Being Nobody Special

“They may call you Doctor or they may call you Chief. But you’re gonna have to serve somebody.” – Bob Dylan

“Keep me away from the wisdom which does not cry, the philosophy which does not laugh and the greatness which does not bow before children.” – Kahlil Gibran

One of the inevitable consequences of my work as a coach, and especially as a trainer, is that, when I am working, people can sometimes see me as special or ‘sorted’, forgetting or not seeing that ‘off-duty’, I’m just another human being trying to make sense of life. Similarly, during a flight, the pilot is in charge, and everyone on the plane has to obey her, but when the flight is over, she might just be another mother sitting anxiously in a doctor’s surgery waiting to hear about her child’s test results. Indeed, the doctor who might be in charge of her son’s case, might well have been on the flight with the pilot being in charge.

There’s nothing unusual about this – we all play leadership roles at times, but what sometimes happens is that the role of leader becomes all-encompassing, and we can forget to be humble. It’s sometimes seductive to believe what my students or clients tell me about my qualities, as if that were all that I am. And some of my coaching clients have reported that they live in a kind of ‘club world’ – they have a very senior role at work, always fly business or first class, and they start to believe that they are in fact somebody special.

It’s not always easy to be reminded of our humanity – I remember when I lived with my ex-partner and her children many years ago, I was asked if we would be interested in taking part in a documentary about families working with one of Steven Covey’s books. As we talked about it over dinner one evening, the teenage son, with whom I had a particularly challenging relationship, jumped in with, “Yeah! Then they can see what a jerk you really are! The jerk behind the coach. Let’s do it!” Ouch.

But he had a point – in front of the room, I might look ‘sorted’ or ‘wise’, but that’s only a role that I have in a particular context, just as the pilot is only in charge when she’s in the role of captaining a flight. Out of context, we are just the same as everyone else, just as human, and grappling with the same questions and issues everyone else is.

When leaders forget that, then we lose touch with our humility. we also become less accessible as a leader, and, often, we become more lonely – there’s nothing like believing you are special for making you feel separate from others – and we stop developing.

If you are a leader and want to stay in touch with those you lead, find places in life to be a follower, where you are nobody special. When I work with leaders, part of the work we do involves looking at where they can practice not being a leader, not having it all together, not having all the answers. Of course it’s not always comfortable – it can be hard to let go of the public identity, or of our specialness, but it’s an essential part of the being a leader – the very thing that will make people feel that they can trust us, that we are human after all. This shows up time and time again in the coaching I do with leaders.

You might want to think about what practices might help you to feed the less special part of you, feed the humble beginner in you. For example, if ever I forget myself as a beginner, I easily remember by going to my weekly yoga classes, where I’m simply a rather tubby and stiff middle-aged man struggling to do a decent downward dog. It’s in those places that we learn, as Richard Strozzi Heckler puts it: “I attribute my continued achievement to going back to the mat again and again.”

Reflections:

Do you forget yourself sometimes? Do you get caught with the idea that your role somehow makes you special or separate? How do you get ‘back to the mat’? Where can you go where you are nobody special?

Where might you go? A class where you are a beginner? Church or synagogue? A 12-step meeting? Volunteering? It doesn’t even have to be formally set up – I used to go to a Turkish Bath regularly; above ground, the men who went were pop stars, corporate lawyers, taxi drivers and rabbis; below ground they were just middle-aged men talking about their lives, and letting go of the stresses of their lives, and nobody knew – or cared – who they were.