What’s your ice cream flavor?

I’m beginning to think that one of the true challenges in leadership is reconciling your own self-perception with that of everybody else around you.

As in, what is it that you think you bring to the table? And how does that compare to the thing that others say about you?

If you aren’t self-aware enough to recognize moments when you might be inspiring, intimidating, or ignoring others, then it may never be possible to effectively lead. Of course, this is easier said than done.

For one, in order to understand this authenticity, you need to first divorce yourself the notion of your “ideal self” — the version of ourselves that we wish to put out into the world. Maybe this is the persona that you showcase in Instagram, that picture-perfect identity that we only so rarely hit on the head. Maybe it’s your “weekend self,” viewable only to your closest friends and family. Whatever good stuff this is, it’s always temporary. It’s never the way we act 100% of the time.

Second, you need some compassion for your “shadow self,” that awful embodiment of all of your worst qualities that you hope only surfaces among your deepest insecurities and fears. This is the side of you that comes out through “impostor syndrome” or other paralyzing moments of self-doubt. And if you over-index on your negative traits, then you likely under-value the things that you truly bring to the table. Whatever bad stuff this is, it’s always temporary. It’s never the way we act 100%o f the time.

The truth, of course, lies somewhere in the middle. But that always makes it the trickiest to pin down.

I’ve been in a couple of meetings recently where people have referenced things like “the energy I bring” or “the category I personify” among a group of people. When it’s been said (I’ve noticed), others around the table or in the room will often respond with, “Oh, yes. Of course! That’s so Bethany.” They all smile and laugh. And usually, I play along. But often, in my head, I’m sitting there wondering… “Come again? What energy, now? And how do I make sure I keep doing it?”

There’s a scene in a children’s book that I think back to often as an adult. It’s from the Wayside School series by Louis Sachar in the very first surrealistic fiction book, called Sideways Stories from Wayside School. In this chapter, the entire class is treated to an ice cream party from their teacher, where each student’s “essence” is captured in a flavor of ice cream.

The entire class tastes all of the flavors, then votes on the one they like the best.

In the end, the entire class votes for the “Maurecia” flavor. Except for Maurecia, who, who prefers Todd’s ice cream flavor. Of her own flavor, she says this:

“This ice cream has no taste. It doesn’t taste bad, but it doesn’t taste good. It doesn’t taste like anything at all!”

After a brief pause, her teacher finally responds and says:

“Oh, I’ve made a big mistake, Maurecia. Of course you can’t taste anything. It’s Maurecia-flavored ice cream. It’s the same taste you always taste when you’re not tasting anything at all.”

This, in a sense, is the same problem of leadership and self-deception. Who we are means nothing when you’re inside of your own head. And so, when you meet people who actually tell you the truth, you know you’re in good company.

Originally published at Dry Erase.

GM @USV, alum of @StackOverflow and @NorthwesternU, board member at @CompSci_High and @NUalumni, co-founder of #BeyondCodingNYC

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