Across our days we are many different ‘selves’. It’s a strange thing: whilst we typically envisage ourselves as a coherent, independent, and unique individual, in reality we adapt, or are coerced, to circumstance.
In some parts of my life i have more agency than others. In some i am constrained by rules, and elsewhere by social norms. Or expectations. Or self doubt, vulnerability or pain. I’m shaped by my lived experience of trust, and the folklore of failure. Sometimes i will be the self that is expected, and at other times, i will be turn up ‘different’.
This understanding of the ‘self’ is not about some fragility of identity, or schizophrenic personality, but rather a recognition that we inhabit not one but many systems. Each of which is layered upon others, and within each of which we are accountable in different ways.
Take yesterday: early in the morning i ran a Quiet Leadership session, which coincided with needing to get River out of the house for the school run. Both these systems – my family and my community – are systems in which i am responsible, and accountable, but not in this instance in a contractual way. To run the session on time meant leaving my partner to carry the weight of preparation, and to finish getting the children ready would have meant keeping a group of (lovely!) strangers waiting. I could not ‘succeed’ simultaneously in both systems, so i had to choose.
Of course, this was an easy dilemma – as all families are, we are used to relying on each other (and i hope do so equally), and in a world of remote work, people are understanding when a tiny family crisis (or Amazon delivery) gets in the way or ‘work’. But nonetheless, i could not do the right thing in both cases.
Sometimes our challenge is more fundamental: to make a decision in one system is not simply to neglect the other, it is to do active harm there.
This happens to us all the time at work: we make hiring decisions, performance management decisions, commercial decisions, and deeply personal ones. Sometimes the harm we do is through a decision we make, or by the shadow that the decision casts (saving your job may mean i have to make someone else redundant), or simply by omission (you helping me through a crisis may simply mean you lack capacity or visibility of someone else who equally needed your help).
Sometimes our ‘self’ is calibrated to expectation: do you wish for the knowledgeable expert version of me to turn up, or the curious researcher, or the bumbling and part lost explorer. Or a bit of both? Do you want the parent, the learner, the leader or the loser? And how does that align with the self that i wish to bring: my ‘true’ self? Is there any such thing?
It’s a funny thing about Organisational language: it has the benefit of sounding convincingly true, but the truth of being remarkably fallible. We say to people to ‘bring your whole self to work’, but you do not want my whole self. My whole self is messy, conflicted, sometimes kind and sometimes mean, sometimes logical but often emotional, or simply confused. I think what you mean is ‘bring your best self’, or ‘bring an appropriate self’, or maybe ‘bring a self that confirms what i expect and conforms to what we are’. In very real ways, we talk about different whilst reinforcing monoculturalism, through unwritten rules and expectations.
To talk about difference is easy, but to understand our social structures is to realise that they are built on similarity – and our ‘answer’ may not be to change that, but rather to connect it up differently. To recognise that Organisations are always going to be tribal structures, but can also be interconnected and meta-tribal ones, if we weave the culture that makes it so.
The remarkable thing to me is not the complexity of our selves and systems, but rather the apparent ease with which we typically navigate it. Most of us are perfectly able to make tough decisions at work – decisions that may not allow us to be ‘fair’ to everyone (because we never can be fair to everyone), or to be ‘right’ (because there is no universal scale of ‘right and wrong’, only contextual and subjective ones). We are also able to be silly, funny, and hopeless at home.
And we never sit down to reconcile these varied ‘selves’. Most of the time we sit quite happily within diverse systems, and transition with ease, only occasionally getting caught out wearing our pyjamas on a Teams call. We are gloriously unreconciled, inherently tribal, and tend to view ourselves as the perfect version of our ‘self’.
Social Leadership is to lead at the intersection of systems, not simply to excel within one of them. It is to understand how the self moves, and at what cost, and to consider not only the ways we are successful in the light, but how our impact may fall in the shadows. Indeed, to consider how our very actions, our very ‘self’, may cast a shadow.
To understand this we must understand how systems operate at the level of power and story, as well as structure and system. Not to unify them, but to make small changes, to act mindfully, to be unreconciled, but aware.
This is early stage #WorkingOutLoud on the Unreconciled Self and the notion of Culture Weaving. Themes i will explore further next year.