Archive for the ‘ family history and leadership ’ Category

She was the office manager in an engineering firm. Every time something would break – whether a toilet or a fax machine – they would call out to her. “Betsy, the ____ is broken!” No request, just a statement. Quickly, she would arrive at the scene of the malfunction, ponder and repair the offending apparatus.   And is 
frustrated that she was always expected to do everything.

One day I asked her, “Why does everyone depend on YOU to fix things, when everyone around you has an engineering degree?” Without hesitation, she responded, “That’s how I was raised.” One of 4 children, she was always the “key holder” – the one entrusted with the key to the house. What an honor. And what a responsibility. Respected as the wisest and the most accountable, she held possession of the keys. And she was also in charge of knowing where everyone was, that everyone was safe and making sure that everything was in its rightful place.  
And yet we wonder why we end up in the same family roles and same relationship dynamics (dilemmas) that we have had in our early formative years, regardless of where we are, who we are with and how old we are. It’s really not a mystery. We are most comfortable in these default roles and relationships because it is “who we are” - and we repeat our parts in each similar situation we confront over and over. We re-enact our old pattern and we subconsciously train others to respond to us in the same comfortable ways.

It is important to be aware of what we get and what we want. Alice Walker advises, “Look closely at the present you are constructing: it should look like the future you are dreaming.”   Betsy is working on sitting still when those around her act helpless.  While it frustrates her to be the “fixer”, she isn’t sure what she will become next.  Our family and our history are where we begin….how we move forward is up to us. Making changes to old roles and responsibilities can be challenging, BUT we have to give ourselves permission to dream and change

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Why do we do things the way that we do?  What was the initial source of those habits and methods?  And are they relevant today?  And why ask this question in the context of leadership?

A brief story may help to explain this:

A young woman is preparing a pot roast while her friend looks on.  She cuts off both ends of the roast, prepares it and puts it in the pan.  “Why do you cut off the ends?” her friend asks.  “I don’t know”, she replies.  “My mother always did it that way and I learned how to cook it from her”.

Her friend’s question made her curious about her pot roast preparation.  During her next visit home, she asked her mother, “How do you cook a pot roast?”  Her mother proceeded to explain and added, “You cut off both ends, prepare it and put it in the pot and then in the oven”.    “Why do you cut off the ends?” the daughter asked.  Baffled, the mother offered, “That’s how my mother did it and I learned it from her!”

Her daughter’s inquiry made the mother think more about the pot roast preparation.   When she next visited her mother in the nursing home, she asked, “Mom, how do you cook a pot roast?”   The mother slowly answered, thinking between sentences.  “Well, you prepare it with spices, cut off both ends and put it in the pot”.     The mother asked, “But why do you cut off the ends?”     The grandmother’s eyes sparkled as she remembered.   “Well, the roasts were always bigger than the pot that we had back then.  I had to cut off the ends to fit it into the pot that I owned”.

How often, do we take action and don’t even think to ask, “Why do it this way?”   Some of our behaviors were learned long ago – and come out of circumstances that may no longer be relevant and belong to another place and time.  And yet, we just keep doing the same thing, over and over.  We need to stop and ask ourselves, “Why do I do this?”   Is this an anachronism; has it outlived its relevance?  Do I need to update my repertoire?  What might I do differently and perhaps more effectively if I did not feel bound to the way I “have always done it”?  Review and change is yet  another step toward self definition.

Leadership requires flexibility and creativity.  Change is healthy and necessary for both ourselves and in our organizations.  In computers, we update our operating systems every few years (months?)!  Vital leadership requires that  we  continually question our processes and behaviors and to adopt those changes that are the best fit for these times.

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Each of us has a human need to belong….to be a part of community. So we join fraternities, clubs, and groups of one sort or another, in our attempt to fill our most basic need for connection to others. And as leaders, our role in the group is to create “buy in” and to build consensus. We want to see “eye to eye”.

But, what do we do when we don’t have that agreement or support for an idea or a vision?

Many of us, even good leaders, can feel anxious when we take a stand which sets us apart and alone. But anxious does not need to paralyze us.

Courageous leaders learn to tolerate the loneliness of being separate from the group. This is really what it means to be “self defined”. Being a self defined leader doesn’t mean bulldozing or dismissing others’  input. Leadership isn’t having all the answers. But there are times to confidently press forward with novel vision and ideas and to stand solidly behind your conviction, however unpopular.   “I” to “I” means having a secure  enough relationship with yourself -  trusting who you are -to be able to stand alone.

To begin the exploration of your level of self definition you can ask:
How was individualism viewed in your culture?
How was taking a stance received by your family?
What was it like to be different? Respected or tolerated or ridiculed?
What are your experiences of inclusion and exclusion?

How do you think this has influenced your leadership style?

Seeing eye to eye is one important aspect of leadership but the position of “I” to “I” is equally important.

In my next posts, I’ll talk about other aspects of self definition and strategies for self management.

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This might seem to be a silly question. It’s something you did many years ago; perhaps you can barely remember. Where did you go? To work? To college? To an apartment? To a volunteer agency? Nearby? Or far away?

Wherever you went, your family had an influence on this earliest process of becoming an adult. This is a time for differentiating from the family as a whole and launching into your own life. The beginning of self definition.

Our daughter, and youngest child, is off to college in a few days. And hopefully, we are supporting her in stepping into her next chapter. I want her to know that we have great faith, not only in her intelligence but in her ability to face life. We’ve taught her all we can. Now it is her chance to figure out what works for her – and what doesn’t. Who she wants to be in this world and what matters to her.

I hope we’ve supported that all along. But this is a special time. And this process will have a powerful impact on her ability to grow into adulthood and lead herself.

I hope we’ve done it well.

How did you leave home?  Hopefully, you were given “permission” to decide who you wanted to be and what was important to you. What part of that process is unfinished?

We all have some challenges in becoming independent with and from our families.  A few suggestions to move you forward:

1. You might have a conversation with family members about your growing into adulthood.

2. Consider the context in which you first left home – the historic and social context, what was happening in the rest of your family at the time, your family culture?

3. How did these impact your family’s reaction to your creating independence?

The best leaders are those who are able to know themselves and lead themselves before leading others.

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One of the greatest inspirations for the self-defined leadership work came from  Bennis and Goldsmith in Learning to Lead: A Workbook on Becoming a Leader. This assertion compels us, as responsible leaders, to review and explore the impact of our family of origin.   And then to “update”  assumptions, rules and roles as we would modify any outdated operating system.

“It is in the family that we first develop a sense of our identity, our values, our aspirations and our expectations for life

It is in our families that we have the least examined and most determining experiences.

Because our family life was so powerful in influencing our views of leadership and because we often maintain an unconscious barrier to recognizing its impact, it is difficult to uncover the lessons we learned and the messages we received.”


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I was lucky to be “just like” my grandmother.

Now, many of us don’t think of grandmothers as role models for leadership.  They bake cookies and take us to the zoo.  But my grandmother was a family legend.   She could play a concerto on the piano after the concert – without music.  She took two years of Greek and Latin in one summer to gain admission to a competitive college.

All families have stories about the people and events in their history.  My grandmother was a slight woman but a force to be reckoned with.  And I was “just like her”.  I loved music, I was curious….and I loved custard.  Really!  Loved custard – just like her.

My grandmother was terribly disappointed when her mother, a woman from the “old country”, ultimately refused to let her go to college.  “College is for your brothers and I need you here”.   A blow to be sure.  As the years went on, my grandmother grew into the role of matriarch but never saw her academic or professional goals achieved.

It can be difficult and challenging to follow in someone’s footsteps.  But it can also be a gift.  I am grateful to have been inspired to finish her “unfinished business”.  I reached higher than I might have, with the desire to fill her shoes.

Who have you been compared to in your family?  How has this impacted your achievement and success?

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You’ve worked for this promotion and recognition for quite some time.  Now, you have been assigned to a leadership position.  You feel you have what it takes to lead.

And then…………sometimes questions creep in.  Do you feel like an imposter?  Pretending to be a grownup?  Struggle with managing up?  Face challenges managing down?

How do you think we learn to think of ourselves as “little” or “not enough” or “less than”?  Or like the “big bully”?

More often than not, it begins in our families of origin.  We’re the youngest one, babied and teased.   And when we’re ready to take on responsibility and even leadership, we question our right to be in this role.  Am I up to it?  Am I smart enough?  We might be easily intimidated by our supervisor.  We might have trouble giving difficult feedback and sustaining leadership with our direct reports.

One aspect that determined our ability to take on leadership and to feel comfortable with others as leaders in authority is learned in our family.  Related to birth order, and gender and the timing of our birth.  Were you the big brother?  The care taking big sister?  The silly baby?  The girl, in a family of boys, prized in your ethnic group.    Were you raised in a time of economic security or in a time of uncertainty in your family?

All of these aspects of family are worth reviewing to understand your styles as a leader.  Then we have to decide – Is today a different time?  Are we in a different organization/system?  Can we risk taking on new behaviors and roles to attain the goals we most want to reach?

Effective leadership, from the inside out, requires us to explore ourselves in our family of origin as well as our willingness to try on new roles in the present…….to create a new future for ourselves.  And to lead that organization to success.

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Dr. Marjorie Blum

Welcome to the Self Defined Leadership blog.  As a family and systems psychologist,  I will be sharing unique ideas about leader development and leadership wisdom.

To be a leader in any setting, it is critical to know who we are – from the inside-out.  Our personal history shapes and guides us.  The impact of our most primary group, our family, is often ignored as we explore our leading roles.  We lead most effectively when we have looked as the “invisible” beliefs, dynamics and roles “inherited” from our unique families.   And then challenge ourselves to determine what is true for us today and what we need to alter.  Leadership requires skills, of course, but identifying our “self” is core to confident, effective leadership.

I look forward to your comments as well.   Please feel free to share.

For information about this unique approach to leader development, please visit our website, www.selfdefinedleadership.com.  There you will find information on our programs and coaching offerings.

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