I was recently looking back at a piece that a friend of mine named Thomas Knauer wrote in graduate school about the three components of the self: I, me, and myself. Thomas had an uncanny ability of toeing the line between the philosophically brilliant and the painfully inane, and I always admired that about him. So, please read the excerpt from Thomas’ piece below, with this line in mind:
“The self is composed of three things: I, me, and myself…always compresent, never identical…I can speak to myself – in fact can also speak to me – but neither can respond; only I have the ability to talk back…I can be me, myself; but it is left to I alone to be by myself…It is myself that extends throughout I and me; the blind, deaf and immobile element which is myself alone which may know what I am and what I see in me, but will never give up that secret to me.”
If this makes your head turn or your eyes roll a bit, just enjoy that sensation! Art school is a funny place.
It dawned on me in revisiting his writing that Thomas accidentally hit on a leadership lesson that is both counter-intuitive and ideally suited for our moment in history.
While I am tired of the phrase “these economic times,” we are in fact in a challenging and highly intense moment of history for our country. Economically, educationally, socially, racially, and religiously we are as a country at a crossroads, and as a people at an almost infinite number of individual crossroads in this regard.
Given these challenges, now, more than at any time in my life, we are also looking for everyone else to take the blame for these problems. In other words, if it weren’t for the “other” we wouldn’t have to face these crossroads. Life would be just fine. As a result, as leaders, too many of us are also seeking to avoid that blame more than seeking to make effective change or even to make an effective decision. We are thus making strategic inaction, rather than effective action, the surest path of leadership.
I don’t really feel like I need to explain how this is working with our elected officials. It’s almost too obvious. You can just read any account of our upcoming elections or, perhaps, on a lighter note, consider the element of political reality supporting Stephen Colbert’s satirical blaming of President Obama for the rampant infestation of bedbugs in many of our major cities.
In another arena, however, the blame is more difficult to laugh at. Our education leaders (teachers, principals, unions, policymakers, etc.) can and do pretty effectively blame each other for the current state of education. But, we rarely, if ever, hear any of them take even a portion of the blame on themselves. The emotional, personal, and wide-ranging negative impact on children and youth make blame easier to push and more difficult to claim.
Additionally, in many of our communities, the frustrations of the economy, the state of young people, and many other such issues have also raised the finger-pointing levels to an all-time high. We are pointing at and blaming juvenile justice who is pointing at and blaming schools who are pointing at and blaming nonprofits who are pointing at and blaming families who are pointing at and blaming government who is pointing at and blaming…Well, I think you get my point. Again, in such an environment, each is naturally left with more immediate incentive to avoid being blamed than to create meaningful change.
So, here is my call to stop the finger pointing. Here is my request for all of us to “reboot” our notion of leadership. I am offering a model of leadership that starts with the ONE and ONLY thing we can truly control in all of this: our self (made up of I, me, and myself).
The Three Components of Self-Centered Leadership
I: “I” is the doer and the speaker and the communicator. I is the teacher. I is the first-person component of leadership. I is the “rational actor” of the economy and the power-consuming and potentially power sharing “front-man” (or woman) of organizations and communities. I is the one that builds leadership skills and seeks advancement. I is acknowledged as the reason one gets a promotion, a raise, or wins an award.
Me: “Me” is the receiver of information and the listener to the I. Me is the learner. Me is the object component of leadership. Me is the glue of social capital, of trust, and of respect. Me asks questions. Me gives power to the I of leadership. Me seeks to build connections through empathy because it knows what it’s like to be an object. Me is the “behind-the-scenes” person, the intangible force that makes leadership possible. Me is difficult to quantify but easy to feel.
Myself: “Myself” is the reflective (reflexive) component of leadership that requires an antecedent – or prior action or presence. Myself reflects on the actions of I and me but does not act independently. Myself works alone and asks questions and seeks deeper understanding of I and me. Myself is the driver of growth and continuous improvement that I will likely get credit for. No one else can ever know myself.
So, my request is for us all to put our blame fingers down and spend some time being self-centered; to spend more time focused on I, me, and myself.
How much time and effort in a day do we spend in the “I” space, acting, speaking, doing?
How much time and effort in a day do we spend in the “me” space, observing, listening, learning?
How much time and effort in a day do we spend in the “myself” space, reflecting, processing, being self critical?
If we all could commit to a better balance of these three components of the self, of self-centered leadership, we wouldn’t have the time or inclination to seek an external target for blame or to obsess about avoiding being blamed. We would instead be focused on how we (as a collective of I, me, and myself) become solutions, how we become our best and most productive selves.
Imagine if we spent one third of our day or our week dedicated to each I, me, and myself! As a result, imagine if I didn’t spend so much time focused on fixing and blaming you!
Just imagine the possibility of self-centered leadership!
NOTE: The following are a few terms that “self-centered” leadership should NOT be confused with: selfish, egocentric, self-absorbed, all-about-me, self-aggrandizing, self-righteous…you get the point.