#106 The Three of You

This idea has been rolling around in my head for some time now but just hasn't quite made it to the blog yet. It centers around self-awareness and the importance of seeing yourself from a somewhat independent view. It came into focus a little more sharply this weekend from two conversations I had with two people at different points in their careers.

On Friday evening I went to dinner with a dear friend who will retire next Summer after 22 years of service. When I first learned of her choice, I doubted its' truth because she has been suffering under a boss lately who has done a lot to change her overall feeling about continuing to stay in the Army. I wondered if she might be taking a long term solution to a short term problem. On her last night in America on leave we went to a quiet restaurant and I asked her why she was hanging it up now. Her answers were truthful, poignant, and I think, reflect the thoughts and feelings that many of us face as we reach the end of our career. Essentially, her comments came down to this: She has served the Army since she was 17 years old. Her entire adult life has been in service to her Nation, her Army, and her Soldiers. She does not know how to do, or be, anything else. A lot of her self-definition comes from her professional being. But now she has started taking stock of that life and found out that along the way, she denied herself a lot of things. While service can provide focus and purpose and meaning, she is now becoming much more aware of the emptiness that sometimes surrounds her life. She desires something more complete. No more 16 hour days and coming home to an empty house. No more weekends where her dogs equal her companionship. No more requirement for 24 hour a day dedication to dealing with what someone else feels is the 'crisis of the moment'. It is time for her to dedicate some time to her in the hope that she can fill some of the empty spaces that her 22 years of service have created. She is not bitter about them, nor angry, nor sad, just aware. She is feeling a more acute need to fill those spaces, and that cannot only be done by the Army. Her definition requires more.

As we were talking, I asked her to consider what message, what legacy, she wanted to leave behind for those Soldiers who look at her as a role model. What message did she have for them?

The second conversation was with a female Drill Sergeant who had asked me for some advice concerning a follow-on assignment after her current tour ends. We had a great talk about a lot of things, but towards the end came upon the question of how her Soldiers view her. What do they see when they remember or think about her? What message does her presence and her service send? She is at a much different place in her career than my other friend. She is in the middle of the fray right now, fighting and searching and learning, and developing. The 'game' of the Army is still challenging and provides her with a lot to do, see, and learn. Her adventure is only just beginning. She is in many ways, the very same person as my first friend - totally absorbed in the requirements of the profession and somewhat unaware of the costs it extracts. She strikes me as willing to think deeply about herself, her awareness, and her roles, she just needs a mentor to foster the discussion.

Those two conversations set the stage for this:

There are 3 distinct people in each of us and as leaders we need to be aware of each of them equally. First, there is you. Who you really are - all alone in the dark by yourself. The you that that no one can see. This one admits your fears, your weaknesses, your hopes, desires and dreams. It admits your failings and foibles and those things that the outside world is generally not privy to. It accepts your idiosyncrasies, and habits. It's the you that only a life-long spouse might know after all the layers have been stripped away. It is the you who is both conceited and contrite, arrogant and fearful, generous and hateful. It is the you who admits it's shallowness and bigotry as equally as it lauds it's importance and contributions.

Then there is the professional you. That person who steps out into the world everyday and presents an image of something. This you is the interaction with the world and is full of judgment and doubt and role-playing. This is also the world of expectation. This you is partially a character created by the 'alone' you to hide those things you do not want others to see, and to navigate your way through the requirements of your outside world. This you generally paints the prettiest, most competent picture for others to consume. This you is often like a movie set where the picture on the screen is of an idyllic view of what the director wants the viewer to see, but it is only the store-front, or paint on canvas. Behind it there really is no structure.

Finally, there is the you as seen by that outside world. How others view you. What they see, hear, and feel through their interaction with you. It equals their interpretation of you. Their Orientation. An understanding of this you is very important because it has a lot to do with how your thoughts, ideas, plans, visisions, orders, directives etc get (or do not get) implemented. A lack of understanding that, who you think they see and interact with can be very different from their understanding of who they see and interact with, might be the least explored (and potentially most important) area of any leader development program. While we spend a lot of time trying to get folks to know themselves and to see the impact of that awareness on how they lead, we generally do not spend a lot of time fostering an awareness that the message we think we are sending might not be close to the message that those around us are receiving. To follow the movie set theme, this is the audience. They sit in their seats and think they are seeing a picture of downtown USA, but do not realize that it is partialy a facade. They are not permitted to look behind the wall. And if that is true, then aren't we selling them that facade? Soldiers follow because they believe in you and what you represent and their understanding of those things. If all we are is a facade of professionalism, haven't we done them a huge disservice?

The goal for true leadership competency should be to gain awareness of these three parts, and to bring them all together as closely as possible. Who I am when I am alone should closely resemble who my world sees as I interact with it, and if that happens, then in all likelihood, my world's interpretation of me will be pretty close as well.

Why does all this matter? Why can't I create two seperate people - the one I am by myself, and the one I give away for public consumption and interpretation? Why can't the professional and the personal me be separate? Simply stated: If you choose to live that way, sooner or later you will be undone by one or the other and then those you lead will never trust you again. Soldiers do not act, have faith in, or follow you because you hold a rank, position, or title. Not really. They may follow originally because they must based upon those things, but ultimately they do so reluctantly and without faith. Soldiers follow because they believe in you and that faith generates from their being able to find things in you that they can relate to. If they cannot find traits and behaviors and ideas to consider in their interaction with you then they are merely employees who will serve for only as long as the cost/benefit ratio makes sense to them. Soldiers who truly believe in you will follow you almost instinctively and with a faith that cannot be quantified or proven. And they cannot do that, and will not do that, if they think you are merely an actor playing a role in some long drawn out drama. Sooner or later they will decide to change the channel.

I try very hard to be honest about who I am with my Soldiers. Sometimes probably too much so. There really aren't too many secrets to my life. If you ask me, I'll likely tell you. My life and my experiences are pretty much an open book. I have found that it is a much more honest and ultimately positive way to lead. While I may not always be proud of myself or things I have done, I have found that there is not too much to be afraid of there. I try very hard not to sell an illusion. I may be a role model, but it is a role model with all the warts and failings and cheapness that can be me. When I speak to them about the roles we each have to play in the organization, it is not about personal acting or role-playing, it is about institutional positions and the expectations of each part of the organization. I play the role of the senior leader. It is the job I have. It has requirements and expectations. I have obligations to it. But it is not completely who I am. My Soldiers have roles to play as well, but they are not completely who they are. These are only one part of the larger awarenesses that we all possess.

My friend who is getting ready to retire appears to me to have recognized this. She gave all she had for a lot of years to her development and to living in the professional world. And now she recognizes the cost of that commitment. My friend the Drill Sergeant isn't fully aware yet, or hasn't totally recognized, the power of the role she is playing. And yet both are outstanding leaders. I wonder what words of wisdom the retiree will leave behind to her young acolytes who look to follow in her footsteps? I wonder if the Drill Sergeant can see that who she is all alone at night is a hell of a lot more powerful as a leader than the role she plays during the day? I wonder if either of them recognizes that they are being looked at, studied and emulated by others. And the greatest message there is that if you recognize that they want to be like you, shouldn't you at least provide them the fullest understanding of who you are?

Sometimes I wonder why I have been able to affect some folks the way that I have. Although I don't fully understand it, I am aware that there are people who look up to me, emulate me, and try to model themselves after me. When it comes up in conversation and I ask them why they feel that way, a lot of them seem to struggle a bit for an answer. They are not quite sure why they feel that way, but most will generally settle on this idea: I am real. I am not acting. My emotions are not crafted or hidden. I am human. Ultimately they find more to look up to in Jeff Fenlason than they do in Master Sergeant Fenlason, and somehow, it seems to me, there is a great lesson in leadership there. If only we all weren't so busy trying to hide all the time.

To my friends - Thank you both for helping me get to this place. I appreciate and celebrate the journeys you both are on. Thanks for letting me spend a small part of it with you.

As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome.


  1. Fen, I appreciate this post in all its intent. Sometimes we as individuals get caught up in trying to ensure we put the best version of ourselves out for the world to see. We do this for a variety of reasons, we feel our subordinates won't respect the "real" us, we don't really like the "real" us, or we like the sense of power/privalege the false persona brings with it. But all too often, especially in the political world, we see how insecure that false persona is and how easily destroyed. Psychologically, that destruction is devastating. I think it must be nearly impossible to overcome. It is much healthier to have the "three selves" be as closely aligned as possible, though it will most likely reap far fewer rewards.

    Thanks so much for continuing this blog! It is an awesome contribution to leadership studies!

  2. There would have been humilty in describing the three distinct people as:

    First, there is me.
    Then there is the professional me.
    How others view me.

    The world would have you believe that discovering yourself through self awareness is the route to enlightenment. However the clue to the flaw in that worldview is 'self'. There is no avoiding the prism of your own prejudice.

    The trouble with lies is that they are attractive or else why would we believe them. My busines is to point out there is truth. Accepting that presents a dilema because it requires the humility to recognise that you have been believing lies. The trouble is nobody has that degree of humility, so that humility has to come as a gift. I know it's a tough message (that's the nature of truth)but it helps to understand the struggles of the people above trying to make sense of a world full of conterfeit truth claims.

    "It is hard to make a stand on shifting sand."

  3. Adrian -

    I agree with your statement that, "There is no avoiding the prism of your own prejudice", however, I do believe that there is a way to limit it's effect of the decisions we make. Self-awareness is not by definition self-delusion, nor self-aggrandizement. If we take the time to study ourselves enough we gain an understanding of why we are the way we are. For me, that is the Orientation portion of the OODA cycle at the personal level. It helps alert me to my 'filters' and by so doing allows me to 'suspend' them to see my world from another viewpoint. Your response suggests that all that we view/observe is a lie. I do not take that view. I think that all that we see can be filtered through multiple prisms therefore having different meanings or values to each of us.

    With regard to humility, we are very much in line: There is me (alone in the dark), there is the professional me (a character sometimes called MSG Fen) and there is the Jeff/MSG Fen as seen by my subordinates, peers and seniors. This came home plainly today when I had a conversation with a co-worker who stated that he totally trusted Jeff, and was learning to trust MSG Fen. And then with two other co-workers who stated that they rarely read the blog anymore. One stating that, "I spend too much time at work having to think about work. I have other things to do on my time off." Jeff's ego doesn't like that, but by suspending that for a moment, I become more aware that others do not always want to spend their entire lives thinking hard about every little thing. Maybe they just want to enjoy the many parts of their lives instead of becoming overwhelmed by one. Lesson learned by Jeff and MSG Fen.

  4. Fascinating blog and conversation....has real meaning for me as I have been thinking about and researching (and kinda sorta teaching) self-awareness for a few years.....very difficult topic...the comments about lying and self-deception are often quite true....people do not want to see or acknowledge their "ugly" self....but we ALL have an "ugly" self....some more ugly than others....so how do we view that self, acknowledge, and most importantly, control or change that ugliness.....if we are honest with trusted agents (friends, spouses, mentors, etc) they can help....360 assessments, which our Army has for years wanted to avoid, would go a long way to seeing ourselves through other's eyes....a powerful way to raise/increase our self-awareness.....
    to increase self-awarness you have to understand what it really is and learn how to "do it"....simply being conscious of our "self" is a start point....you can do that by simply asking people to talk about what they really value, believe, don't believe, care about. Then ask questions about what they like and dislike. After they answer, ask them why? why? why?...chase the rat down the hole.....this technique gets people to understand their "iceburg" beliefs....why they think the way they think, which increases their self-awareness....

    self-esteem and self-confidence also relate directly to self-awareness....if one is not happy with one's self, they will most likely be low in self-awareness...this seems intuitive....
    if I am not comfortable in my own skin then I damn sure don't want to think about who I am and how I think.....

    which makes the case to help our Soldiers be comfortable in who they are....not false "you are great" BS...but real honest to goodness transparent coaching and mentoring....

    I'll stop blabbing....sorry....