A Healthy Self is the Foundation for Leadership
by Kelly Patrick Gerling, Ph.D., © 2000
Published in The Spinal Column, Nelson-Marlborough Health Services, Nelson New Zealand, July, 2000
What seems like a selfless act often really isn't.
At the America's Cup race when Team New Zealand beat Prada of Italy in a 5-0 clean sweep, Skipper Russell Coutts did something astonishing. Instead of leading the way to the victory and achieving the limelight for himself, he handed over the wheel to his young understudy, Dean Barker, age 26. Barker was up to the task he was given and won the final race.
When asked about the decision to hand over the wheel to Barker, Coutts said that he enjoyed the view from off the boat. "When you're off the boat you look at it and you see the total concept. It was great to watch."
The popular way to interpret a decision to give someone else the moment of glory in a great victory is to say, "What a selfless act". However, I don't think this kind of act is at all selfless.
Yes, what Russell did was an act of fine leadership. Russell Coutts demonstrated confidence in Barker, faith in Team New Zealand, and the absence of a grab for adoration and personal glory. These values are good and healthy. I don't think, however, they come from someone with less of a self. Quite the opposite may be true.
If someone doesn't need the limelight cast by others, couldn't that be because there is an inner limelight present in the person? If someone doesn't need the glory of achievement, couldn't that be because the person already feels an inherent glory. If so, such inner light and inherent glory would make the external versions of these experiences redundant.
No, the act that astonished the yachting world, was not a self-less act but a self-full act . . . this act came from a self that is full of inner confidence, of self-esteem, and of inherent glory.
The Role of a Healthy Self in Leadership Actions
Russell Coutts has given us an example of great leadership that provides a key insight into the condition of the self that underlies effective, values-based actions.
Sometimes events in life, whether in infancy or childhood or later in adulthood, hurt us, giving us a kind of hole in the soul or a damaged sense of self.
For example, when an infant is ignored in a time of pain, the sense of not being cared for can linger and form part of later perceptions of self. When a child is hurt and cries, if instead of being comforted, he or she hears, "If you don't quit crying, I'll give you something to cry about", then the self may be hurt, especially if such actions are a repeating pattern.
It is easy to see the beginning of a harmed self in the actions of small children. For example, when a child clutches a doll, teddy bear or blanket, it is evident that this bond with an object is a substitute for a bond with an adult, usually one or both parents. As the child grows up, the desire for the teddy bear may turn into unhealthy relations with people, treating them as objects, or acquiring objects for fulfillment, instead of enjoying fulfilling relationships.
In adulthood, major setbacks or disappointments can harm the self. Examples include divorces, business breakups and career "failures". We are especially vulnerable to these events if the self is weakened in childhood.
However, if it is true that people can suffer from a harmed self and that this influences behaviour, then there must be behavioural evidence of this.
SICK Ways of Pursuing Healthy Values
Through observation, I've developed a list of tendencies that emerge from a harmed self. They represent unhealthy ways to pursue healthy values such as prestige, success and fulfillment. Four of them are:
Sadism - Deriving pleasure or satisfaction from the pain of others. Revenge movies play on this tendency. Often people who experience this tendency feel lifeless inside and through sadistic tendencies, they strive to at least feel something.
Ingestion for fulfillment - This is the addictive, overuse of drugs and other substances that are ingested such as tobacco and alcohol. Ingestion here can also include the overuse of any passive but stimulating activity such television and video games. While these kinds of activities are intended to make a person feel better and more fulfilled, when overdone, they often bring about harm to the individual and those around him or her.
Craving Adoration - One manifestation of this is the drive to collect objects and acquiring possessions to create satisfaction and feel better as a person. Consumerism in society supports this. Another way craving adoration shows up is through actions that strive for unending attention, adoration and personal glory. Bragging and boasting, obsessions with business success, and seizing the limelight are but a few of the many ways people might crave the external adoration they don't feel inwardly.
Know It All Fundamentalism - This is a "know it all" attitude toward beliefs that manifests as a rigidity of thought that rejects evidence as a basis for learning. This tendency also shows up as denying the validity of the beliefs of others and the subsequent need to "save" them by converting them to their way of thinking.
In order to help make these tendencies easy to remember, I call them the S.I.C.K. approaches to fulfilling values, SICK being an acronym for Sadism, Ingestion, Craving adoration and Know it all fundamentalism.
When anyone uses one of the SICK methods, they are not trying to achieve something bad or unhealthy. They are often trying to achieve something good and healthy. However, they are doing it in a way that is unhealthy.
For example, there is nothing wrong with the pursuit of justice when we or someone else has been wronged. It is the sadistic pursuit of justice by seeking revenge that ends up, in the real world outside of movies, creating more pain and more victims. There is nothing wrong with the contentment or even the euphoria that someone seeks when they ingest drugs. The problem is that drugs are a dangerous, short-term way to achieve good feelings and their overuse often hurts themselves and others. There is nothing wrong with the joy, pride and enjoyment of acquiring nice possessions or living in a comfortable, beautiful home. The problem with craving adoration through possessions happens when someone needs the biggest, most expensive home and then wants more of them, or is envious of those who do have such possessions. There is nothing wrong with the confidence that comes from believing strongly in your religion or country. The problem with know it all fundamentalism happens when someone believes others are not going to achieve religious or civic salvation unless they believe the same things they believe. That establishes the need to convert others.
Many of the major problems in the world can be traced to the tendencies that emerge from a hurt self. Wars and crime often result from sadism. Drug addiction, vast health problems and crime result from the ingestion of drugs. Ecological damage to our environment and the community of life within which we live results from excessive consumption as people crave adoration through the possessions they acquire while using up irreplaceable resources. Well meaning people full of know it all fundamentalism have brought about the loss of whole peoples and cultures. They set out to convert other cultures to the One Right Way, destroying families and whole cultures in the process.
As Freud, Jung, Fromm, Kohut, Winnicott, Klein and others in the field of self psychology have shown, much of the condition of the self is normally unknown to us. We often are simply not conscious of our self and its wounds. However, those who spend lots of time and effort engaging in the pursuit of the above SICK activities can safely assume that a harmed or hurt self is at the bottom of it.
I think most people have had their share of experience with SICK methods of pursuing fulfillment. Some people I know are not sure what they would do if they weren't pursuing SICK aspects of life. I certainly have experienced some of these tendencies myself. Yet, the reality is, they fall short of a genuine, sustainable fulfillment.
The Healthy Self
Genuine sustainable fulfillment comes from developing a healthy self. That means a positive self-concept, the words we use to describe our self, a warm self-esteem, the feeling we have about our self, and a positive self-image, which is seeing our self as good.
The healthy self creates the fulfillment of timeless, healthy values through the activities and relationships that are part of our daily life.
When Skipper Russell Coutts lets his understudy Barker take the wheel of the yacht, he watches the boat from a distance and says the experience was "marvellous". That is an experience a person with a healthy self can enjoy. He doesn't feel so incomplete or inadequate that he needs more of the limelight and glory that he already has. He feels so whole and adequate he can enjoy the success of the team.
Team New Zealand leader, Sir Peter Blake said after the race, "We are Team New Zealand and many people think 'team' is a strange little word, it's only four letters. But when you get people pulling together, it becomes a very powerful force indeed and these guys (Team New Zealand) epitomise this completely".
The quote by Sir Peter indicates that he can enjoy and be proud of the team and he feels so self-confident that he has no need to take credit. He basks in the appreciation he feels for them.
How a Healthy Self Can Fulfill Values
When we have little to prove to ourselves and our self is healthy, normal, daily experiences can bring about the fulfillment of important values.
These represent a few of the thousands of ways we can fulfill important values if we are free from the pain of a harmed self.
How Do We Develop a Healthy Self?
There are natural ways of healing that might have been denied to us when we went through certain pains and injurious events. These methods help to bring about healthy relationships, the basis for a healthy self. Five of them are venting, reflecting, crying and feeling sad, positive labeling and humour. The more we can use these natural methods when we need them, the more our self becomes whole and healthy. I'll describe these five methods below.
In contrast to blaming, Venting is expressing your frustrations, anger and other values violation reactions away from the situation where your values were violated. You may be by yourself or with a venting partner or partners. You express your frustration in a different context . . . one that is safe for you and doesn't harm anyone directly, nor their reputation. The purpose is to bring about your healing related to what happened in the situation and how you reacted to it. Venting is a natural method of healing for those whose tendency under stress is blaming.
In contrast to avoiding, reflecting is thinking about, meditating on or pondering your frustrations, anger and other values violation reactions after leaving the situation where your values were violated. You may be by yourself or with a reflecting partner or partners. You reflect about your frustration in a different context . . . one that is safe for you and doesn't harm anyone directly, nor their reputation. The purpose is to bring about your healing related to what happened in the situation and how you reacted to it. Reflecting is a natural method of healing for those whose tendency under stress is avoiding.
Crying or Feeling Sad
In contrast to whining, crying and feeling sad is letting your original healing method heal your frustrations, anger and other values violation reactions after leaving the situation where your values were violated. You may be by yourself or with a supportive, understanding partner or partners. You cry about and feel sad about your frustration in a different context . . . one that is safe for you and doesn't harm anyone directly, nor their reputation. The purpose is to bring about your healing related to what happened in the situation and how you reacted to it. Crying and feeling sad our original natural method of healing. It was with us when we were born as a tiny infant. And this method is appropriate for anyone, especially for those whose tendency under stress is whining.
In contrast to labelling negatively and making judgements about the person, labelling positively is choosing to use positive categories to evaluate and find good in the situation that brought about your frustrations, anger and other values violation reactions after leaving the situation where your values were violated. You may be by yourself or with a partner or partners.
Take your time to engage in positive labeling about the situation and your frustration in a different context . . . one that is positive and comfortable for you. The purpose is to bring about your healing related to what happened in the situation and how you reacted to it. Positive labelling is a method of healing for those whose tendency under stress is labelling negatively.
In contrast to sarcasm, humour (for healing) is laughing and giggling about and finding absurdity in your frustrations, anger and other values violation reactions after leaving the situation where your values were violated. You may be by yourself or with a partner or partners. You laugh about your frustration in a different context . . . one that is safe for you and doesn't harm anyone directly, nor their reputation. The purpose is to bring about your healing related to what happened in the situation and how you reacted to it. Humour is a natural method of healing for those whose tendency under stress is sarcasm. The key difference between sarcasm and healing humour is that in sarcasm, other people are the target of the joke and with healing humor, you often include yourself. It is easier to laugh at yourself if it is okay not to be perfect.
The Benefits of Healing
These healing methods allow you to heal and feel better again after a stressful, painful event. Once you have sufficiently healed, you can begin planning and designing ways to deal with the situation productively, whereby you, the others involved and the organisation all benefit from what you do. The alternative is to react immediately, before healing, and the likely result is to do harm both to your self and to others.
In the process of doing this, your relationships with people at work and hopefully at home will become more fulfilling. And developing healthy relationships is the key to developing a healthy self.
And then, like Skipper Russell Coutts, your acts will not be selfless. They will be self-full and self-whole. You are unique and your uniqueness as a being is worthy of your appreciation. So appreciate yourself. You can bask in the inner limelight of your own confidence, the inherent glory of your real accomplishments and the warmth of your self-esteem. Then, you'll find it natural to behave in a way that exemplifies leadership to fulfill values.
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