We All Stand on the Shoulders of Giants. To Grow, We Must Take Them off Their Pedestals.
But what if leaders and mentors never chose to step up on pedestals in the first place?
The first questions I start my coaching courses with are: “What did your most cherished mentors do? How did they make you feel? How did they help you grow? What changed in you as a result of their influence?”
We all have such people in our lives. People we look up to. People about whom we say: “That’s how I want to be when I grow up!”.
“He truly saw me”
“She listened deeply and asked a lot of questions that made me think”
“He challenged me to be better, but never judged me when I made mistakes.”
“She always made time for me”
“He encouraged me and saw potential where I myself could not see it”
“She gave me her trust, let me take risks and allowed me to shine”
“He believed I could do hard things. And I did!”
These are answers I’ve heard again and again. Different versions, same ideas. They might have been parents, grandparents, teachers, mentors or leaders we admired. People who saw the best in us, who looked for the golden nuggets hidden in our minds and hearts and allowed us to bring them forward. People who didn’t judge us. People who trusted us. People who inspired us to want to be the best version of ourselves.
We admired, respected, loved and cherished these people. Quite often, we were afraid we might let them down. Many of us felt compelled to live up to their expectations, even when they never asked us to and many of us felt guilty (or even ashamed) if we couldn’t. It is in our nature to not want to disappoint the people we admire - to strive to be the good/smart/capable human being they see in us. And in that striving, many of us grew closer to that ‘highest potential’ version of ourselves.
Somehow we often come to idealise our trusted mentors. If they see so much good in us, that means there has to be even greater good in them. And if there is so much good in them, there can’t be any shadow, can it? But the shadowless self is an incomplete self.
Nothing hurts more than realising our idols are flawed human beings. We often stubbornly ignore the reality that the mentor who is so generous to us might be mean to someone else. That the leader who inspires us might be feared by our peers. That the teacher who is so gentle and caring and non-judgemental might have a nasty, selfish streak that shows up when you least expect it. While we choose to stay blind to our idols’ flaws, we also somehow also stay blind to our own growth towards maturity, and a more integrated self which may lie just around the corner, unseen and unacknowledged.
My grandmother was the kindest, gentlest, most loving and forgiving human I have ever met. She taught me the meaning of unconditional love. She was always patient, understanding and curious. She had infinite interest in my endless chatter as a child. She listened to my stories of schoolground squabbles and later, as I grew, to my stories of early love and heartbreak. She never told me what to do. She always asked me what I thought was best and that gave me confidence I could find my way through life’s conundrums. When my father, who loved me immensely but whose patience was never on a par with hers, would criticise me, she’d say: “Remember, she is only a child. Give her time”. I felt she always had my back.
In my eyes, she was a saint who could do no wrong. I always compared her to my parents, who never seemed to have the time and space to be there for me in the same way she was. I judged my mother - her daughter - for not being as gentle, wise and present as her. Only much later, after my grandmother’s death, after painful personal loss and after becoming a mother myself, did I understand that my mother had had no chance of winning the popularity contest.
My mom was a working mother during the Communist era. Travelling between her home town and the Capital, she took endless exams for her Medical Degree and specialisations. She got a Doctorate in medicine while striving to make a living at a time when food was hard to find - literally. She worked long hours and was exhausted. She struggled with being the perfect daughter to a widowed mother (my grandmother) who had raised her through hardship and had been strict, critical, demanding and a far cry from the sage I had come to know and adore.
I only truly healed my relationship with my mother and made peace with my own imperfections as a mother when I was able to accept that my grandmother was a wonderful AND flawed human being. And I could love her just the same, without idealising her and found more compassion for myself and my mother in the process. I had to take my grandmother off her pedestal so I could grow as a woman, as well as my relationship with the rest of my family. And that was one of the hardest things I have ever done.
Versions of this story play out in workplaces every day. The leader who inspires us, whose word we take as gospel and whose limitations we refuse to see. The mentor whom we respect and whose mistakes we ignore. We all stand on the shoulders of giants and to acknowledge their flaws feels like blasphemy or betrayal. But is it? Or is it merely a sign we are growing up and embracing the full messiness of humanity?
Many famous mentoring relationships have ended when the pupil started challenging the teacher. History is littered with rifts between master and apprentice and whole fields have emerged because of it. Jung broke up with Freud. Alexander the Great let down Aristotle who in turn had left Plato behind. Tesla left Edison. For many, tearing down their mentors’ pedestals was a necessary and painful part of blossoming into their fullest potential.
But does there have to be a rift? Can we see their imperfections and still admire their qualities and gifts; acknowledge their flaws while still embracing them with gratitude? Can we learn from them while also speaking our truth when feedback is needed? More often than not, it’s the mentors who have the hardest time when roles start shifting.
The story of the student taking the mentor off the pedestal is neither new nor surprising. But what might happen if the mentor never built the pedestal in the first place?
One of the hardest lessons in adult development is exploring and embracing one’s shadow. The shadow, in Jungian terms, consists of all those aspects of our psyche that we cannot acknowledge in ourselves - either because they are undesirable or because, due to various reasons, such as trauma, we’ve come to fear them and learnt to repress them. We then proceed to project those aspects onto others - either as dislikes or admiration.
From a developmental perspective, bringing the shadow into awareness and integrating it is the work of a lifetime. And nowhere is shadow work more fascinating (and delicate) than in the relationships we treasure most. We project onto our cherished mentors the qualities we are too afraid to acknowledge in ourselves. Our repressed courage, power, voice, compassion, and wisdom - the inner greatness we are terrified to tap into - become the very qualities we most admire in the people we look up to. The process of tearing down the pedestal can be equally painful and growth-inducing because on that journey we often come to reclaim those qualities we have for so long relegated to figures we idealised.
What can we learn from all of this to help us in our own roles as mentors/ guides/ leaders?
If we understand that shadow is likely present in every relationship between mentor-mentee, revered teacher-student, admired leader-team - then we might ask ourselves how might we choose to not let the pedestal be raised in the first place. How might we counteract the projections and idealisations of those who admire us by being forthcoming with our flaws and imperfections and showing them, every day, that we are only human and that’s ok?
A while ago I was leading a workshop with about 80 leaders in the policing space. It was a workshop about emotions and self-awareness, empathy and well-being - all topics that were bound to take a reason-and-performance-oriented group of participants way out of their comfort zones. The day was opened by two very senior leaders, who both shared some very vulnerable personal stories about failure and lessons learnt from their biggest mistakes.
I still remember the awed silence that gripped the room. The bold questions that were asked by the group. And most of all, I remember the immense impact that raw opening had on the rest of our day together. People opened up. Painful stories were shared. Candid conversations were had. Gratitude was expressed and tears were shed. And at the end of it all one leader got up and said he had never expected to speak the way he spoke that day and see his colleagues open their hearts the way they had. And that all had been possible through their top leaders showing their humanity, letting go of the armour and willingly stepping off the pedestal.
This powerful and difficult lesson of letting your imperfection be seen (even/especially when there is a risk you might be judged) can have a huge impact on the way we lead, raise children, coach, facilitate and mentor others. From a developmental perspective, it is a choice to both acknowledge the shadow and step into a different way of using the power others bestow on us: from ‘power-over’ to ‘power-with’. An imperfect mentor who walks side by side of their mentee creates a completely different power dynamic than the revered sage who is always two steps ahead, perpetually in a guiding/advising/teaching role.
Whenever we acknowledge how much we don’t know, how much we have to learn - we subtly give those looking up to us their power back. We give them permission to try and fail and trust they can still be valuable. We show them that we are human and don’t have it all together, so it’s ok for them to have their bad days too.
Together with my husband, we have a running joke: “Rest assured, our child, your parents are already saving for your future therapist!”. There’s no way our daughter is not going to have stuff to work through when she grows up because we are bound to make mistakes. So we’re doing our best to be forthcoming with our own mistakes on a day-to-day basis. We say “I’m sorry”. We discuss our flaws. We never lie to her, even when the truth is hard to bear. And I’m pretty sure our pedestal has many cracks in it already, which we try to keep on adding to every day.
Similarly, in a profession like my own (and like that of many of you who read these articles), pedestals are easy to build. I’m sure most of us have heard our clients generously say humbling things like: “You changed my life”. I always remind them no coach has ever changed anybody’s life. As a client, you do your own hard, painful, courageous work and the best a good coach can do is be a clean mirror so you can see the next, wiser version of yourself and then walk with you, side by side, in that direction. When you do feel you have transformed, the first person you should be thanking is you!
A reader of this newsletter wrote a note to connect after reading my article about ‘walking the talk’ and candidly expressed his reluctance to write to me previously - reflecting on his competitive shadow and his dislike of perceived ‘gurus’, while also bravely acknowledging his own desire to be one. I appreciated and felt deeply grateful for his honesty and it immediately gave me a pang of panic. Is there anything that I project - in the way I write/speak/communicate online - that might be perceived as exuding a ‘guru-like’ vibe? Am I being completely honest in sharing my perspectives (and hoping they are useful to people) while also acknowledging I am nothing but a learner, like everybody else? Whatever I might know is but a tiny island in the middle of an ocean of not-knowing. The one big benefit of constantly trying to learn more is that I get ever more conscious of how little it is that I actually understand… That both humbles me and makes me curious and keen to keep on searching. I will never be a guru, nor do I seek them out or aspire to be one. I’m much happier forever being part of a community of learners, always giving and taking nuggets of wisdom and growing together in the process.
So here are a few reflective questions for you:
What are the power dynamics you are noticing in your leader/led, mentor/mentee relationships? Are there people you have put up on a pedestal and if yes, is that limiting you in any way?
If you are the mentor/leader - what are you doing to give others their power back by allowing them to see you in your fullness - light and shadow? Are you actively working to tear down your own pedestal? And if yes, how are you doing it?
What are the benefits of leading with honesty, vulnerability and showing yourself as you really are, particularly in contexts where everybody else is armoured up and always projecting their best side?
As always, looking forward to learning from you - so do use that comments section!
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