspiration struck, a bright idea, at least I thought so at the time. This would either get me killed or help me connect with the people sitting across from me. Please work, please work, please work…
The next person came in, an African American female approximately 16 years old. She came in and sat down in front of me, she was staring me down hard! Same as before with one difference, I was different. I started by telling her that she didn’t need to talk to me if she didn’t want to but at least try to understand that I had a job to do. I then called attention to my ‘white privilege’, I called attention to my skin color, I called attention to my religious affiliation, all of this before asking a single question.
There was a look of confusion on her face. That told me I was getting somewhere. I pushed the paper to the side and asked, “what is it like being you?” I held my hand close to hers, pointed at them and said, “look at the difference in our skin color, I have no idea what it’s like to be anyone other than me, can you teach me?”. The look of confusion grew even stronger. I said, “no really, I only know what it’s like to be me, I really want to know what it’s like to be you”.
Maybe it was my body language, maybe it was my sincerity, maybe it was my genuine curiosity, maybe she could smell my fear, I had no idea what it was but the bottom line, she opened up to me. She told me things about her life in great detail. She gave me an education and I learned what it’s like to be a black girl in Compton. After getting to know each other, and explaining to her what it’s like to be me, we completed the forms.
I had to go back the next day for some follow-up. This time I could only park on the street outside of the gated and ‘secure’ parking area. Same car, same stupid, same me. Again, what the hell was I thinking? I really, really, really wasn’t. I quickly and definitely detected something different going on that day. In the corner of my eye, I noticed a kid on a BMX style bicycle riding in circles in the middle of a busy street watching me. He then went over and talked to someone on a nearby street corner. As I was walking toward the building, I noticed another person on a bicycle watching me in a way that was too close for comfort. This wasn’t my imagination. I had a really bad feeling about this.
For those of you who are unaware of gang culture, these were lookouts. I was in trouble. I went into the building, quickly took care of business and walked back to the car. I needed to get the hell out of there! As I was walking up the sidewalk I noticed the same lookouts behind me and getting closer. All I could think was – get in the car, get in the car, get in the car. As I approached the car I noticed 5 to 10 people walking toward me on the sidewalk ahead of my vehicle, I was surrounded. I picked up my pace, and so did they. Again, I was in real trouble here. This was bad, so bad that I could smell my own fear! I needed to get to safety, fast! Click my heels and wishing to go home didn’t work.
I was only about ten feet away from the car when I heard a female voice yell out, ‘yo stop!, it’s that white boy from yesterday, he’s okay, all good”. I know this sounds made up but it’s not, I’m even getting goosebumps and a weird feeling just writing this section. It was the same girl, the one that I connected with on the previous day. She came over and, in her way, told me that things were originally not going to end well but she saw me in time assured me that ‘it’s all okay now’. She literally saved my life. She then introduced me to her friends, most of them gang members.
As you can imagine, even though things settled down, I was still very uncomfortable standing there. We all stood around and talked for a bit. I found a calm and happy place and opened myself up to the conversation. I learned even more of what it was like to be them. Some of them were infatuated with my new car so naturally, I let them sit in it. We turned up the radio and just hung out for a while.
After a while, it was time for me to go. They told me I would not run into any trouble heading back to the freeway. While I was standing there, they called ahead to other lookouts and told them to leave me alone. I was then given specific driving instructions to the freeway and followed them exactly as I was told. They cleared a path for me.
Deep breath, moving on…
That experience was literally etched in my mind forever. Did she really save my life or did I save my own? I was able to put aside my own thoughts and views and privilege by asking the question – what it’s like being you? Not only did I ask, I listened and elevated the conversation. In reality, the answer of ‘who saved me’ is complicated. She would never have saved me from harm had I not taken the approach that I did.
That wasn’t the first time I used the technique of having someone explain to me who they are and what it’s like to be them, but it was definitely the most significant and the most impactful. I learned to convert this technique into a skill. During the course of my business career, I regularly use this skill find out truly what it’s like to be someone else. What’s it like to be an executive? What’s it like being a developer? What’s it like being a receptionist? What’s it like being a sales manager? … in my personal life, what’s it like being a barista? What’s it like being a store owner? What’s it like to be a grandfather? What’s it like being a nurse? The list goes on.
I recently asked Korean interpreter to teach me what it’s like to do her job. During the same encounter, I asked the same question of a Japanese interpreter. The answers were amazing. Not only did I get an education about what it was like to be an interpreter, I got a cultural education from both. One person came up to me as I was leaving the room, took my hand and told me that it was an honor to have shared her story with me. She thanked me and also told me that I am an honorable man for asking. It was a very special moment.
Having a naturally curious personality certainly helps, but it’s not an absolute necessity. Anyone can be trained in this skill. It takes practice, commitment and a willingness to open up to other people and ideas. I discovered that people actually want to tell you what it’s like to be them. As a child, I had a pretty big imagination, as an adult, I have no way of knowing what it’s like to be someone else…unless I ask. I’m surprised more people don’t ask. Maybe they’re afraid, maybe it violates some social norm somehow, maybe they just don’t know how to ask, maybe they don’t understand the value, or maybe it’s something that I just simply don’t understand.
I could never possibly understand what it’s truly like to be someone else however, asking the right question always gives me a glimpse of what it’s like to live in their world. Professionally, this allows me to learn how people think, how they view their jobs, learn about their point of view, the company, co-workers, projects, tasks, etc., etc. The insight and knowledge gained by asking a simple question is invaluable. I know that I am a more effective leader because I am not afraid to ask people what it’s like to be them.
What’s it like being you?
I welcome discussion on this topic.