The Heresy of Change: How Self-Knowledge Empowers Leaders to Move Up, or On

man seeking knowledge Is there something in the water that heralds different thinking? Over my entire career, I have listened to leaders as clients, colleagues, and friends talk about their careers, what they want from them and what struggles they face. Those all are normal attributes of executive life.

In the last month, a recurrent theme has surfaced in too many conversations to ignore. Running right beneath the usual questions is a nexus of three thoughts: who am I, who do people want me to be and who am I really? The last part of that list tips the balance of standard leadership calculus into a different conversation. We live in a time of rapid change, a crazy election year and an economy that seems to lose shape and take shape in equal measures. Such uncertainties can accelerate the process of asking questions and challenging old assumptions.

When it comes to senior executives, the catalyzing questions I often hear cover a wide waterfront. Some examples:

  • I really like the business of our business, but I detest our industry.
  • I don’t see how it is possible to build a strong, united team when our top executive still holds all the cards of decision-making and power.
  • Our new parent company does not have a clue about what we really do, and I have lost interest in trying to get through to its senior leadership.

These feelings are uttered with great self-consciousness, because of how heretical they sound. And yet these feelings are real, and must be honored.

Unclog Your Channel

The journey of a leader requires plunging into multiple avenues of the unknown in search of fresh ideas and new approaches to old ideas. To open the idea channel, leaders have to unclog it from the personal fears and prejudices that could be obscuring great opportunities for their organizations.

Face What You Believe

That means facing what they truly believe. That is not obvious, especially if an executive has spent his or her career satisfying the agendas of others. It does not mean successful leaders are conformists. Conformity does not push the organization forward. However, it does mean that compromises can get made along the way in the name of a broader political perspective for the organization, which may or may not align with what that executive ultimately wants.

At some point, as an executive matures in his or her role, significant disconnects can surface. It is a healthy rather than unhealthy evolution. It may also signal that that executive may be ready to move on to another organization that is a better fit for what they now want.

A Life of Discovery

Executive life, in its healthiest form, is a life of discovery. Successful executives plunge into it to learn all they can and do the best they can for their organizations. However, priorities change, personalities evolve and organizations transform. The job of an executive is also to make sure the shoe still fits. That can be a tough internal conversation.

Reconnecting With Yourself – Some Suggestions:

If this situation describes your situation, how do you hold that conversation? A few thoughts:

  1. Honor the need for it as important both for you as a leader and for your organization. If the two are not aligned, neither of you benefits.
  2. Using resources such as journaling, conversations with trusted associates, family or friends, or work with a coach or other mentor, investigate the feelings of disconnectedness to find out whether it is a problem related to your relationship with your organization or some more personal issue that exists outside of it.
  3. If the problem is personal, work on it with outside personal help. No organization can solve a personal issue. If it relates to an organizational issue, you have no power or willingness to solve, create a transition plan that allows you and your organization to move on to something that works better for both.

The quest for knowledge empowers those who seek it, even and especially when the road to finding it surfaces scary or painful realities. Facing and understanding it opens the door to opportunities.

3 Responses to “The Heresy of Change: How Self-Knowledge Empowers Leaders to Move Up, or On”

  1. Colleen Aylward

    Julie. So well-written and on point, particularly since the summer of relaxation and reflection is ending and the “Oh, crap. No one hires after Thanksgiving and I promised myself I’d get a new job by January” syndrome is setting in.

    More and more, as I set to work polishing up these clients’ worldwide self-brands, and putting the Visibility machine in motion for them, I hear them back-peddling and coming to the realization that they don’t really want to continue in their area of expertise. Been there done that hate it. And they immediately stamp a big “burnt out” or “no longer valid” sign on their foreheads without really knowing it. Some may even go so far as to blame the interviewer for this stamp, unwittingly projecting this ennui.

    Yes, my empathy quotient had grown tremendously since becoming an executive coach myself, but the intellectual care you take in dealing with this subject is far more in-depth and so critical to executives in “the journey of not knowing” before they even can begin their personal branding with a coach like me.

    I so look forward to your upcoming book and know it will add so much for my own clients!

    • Julie Benezet

      Thank you so much for your support and your own wisdom. You have seen a lot over your many years in organizations from which others could learn.

  2. Susanne Rau

    Julie, thank you for this inspiring article – for me the one sentence summarizes it all: “Executive life, in its healthiest form, is a life of discovery” – curiosity still drives me !


Leave a Reply