A tautology? In a sense yes, because it’s definitional that leaders stand apart.
But my friends Kouzes and Posner in The Leadership Challenge stand this “going first” on its head. They don’t mean “goes first” because he or she is brimming with confidence, bravely blazing a trail that no one else can see. Instead, their exemplary leader is going first … to trust. And creating trust through self-disclosure. This going-first leader says things like, “I’m not sure.” Or, “I really don’t know.” Or even, “I need help.” Kouzes and Posner are pointing us to a new form of leadership, that helps us to deal with the tough issues in business, politics, family. Our hardest issues require a deeper form of honesty, humanity and humility than the old fashioned “great man” can possibly deliver.
One place we need such humble going-first is in mental health. As the heroics of the NBA playoffs are underway, three players stood apart last month. They went first. Kevin Love of the Cavs, Kelly Oubre of the Wizards, and DeMar DeRozan of the Raptors openly, quite graphically described their battles with mental health struggles. Love talked about terrifying panic attacks, giving room for Oubre to do the same and for DeRozan to share his struggles with depression.
It’s easier to live in a pretend world of high-flying super-confident heroes, but it is more heroic to deal with realities. Facing mental challenges is more heroic than numbing oneself with drugs, alcohol, sex, or whatever (I’ve done that). More heroic than taking your pain out on your family and children (I’ve done that). More heroic to swallow your pride and fear, in order to seek help, than to labor in secrecy, shame and pain (Man, have I done that).
In learning about these stories, I learned that Kevin Love was not the lead-leader. Royce White was. He is not in the NBA playoffs this year. Unless you followed the Iowa State Cyclones, you wouldn’t likely know that he was the #16 player in the NBA draft in 2012. But after being drafted by Houston, he couldn’t find a place in the NBA. Maybe it was his play. But maybe it was that he pushed for accommodations for the anxiety disorder, which he was diagnosed with when he was 16. He wanted to have his own therapist, wanted to take a bus to some cities because of difficulty flying, and wanted concessions written in his contract. The team refused him. And David Stern, the NBA Commisioner, refused to meet with him.
Last year White was the MVP in the Canadian Basketball League and this year was again that league’s scoring leader. He’s also smart and courageous (how many professional athletes answer reporters’ questions with explanations about how “confirmation bias” works? Heck, how many CEOs or congress people know what confirmation bias is?!) I admire such courage to stand for something long before others could see it. It appears the NBA is constructively looking for a 21st century approach to players’ mental health issues. Good for them.
How have you gone first? Shared some vulnerability to confront something important? And how do you listen and respond when courageous people around you do the same?
Leading, I hope, with your best self!
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