Businesses of all sizes benefit greatly from strong leadership at all levels, but practicing this leadership is easier said than done. A 2015 report from Brandon Hall Group found that 71 percent of companies said their leaders weren’t ready to lead their organizations into the future.
The problem isn’t that organizations struggle to find high-potential leaders, but rather that those leaders don’t actually learn to inspire, nurture, and empower the employees and teams they lead. Often, the root of this failed development is a unique and powerful deterrent to success: self-deception.
Self-deception, as explained in the Arbinger Institute’s book, Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box, prevents leaders from seeing what is happening around them, thus inhibiting effective solutions and honest leadership. According to the book, “Whether at work or at home, self-deception obscures the truth about ourselves, corrupts our view of others and our circumstances, and inhibits our ability to make wise and helpful decisions. To the extent that we are self-deceived, both our happiness and our leadership are undermined at every turn.”
Confronting self-deception can transform leaders and the organizations they run. Leadership and Self-Deception tells the fictional story (based on actual experiences) of Tom Callum, who is meeting senior leadership at his new job. The lessons these senior leaders impart form the core of the book—a book everyone on your team should read.
Leadership and Self-Deception compares self-deception to being trapped in a box. Bud, a senior leader in the book, elaborates on feeling trapped within the box at a previous job: “‘I was stuck because I had a problem I didn’t think I had—a problem I couldn’t see. I could see matters only from my own closed perspective, and I was deeply resistant to any suggestion that the truth was otherwise. So I was in a box—cut off, closed up, blind.’”
Bud states that self-deception—the box—entraps many leaders in organizations and keeps them from serving their employees and the full purpose of the organizations. The influence of leaders is powerful, and good leaders rise above their own needs and assumptions about how others perceive them to truly focus on their employees’ motivations. These leaders inspire devotion and commitment in setting the example; self-deceived leaders “provoke people to resist them.” Within the box, you see yourself and others as mere objects. When leading from outside of the box, you see your team as people with needs, concerns, and a purpose.
In the Box
We all find ourselves in the box from time to time, believing we are right and the other person is wrong, even if the other person has done nothing to give that impression. The authors frame this as self-betrayal; because we are so focused on being right, we refuse to collaborate or even consider another position. In the book, Bud says, “‘If I betray myself, my thoughts and feelings will begin to tell me that I’m justified in whatever I’m doing or failing to do.’”
This self-betrayal subsequently distorts the view of a leader suffering from self-deception —and this is how leaders find themselves stuck in the box. Once imprisoned there, leaders may;
- Inflate others’ faults
- Inflate their own virtue
- Inflate the value of things that justify their own self-betrayal
- Blame, blame, blame
These characteristics clearly reflect poor leadership but are nonetheless prevalent—maybe even in yourself. And when leaders are stuck in the box, they tend to pull others in, much to the detriment of their organizations, the employees they oversee, and themselves.
Escaping the Box
Rising above self-deception gives leaders the opportunity to serve the greater good. Ever the practical guide, Leadership and Self-Deception details strategies for how leaders can get out of the box and stay out. Essentially, reflecting on a behavior from inside and outside the box provides clarity that can mitigate self-deception. As Lou, another senior leader at Tom’s new company, states, “‘So although it’s true that there is nothing we can think of and do from within the box to get ourselves out, the fact that we are almost always both in and out of the box at the same time, albeit in different directions, means that we always have it within our capacity to find our way to a perspective within ourselves that is out of the box.’”
The key is questioning our own personal experience. This is easier than it sounds; people do it all the time. Lou says, “‘When that happens, we know in that moment what we need to do: We need to honor them as people.’” Moreover, understanding what the box looks like allows leaders to understand how others feel when they are in the box or dealing with someone already there. This recognition positively impacts every leadership decision you make and interaction you have.
Leading without Self-Deception
Strong leadership must empower the employees you lead—but that’s impossible without introspection regarding your own limitations and potential self-deception, which can affect your ability to see the needs of those around you. Your out-of-the-box actions and style develop employees into better workers and, ultimately, leaders who operate outside of the self-deception box, as well.
This article has touched upon just a few of the concepts from Leadership and Self-Deception. The book is a must-read because it delves into deeper ways self-deception permeates everyday life—and not just the workplace. When you and your team see how this attitude affects others, the potential for positive change awaits.