Learning about yourself from others: Introspection and extrospection

As leaders, we are often told how important introspection is. Looking within ourselves before we look beyond. We can learn a lot about ourselves from contemplation, reflection, and considered thought. Increasing our self-awareness is a pivotal element of being a good leader. However, over the past few weeks observing emerging leaders before an Annual General Meeting, I’ve learnt that there is more to it than just introspection. To step backward a moment, the definition of introspection:

introspection | noun | the examination or observation of one’s own mental and emotional processes.

Introspection and everyone else

It’s easy for us to get lost on a path we are walking. Ladder climbing because it seems fine, progression for progression’s sake. Our path to development and becoming better people doesn’t always have a clear cut direction. Our own ambitions combined with situation can sometimes lead us forget the reason why we were doing it in the first place.

The reason behind our actions, and the goals we are trying to pursue. These things change, and we have to change with them.

In order to understand the world, one has to turn away from it on occasion ― Albert Camus.

To provide context, I was recently in a position where I had fallen into the trap of complacency. I had been in a role, that twelve months ago seemed to be an important progression in my personal and professional life. Each month I continued to fulfill the duties reasonably expected of me, and tick the correct boxes. I have went through a transformative process over the past year. A new role, a new job, and I’ve met some truly amazing people. What I forgot though, was to stop and think. Not just about myself, but also those around me.

Where do the ‘others’ fit in?

Through questioning who I was as a person, and where I wanted to be, I still thought the direction of my life was the right one. That I was going where I should be. It wasn’t until a particular moment, a trigger moment for me, that I realised how truly wrong I was.

I was sitting in one of my favourite cafes in Launceston. The person I was with had that look on their face, the I’ve got something to say, but I’m not quite sure how to say it look. The look a boss would probably give before dismissing you. Or the look before you break up with a girlfriend. Words that needed to be said, but were going to be held in the back of your throat for as long as humanly possible. I sensed it, and began to churn through the possible things that were going to be said. I connected the dots, but waited for the statement. This person was going to contest the role that I was intending to run for. It was the next step in the ladder for me.

The challenge for me was to establish what my response would be. But it was bigger than just saying okay, finishing our coffees, and moving on. There was a lot to be learnt from this encounter. The statement I was given wasn’t the complete truth, and I knew that. In politics, it rarely ever is. There were many half truths provided in that meeting, and over the next few weeks by others.

To quote my favourite novel, The Great Gatsby,

I was within and without, simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life. ― F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Toxic people, and us

I started to question whether being at the helm of an organisation with a toxic culture like this was one that was for me.

Save your skin from the corrosive acids from the mouths of toxic people. Someone who just helped you to speak evil about another person can later help another person to speak evil about you ― Israelmore Ayivor.

Just like positivity, toxicity is as equally contagious. Sometimes it takes stepping back and looking at the burns on your reputation, or the new depths you’ve sunken to, to realise the change that is needed.

I’ve always been a person who has measured my ethical behaviour by two standards: is the decision ‘good’ for everyone, and is it good for me? I asked this question and could answer yes to these both. But I still didn’t run. Being in a more significant role adds to my own reputation, and I can make meaningful change to disrupt the toxicity. However, it sometimes takes more than just introspection.

To know ones’ self, one must look within, and without.

Extrospection, and introspection.

I looked at those around me, and saw the effects that the power struggles of veterans had on organisational culture. I saw the constantly high membership turnover. Neither of these things I would have seen when looking inside myself, only. I saw the culture of vote trading and power blocs motivated by self-interest over meritocratic elections.

I shouldn’t be surprised really, somehow both Clinton and Trump ended up at the top of their nomination list and neither seem particularly ethical.

It was this that made me see that I couldn’t conquer all of the issues in this organisation on my own, and that is something I would lose sleep over for months to come.

But the real question was, did I want to deal in votes instead of earning the respect of peopleI’m motivated by the impressive stories of others, so the answer was simple. It was people first.

The takeaway

As I was consulting a wise colleague of mine, in week after that coffee, she responded with a profound comment.

When an airplane crashes, do you put on your own mask, or that of those around you?

My first inclination was the latter, to look after ‘me’ last. But being the logical person I am, I knew what she would say next. If I put on my mask first, I can look after more people because I’m still breathing. If I put on other’s masks, I’d get to three or four and run out of breath and perish.

I couldn’t help everyone, if I was in a downward cycle, ethically and emotionally. I knew I needed to take a step back and observe others, and learn about myself.

We can’t save the world if we don’t put our mask on first, and toxic cycles can be detrimental to our emotional and psychological wellbeing.

Image by Klearchos.