Doing Hard Things Without Being a Hardass
Doing Hard Things Without Being a Hardass
Leadership is often a demanding and high-pressure role, with little room for mistakes or self-doubt. But what if I told you that the secret to being a successful leader lies in screwing up, getting messy, and being kind to yourself? In this thought-provoking talk, Massimo Backus will explore the power of self-compassion in leadership and why it's essential for creating a positive and thriving workplace culture.
In modern organizations, leaders hold two jobs. The role they were hired to perform, and the energy sucking role of managing appearances, hiding their weaknesses, uncertainties, inadequacies, and fears. This results in the biggest loss of organizational resources. How much overhead are you spending projecting and protecting a persona of perfection?
Massimo's talk may change the way you see yourself. He examines the paradox of being kind to ourselves when we fear failure from imposter syndrome or punishment from self-criticism. He shares practical strategies and tools that you can use to cultivate self-compassion in your daily life, such as emotional fluency, mindfulness, and self-care practices.
This talk is for leaders plagued by perfectionism, impostor syndrome, or self-doubt. It is for leaders who falsely believe proving themselves worthy will give them power, only to realize they have given their power away. Whether you are a seasoned leader or aspiring to be one, this talk will inspire you to prioritize self-compassion as a critical component of your leadership toolkit.
SuperHUMAN Leadership: Do Hard Things Without Being a Hardass(PDF)
Massimo is an executive coach and leadership development consultant who helps organizations transform their culture through the transformation of the leaders themselves. Previously he was the head of global leadership development for a billion-dollar professional service firm. He’s the host of The Leadership Mind podcast, which spotlights leaders' stories of growth and transformation and how they let go of the beliefs that hold them back. He will publish his forthcoming book on self-compassionate leadership in the Fall of 2023. The book presents six core strategies to practice self-compassion and forever change the way you lead.
I've been to a lot of conferences, and I know where you're at right now. It's like the doldrums. The coffee isn't really doing its effect. So I thought we could start with something like, let's get out of the room. Let's get a little bit of fresh air in sorts.
What I want you to do is I'd like you to think about your best memory, one of the best moments in your life.
Where was it?
When was it?
What was happening?
And actually go there, allow yourself to picture it.
For some of you, it might be the birth of a child if your parents. Maybe it's the time you got your name called when you're on The Price Is Right. Maybe it's when you completed a year-long project with an amazing team and you felt a sense of pride and accomplishment. I have one of those moments, and I can tell you that it's not like any of those examples. See, for me, it happened in Napa, and it's not what you were thinking. There was no wine tasting.
I was by myself in the woods, and I was on a walk through the trees all alone. And I remember I could hear the birds. I could hear the rustle of the trees and the leaves. I felt the sun come through the trees and hit my skin and warm my body. I get chills just thinking about it. And I began smiling. That smiling turned to laughter. The type of laughter where your cheeks hurt. The kind of laughter that we have when we're children. You're laughing so much that you're laughing at the fact that you're laughing. Remember how I told you I was all alone? Thank goodness I was all alone because if I wasn't, people might have thought I was nuts. In fact, maybe some of you think I was nuts.
There was no wine, and this was not drug-induced. This was the moment that I first learned to like myself, to love myself. This was the moment that I learned that I could accept myself for all of my great gifts. And there's so many but there are so many more messy parts of who I am, and I could accept that too. For the first time, I was 38. I know I look young, but it was recently. I want to tell you about how I got there and what I learned from this experience, but I should give you a little bit of backstory.
At the time, I was the head of Global Leadership Development for Slalom Consulting, and I was traveling around the United States working with the best and brightest leaders in the organization. I had a front-row seat to their growth and development, and I was lauded, I was celebrated, I was praised. The sage on the stage, people would say, "Mass, you're the best facilitator we've ever seen." Somewhere in that, I mistook their growth, their development from my own, but I was curious to get better. So I participated in a 360 assessment. Anybody here familiar with that draconian tool of a 360 assessment? I did it on my own accord because I was curious and while on the road, I was lauded and praised and a high performer. The results of the 360 told a very different story. The results told me that I was objectively a bad manager.
The person responsible for growing all the leaders in the organization was a bad leader. I was controlling, I was defensive. One brave employee even came forward and described me as a bully. I was devastated, breathless, like that feeling of getting punched in the gut and you're going to throw up at the same time. It was awful. I felt like the earth was slipping out from underneath me and it didn't make sense. And so I did what any logical person would do, is I defended myself. I said, "I'm not defensive. You're defensive for saying that I'm defensive." How crazy defensive does that sound? But I was oblivious. It didn't make sense to me. I couldn't figure it out. I heard what they were saying. I knew it was objectively true, but it was so different than how I saw myself. But I thought, I'm a leadership development expert. I can solve this.
So I committed myself to it and I had the best intentions and I used all of my skills and tools that I used with other leaders and I tried to apply them to myself and I tried really hard. I asked for more feedback and I had more one on one conversations and I'd let people know I'm really trying. Six months later, I had a conversation with my manager. Now let's think about this. I already had one bad review conversation. I had a second conversation coming up. This could go one of two ways, but I was eager. I thought that she was going to say, "You've made a lot of improvement. We're really proud of you." It's not what happened. She said, "You haven't made much improvement." She said, "The team feels the same way they did before. They didn't feel psychologically safe back then and they still don't now. We can tell that you care and you're trying, but it doesn't matter."
Now I'm going to ask you a question here and I want to see a show of hands. How many of you know someone who was like me, high performer, bad manager? Can I get a show of hands? God, it feels good to not be alone. When I was in this conversation, I was certain I was going to get fired. And I loved my job. It was a dream job, and parts of it I was really good at, and parts of it I stunk, but I still loved it. I didn't get fired. My boss said, "I'm going to send you to a retreat in Napa. It's a week-long experience. I know other people that have gone and it's helped them and I hope that it does the same thing for you."
So I found myself in Napa a few months later. And over the first few days that I was there, I did a bunch of weird stuff. This was kind of a wooing experience but I was all in. I was like, "Get fired or go to Napa and do some crazy things. I'm in whatever it takes." Guided visualizations. Imagine 90 minutes of having a guided visualization through a sacred garden. I did that. Thirty-six hours of silence. I like to talk. That was really hard. I did that too. And what I noticed over the first few days was that there was a voice inside of me that I didn't know was there but was very active. And that was a harsh, critical voice. And it was constantly saying things like, "You're not enough. You're not smart enough. You're a fraud. You're an imposter."
I think the voice came because I grew up with Dyslexia and I struggled so much in school that I think the voice started then. But at some point, it became that ambient music where you got a song stuck in your head and you're like, "I don't know where this song came from, but it's stuck in my head, these awful self-critical words." But as that voice became quieter, another voice emerged. A kinder, gentler voice. A voice of self-compassion. And I found myself in the woods laughing hysterically, all by myself. And it was one of the best moments of my life because in that moment, I finally learned what it meant to practice self-compassion. And that's what I would like to talk to you all about.
When I left this retreat, I was committed to making sure that this peak experience that I was pretty sure wasn't drug-induced, that I could do something with that, that I could take it forward, that I made sure that I was different. So I did some research and I came across the work of the developmental psychologists, Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey. They talked about these two jobs. And one job we're all familiar with. It's the job we're hired to do. It's the job that our companies pay us for, achieve, perform, set high expectations and crush those expectations. And then there's the second job that they talk about. This job was a bit more interesting because this job is what resonated with me so much. And I'm hoping that for some of you it resonates with you as well because there's truth in it and it's also a myth.
See, they say that the second job is the single biggest waste of resources in organizations. It's where people spend their time and energy covering their weaknesses, managing other people's impressions of them, showing themselves to their best advantage, playing politics, hiding their uncertainties, hiding their inadequacies, hiding their limitations. Hiding. That is exactly what I was doing. I was hiding and protecting. The silly thing about it is that I was doing in plain sight. Everyone else could see it. The feedback was objective. I was the only one who couldn't see what was going on.
So for the rest of our time together, I'd like to share with you what are some of the key lessons that I have here and what can you do about this? If you relate to any of this, if you recognize that maybe you're hiding and protecting or your team is hiding and protecting, we've been talking about trust and psychological safety today. Well, that manifests in this behavior. This is how it shows up. But I don't want you to be like me and be oblivious and be unaware that you're hiding. It's okay to hide, but we have to start with recognizing that it's happening because then we can come out of the shadows.
The first thing I learned is that I was mistaking self-esteem for self-compassion. See, self-esteem is good. There are benefits to self-esteem. And I was getting a lot of self-esteem from being on the road and being told how awesome I was. It felt great. The problem with it is it's externally contingent. It relies on someone else telling you how great you are. Yes, it feels good, but it's like an energy drink. You're going to crash. And the reality is, those people only saw me in one light. Whereas self-compassion, on the other hand, is about treating ourselves with kindness as we would be treated by a good friend or a good coach. See, we offer ourselves self-esteem to feel better, but we offer ourselves self-compassion because we're suffering. And whether or not we like it, suffering is a part of life.
Remember in The Lego Movie, "Everything is awesome. Everything is awesome." Let me tell you something. Everything is not awesome. And that's totally okay. There's nothing wrong with the fact that everything isn't awesome. It's healthy, it's human, it's natural. There are good days and there's bad days. And in fact, the main character in that movie, I think got tired of the fact that everything was awesome. I haven't seen it in a while, but I will have to watch it on my flight home.
So after doing this research, I went even further because I wanted to make sure that I fully understood what this self-compassion was. Because it felt like this moment of truth, this nugget for me. And the work of Dr. Kristin Neff is what came to mind. Now, the idea of self-compassion has been around for a long time, but under Dr. Neff's research, it's gone from five studies to over 5,000 studies in the last 20 years. She talks about three different parts to self-compassion.
The first is mindful awareness, understanding what it is that we're feeling, what our emotions are telling us. Oftentimes when we feel a difficult emotion, we like to suppress it. I'm not angry, I'm not feeling sad, or we run from it. We distract ourselves, and our phones and our devices are very good distractors.
The second part of this is about common humanity, which is that we are not alone. And when you're in a leadership position, it can feel very isolating. But we are not alone. We're in this together. We all suffer. We all know loss. We all know joy. We all know what it feels like to have good news and bad news. And through common humanity, we can recognize that we're not alone in our suffering, in our struggle. That we're not alone if maybe anyone else here had that same feeling of, I don't feel like I'm enough. I have a voice in my head that tells me that I'm an imposter. You're not alone.
And the last piece about this is about self-kindness. Self-kindness isn't about giving yourself a pass or getting a bucket of ice cream and Netflix and chill all day. It's not what I'm talking about. I'm talking about the kind of kindness that you get from a really good friend. Sometimes that's a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes that's someone who's like, "You need a hug." Sometimes it's the person to say, like, "I know you're having a hard day, but you got to get up, drink lots of water, work out, learn from your mistakes, and get out there and keep pushing forward because what you're doing matters and because you matter to other people. Self-kindness, it's not self-pity. It's about accountability.
So I've been sitting here talking about leadership, and this is about so much more than leadership. That feedback that I got about being defensive didn't just happen at work. I was defensive at home. I was defensive with my family. I was defensive with my friends. I was defensive with my wife over really petty stuff like the way you're supposed to load the dishwasher. That's a thing, right? That's a thing. I mean, it's a thing, but it's not a thing to get defensive about. And I would get really defensive about it. And now I can look back and laugh because I think it's ridiculous. I also think I know the right way to load a dishwasher. That debate has not been resolved. All right, can I tell you the truth? I don't know the right way to load the dishwasher. My wife is much better at it. I just continue to get it wrong.
But my point is, this isn't just about leadership, and this isn't some soft, wooing thing that I experienced in the hills above Napa Valley. This is about our humanity. And when we break down as leaders, when we break down as teams, when we talk about trust and psychological safety and all those things not happening, it starts right here. Every single time. Every executive, every leader that I have worked with and thousands. It all comes down to some internal belief and some internal block that we all think for some reason that we're not enough. I'm here to tell you as somebody who has believed that for a long time, it's not true. You are enough. And you will still have days where you feel like you're not. That's why self-compassion is a practice. It's not a one-and-done. We don't get to check this off a list. We continue to do it.
So what does that look like? And I want us to think about it in the context of Kristin Neff's model. So for example, when we think about mindful awareness, mindfulness could happen through yoga, it could happen through journaling, it could happen through meditation. Whatever it is that works for you is fine as long as it allows you to actually be present with what's happening without judgment. What am I feeling right now without judgment? In the past, I was very good at saying, this is what I'm feeling. And then I would judge the hell out of myself. I just beat myself over the head for feeling that way. Oh, how dare you feel angry about this? How dare you feel frustrated? To be able to feel without judgment? I find journaling to be really helpful for me. I set a timer 10 minutes a day. I write what's on my mind and then I leave it. But do whatever works for you.
My only rule is not on a device because mindfulness doesn't happen when we're near a device that is designed to take away our attention. That's what those devices are designed to do and they're very effective. When we think about common humanity, I want you to be able to think about the fact that you're not alone. And there is something called a loving-kindness meditation and it goes something like this. I would think about someone that's close to me and related to it, something that I'm suffering with. It might be right now I'm overloaded with work and life and just adulting right now is really difficult. Just like me. My friend here suffers with the responsibilities of being an adult, with raising a family and a business and all these other things. Then you'd go one click further and you might pick somebody that you don't know or maybe somebody that you don't even like that much. Just like me, this person suffers with all the responsibilities and burdens of work. It helps us connect. We can go from being isolated in this feeling that if I'm not perfect, then there's something wrong with me, which is a very common unconscious bias that we all have. If I'm not perfect and perfect's normal, then there's something wrong with me. It allows you to recognize we're all struggling. Especially the people that look good on Instagram and project that part of their life. They got shit going on too.
The last piece around self-kindness. What I do every night before I go to sleep, my head hits the pillow, I close my eyes, I think of three things that I appreciate about myself and three things that I'm grateful for from today. I know one of them will be able to be here with you. And if you're at a place where it's hard to come up with three things that you appreciate about yourself, I get it, I've been there. Then call somebody that you trust, that you think is going to be honest and give you the irrefutable truth and ask them, what do you appreciate about me? What are you grateful for in having me in your life?
As I leave here today, I want you to think about one thing, and that is how can we trade out the job of hiding self-protection politicking, hiding our uncertainties and our insecurities, and replace it with self-compassion. Replace it with mindful awareness where we can be non-judgmental about how we're feeling because all of our emotions are a part of our human experience. Replace it with common humanity. We realize we're not alone in our suffering. Look at this community of people. You are not alone. Where we can replace it with self-kindness, where we can recognize that being kind to ourselves is not a sign of weakness. And when we are kind to ourselves, we are kinder to others. We are better leaders, and when we are better leaders, our teams perform better. Our organizations perform better. And I would argue that the world around us is a better place.
Oh, my gosh. I just had my big crescendo moment. This is a moment of self-compassion. Let's be friends to ourselves so that we can be better friends to each other. Thank you.
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