In 2001, I was about to take over as the medical director of primary care at the University of Chicago.
I expressed reservations to a previous director about my ability to run a clinic that included several clinicians who were not only older than I but also who had actually been my teachers 10 years earlier. What she said in response did more to shape my tenure as medical director during the next seven years than any other advice I ever received: “What people really want is leadership,” she said.
We all want our doctors to be the best. We want our nannies to convince us our children are safe with them. We want our friends to give us sage advice and support that makes us feel as if we can do it — whatever “it” may be. We want waiters and waitresses to give us great recommendations about what to eat.
In short, we all want our lives to be populated with great leaders. Not people who tell us what to do, but people with our best interests in mind who guide us expertly — even when we think we don’t want them to.
One of the greatest obstacles to becoming a great leader, however, is the intensity of our desire to give people what they want rather than what’s best for them or what’s best for the organization.
In the context of business especially, what often defines a leader as resilient is his or her ability to choose what’s right rather than what’s expedient or popular.
So, how do we cultivate the ability to resist pleasing others when pleasing them is the wrong thing to do?
First, we must recognize whether our self-esteem depends too much on others liking us. Does the idea of disappointing people or angering them make you feel anxious? Is it difficult to endure even a minor amount of conflict? Are you obsessed with worrying about how others feel about you? Are your actions motivated predominantly by the way they will cause others to view you? If the answer is yes, you’re likely too dependent on the goodwill of others to make an effective leader.
We can release ourselves from this tether of co-dependency by thinking about disappointing others — when disappointing them is the best thing to do — as practice.
If each time we’re faced with the need to say no to someone, we view it as practice that will enable us to become a resilient leader, we’ll be free to fail without judging ourselves as failures, and to find the strength to say no without becoming angry.
When we do fail — as invariably we will — we can simply resolve to do better next time, encouraging ourselves by recalling that setting appropriate boundaries doesn’t usually incite disapproval but rather respect.
The desire to please others may never leave us, but just because we feel a desire doesn’t mean we must obey it.
For example, by deciding in advance we will respond to all requests with an automatic “Let me think about it and get back to you,” we can gain the time and space to become mindful of the influence our desire to please has over us.
If we allow ourselves to feel whatever discomfort or anxiety saying “no” makes us feel — that is, make our goal saying “no” rather than avoiding the anxiety saying “no” engenders — we’ll be able to teach ourselves to say “no” when we should. In learning to recognize when we’re trying to avoid emotional pain, we become more capable of experiencing it without judgment.
Though we may continue to feel anxious when disappointing others, with practice we’ll learn to tolerate the anxiety it stirs up well enough not to be controlled by it. When we free ourselves, not from anxiety, but from its control over us, we’ll have become truly resilient leaders.