Sometimes, fake it

There are times when I am so unlike myself that I might be taken for someone else of an entirely opposite character. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Confessions, 1782

Recently, Mary and I hosted our neighborhood’s monthly dinner party. From 7:00 to 11:00 p.m. our home was filled to capacity with people.

I struggle at these events because I am the archetypal introvert. My idea of a good evening is to sequester myself in my study and read a book. I would rather chew on cut glass than have to be “on” for four hours at a social event.

But last night I played the part. I was a gregarious, talkative, engaging host.

Was I being disingenuous and hypocritical? I don’t think so, because sometimes we need to act like someone we’re not. Psychologists have a term for this: counter-dispositional behavior.

I learned this lesson from psychology professor Brian Little’s book titled Me, Myself, and Us: The Personality and the Art of Well-Being. Little teaches a large, popular psychology course at Harvard. Though he is an introvert, his teaching style is very animated and energetic, so much so that his students are always surprised to hear him admit that when he’s teaching, he’s also acting. Little explains and defends his behavior in chapter three of his book: Free Traits: On Acting Out of Character.

I’m a big proponent of authenticity; we all need to discover how we are unique, accept the distinctions, and live authentically. Be your true self because therein lies deep satisfaction. Long term, you cannot sustain inauthentic behavior. But in the short term you can, and sometimes should, fake it.

Dr. Little says there are two main reasons why counter-dispositional behavior is often necessary — for professional reasons and for love.

If certain aspects of your work require you to be someone you’re not, have the emotional fortitude to play the part. For instance, if you’re a salesperson you may need to be more animated than your real self would normally be. Likewise, if for the love of family and friends you need to put aside your true self and temporarily assume a new persona, do so.

Last night I was an extroverted host. I did it because I love my neighbors and wanted them to feel welcomed and affirmed during their brief stay in our home. I couldn’t maintain that image 24/7, but I did for 247 minutes. Granted, it was exhausting, and when the last guest left, I went to my study, pulled out a book, and resumed my normal identity.

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Leaders: maintain a “helicopter perspective” on your organization

A helicopter is able to hover over a specific geographical area and change altitude quickly. It can be at 200 ft. one minute and then quickly rise to 5,000 ft. A fixed-wing plane can’t do that.

Leaders, continually negotiate a “helicopter perspective” on your organization. Sometimes you must think granularly and get involved in micro aspects of the organization; at other times, you may need to shift to a “high-altitude” and consider macro concerns. See the forest and the trees.

Here are two examples

The Sewell family has been selling cars in the Dallas area for 100 years. Their 13 luxury-car dealerships are known for superior customer service.

Carl Sewell III is the current leader of the corporation. His assistant told me this story.

“One day I overheard Mr. Sewell talking on the phone with the CEO of General Motors. They were discussing global issues: the world economy, the Federal Reserve raising interest rates, and the price of steel on the commodities market. When the phone call ended, Mr. Sewell walked from his office to the parts department and asked, ‘Have we received the front bumper for Mrs. Johnson’s Escalade?’ He shifted from a 5,000 ft. perspective to a 200 ft. one in a matter of minutes. He was able to toggle between big-picture and granular issues.”

In their great book on the leadership skills of Winston Churchill, Sandys and Litman highlight the fact that Churchill had a mind for details: “Churchill was a man who mastered details without losing sight of the larger picture. He needed to know the progress of countless complicated operations. He wanted to know production figures, delivery dates, forecasts, and statistics.”

Churchill’s mind for detail is exemplified in a memo he sent to the First Lord of the Admiralty during WWII in which he suggested a way that seamen could communicate more efficiently: “Is it really necessary to describe the Tirpitz (a German Battleship) as the Admiral von Tirpitz in every signal? This must cause a considerable waste of time for signalmen, cipher staff, and typists. Surely Tirpitz is good enough for the beast.”

But Churchill also maintained a broad perspective, dealing effectively with huge, world-wide events and trends.

Leaders, don’t stay in the “clouds,” out-of-touch with the details of your organization, but don’t get so mired in details that you can’t see the forest for the trees. Maintain both perspectives.

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Don’t be too discouraged by the low points in life or too emboldened by the high points  

An Eastern monarch asked his wise men to invent a phrase that would apply to all times and in all situations. After careful deliberation, they offered this statement: “And this too shall pass away.”

When Abraham Lincoln heard the story, he mused: “How much it expresses. How chastening in the hour of pride; how consoling in the depths of affliction.”

Yes, life is a series of ups and downs, but the severe peaks and valleys seldom last. Don’t be too discouraged by the low points in life or too emboldened by the high points in life. Remind yourself and others of the transitory nature of life. Try to maintain a balanced perspective.

In my early forties I had several career leaps that catapulted me up near the top of my profession. The rails were greased and the momentum strong. But the high times were soon tempered by the challenges of life. Good times don’t last forever.

In my late forties I became clinically depressed. I thought my life as I knew it was coming to an end. If you’ve never been depressed, it’s hard to understand the feelings of hopelessness and confusion that torment the mind. I told my wife that we needed to liquidate our assets and go live with her mother out in the country. But that season of my life passed. With the help of medications, I climbed out of the dark abyss and resumed normal life. Difficult times don’t last forever.

When you’re going through tough times, don’t be overly discouraged because “this too shall pass away.” And when you’re going through times of prosperity, don’t be smug and proud because “this too shall pass away.” Events are seldom as catastrophic or fortunate as we think. This truth, if embraced, will give us ballast and stabilize us emotionally.

Winston Churchill touched on this thought when he said, “Success is not final…failure is not fatal…it’s the courage to continue that counts.”

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Silence: the key to a respectful, productive conversation

Also, information about a free video series on the true meaning of Christmas

Silence is one of the great arts of conversation. Marcus Tullius Cicero

Several years ago I heard the Juilliard String Quartet present a lecture/recital. Their playing was wonderful but my biggest take-away from the event had nothing to do with music but rather the quality of their conversation. Through their example I learned how people can have a meaningful, respectful, and profitable conversation. While I was intrigued by what they had to say, I was particularly fascinated by how they conversed.

Before the quartet played, they shared their thoughts about each piece they were about to play. It was a relaxed and thoughtful conversational atmosphere in which each player had the opportunity to speak.

One at a time, a player would share his thoughts, and when he was finished there would be silence— sometimes lasting 10-15 seconds—before another member of the quartet would begin to share his thoughts. The group had such high respect for what each colleague was sharing that they allowed time for each statement to “sink in” before another thought was introduced into the conversation. Also, while one person shared, the others seemed to truly listen; they were not just using that time to craft what they would say when it was their turn.

For instance, one member might say, “The thing I enjoy most about the second movement of the Beethoven is that it borrows the theme from the first movement but develops it in a different way.” Then there would be silence. And then another player might offer, “That’s an interesting observation. At first glance, the themes seem to compete with each other, but near the end of the movement one understands that they are actually complementary.” Then another pause…and so on.

The key element in this respectful and profitable conversation was the moments of silence.

When was the last time you conversed with a group of people and the conversation contained times of silence? It is a rare occurrence. Normally, we try to anticipate the end of someone’s sentence and then compete with others for who gets to speak next. Sometimes we don’t even allow a person to finish his thought; the beginning of a new sentence overlaps the end of his.

This concept is so foreign to most people that the only way I’ve been able to incorporate it is to discuss it with a particular group and then practice. I did this with my family. I distributed this essay, we talked about it, and then staged a trial conversation. At first, it was difficult and awkward—it’s hard to change deeply-ingrained patterns—but eventually the conversation became well-paced, courteous, and profitable.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Click here to read more about how to have a thoughtful, respectful conversation.

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