The Dangers of Wanting to Look Good

As a mother, I have often caught myself being gripped by fear: fear of making mistakes as I raise our son, of moving beyond norms, and, alas, of not looking good. Yes, I have said it. And when this happens, I witness myself not thinking clearly, and desperately looking around for answers, or for someone to rescue me. And it is because of this that some well-meaning peers have given me, or rather, imposed certain solutions on me, that perhaps were not relevant. It took me a while to realize that I had allowed myself to be micro-managed.

We can often end up being micro-managed by others, well-meaning loved ones, colleagues in our teams, and community members in the cultures we are immersed in.

So, in our families and organizations, how can we move beyond experiencing stifling fear, and being subjected to irrelevant rules?

From Being Rule-Oriented to Pragmatic

If as a mother I wish to appear perfect and often fear taking risks, I can see myself having a similar experience when interacting with teams in organizations, that is, living with the rules of bureaucracies, and wanting to obey rules, even though they may not serve us.

We could use the following four sentences, as shared by the UNDP Leadership Development Programme (LDP) to share this phenomenon, that of wanting to:

  • Play it safe (only espousing old ideas),
  • Look good (not ‘be’ or ‘do’ good, just ‘look’ good),
  • Obey rules (even if the rules are counter-productive),
  • Not make mistakes (even get promoted for doing nothing).

We can, however, consciously move from this reality that can get us stuck, to another one in which we can generate more results by using a map, a model to understand our situation better. 

Overcoming Fear with Likert and Emberling

I enjoy applying Likert Emberling’s map to understand personal leadership styles and organizational development because of its simplicity. It enables one to see how I function as a leader, and what I can do differently to be more effective.

This map was invented by someone named Rensis Likert, and more work was done on it by a man named Dennis Emberling. In it, leadership and organizational development are rated based on stages. As Monica Sharma Explains in ‘Radical Transformational Leadership’, at each stage, the process is languaged in a way that encourages us to notice, name, and be aware of our behavior. It is not about judging ourselves – it is about being mindful and noticing that our own behavior is sometimes healthy and sometimes unhealthy, that our well-being depends on moving toward BEING healthy at each stage.

We will describe only two stages of this model: stages 2 and 3.

I relate my incidents of being a mother at stage 2, that of being managed by the expectations of others, relating to rules and roles. As Monica Sharma explains, what is healthy is to follow the rules when necessary, when matters need to be predictable: in a basketball game when the referee calls someone out for a foul or double-dribbling; or when a teacher pulls up a student for lack of attendance or an assignment not completed on time; or when the accounting group notices that bills submitted are not in line with the rules.

What is unhealthy, she continues ‘is when the rules become the all-important thing, instead of a mechanism to accomplish something; for example, a manager’s obstruction of the signing of an important paper, even when all rules are followed. Many organizations get stuck at this stage, where the rules become an end in themselves.’ Another rule we could be desperately trying to follow is wanting to make our children be and act perfect.

We can thus grow into the next stage of development, which is the Likert Stage 3, Pragmatic, where the focus is on results, and where individual leadership emerges. As a mother at stage 3 I envision myself being more confident in the decisions I take for our family, beyond expectations of other mothers I respect, more comfortable to take risks.

Such a step would require me to be vulnerable and more comfortable to make mistakes, to love and accept myself more. To feel grounded, without absorbing others’ fears and expectations. This requires courage.

Freeing Oneself from Wanting to Look Good

As parents, individuals and team-mates, we are all on a journey. We can all be stimulated by the pull of our evolving self to strive to be better leaders. We can transform at every stage.

When feeling fearful, we can thus pause and ask ourselves: is my fear being driven by wanting to play safe, look good, obey the rules, and not make mistakes? Careful: we could risk being micro-managed by others, our context or culture. In that case, we can focus our attention on the results we wish to generate, for our families, organizations and communities.

What is your experience on your journey, as you move beyond the grip of fear?

Appreciation to all those who have inspired this blog: the courageous mothers, the coaches of the UNDP Leadership Development Programme (LDP), Dr. Monica Sharma, and Dr. Zahara Legesse.

Image: creation by Ruth Abraham.

Written by: Nadia Waber

Key Words: #Teambuilding #Motherhood #Leadership #LeadershipDevelopment #Courage