Insights and illusions

John Wenger discusses how easily we create blind spots in our self-awareness leading us to cheerily diagnose others whilst missing our own follies. Moats and beams. He tells of a CEO who was almost comically unaware of his failings on this score.

polonius4aShakespeare was onto this. In Hamlet the courtier Polonius delivers a wonderful speech to his son about how to live a moral life of moderation in all things. It ends thus:

This above all: to thine ownself be true,
And it must follow, as the night the day,
Thou canst not then be false to any man.

Great stuff. Sadly, Polonius turns out to be a bumbling manipulator of the first order, ruthless mocked by Hamlet for his obsequiousness. And he ends up stabbed behind an arras while spying on Hamlet’s conversation with his mother. Not quite Senator Pat Geary, but close.

This syndrome gets accentuated whenever we are in a position of power.  As the dying John of Gaunt tells Richard II, “a thousand flatterers sit within thy crown”.

The combination of generic human frailty plus the effect of status makes this an almost impossible trap for anyone who styles themselves a leader.

So leaders get lots of training to develop self-awareness, but the fact that they are getting all this attention may actually contribute to the delusions of high status. (Have we created an unachievable myth of leadership?)  At least Henry V, the archetypal heroic leader in Shakespeare, has the wit to dress as a common soldier by night in order to get some idea of what his troops really think.

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