One Way to Know How Excellent You Have Become

This was originally published on July 16, 2012


The Greeks had the most instructive villains who spoke to our human foibles.  Many of their names and myths live on, and they still reveal the ways our character and leadership can go awry.  Narcissus – whose name lives on – was in love with himself and thought himself too beautiful for any other; his punishment was to fall in love with his own reflection in the river yet (obviously) be unable to embrace that visage.  Then there was Sisyphus filled with hubris, thinking himself above all others, whom Zeus sentenced with the most droll worldly task, to push a bolder up a hill every day, only to have it roll down before he could reach the top.

Today I offer a great lesson about leadership and excellence from the story of the ironsmith bad man, Procrustes.  Procrustes terrified passersby for he would drag them to his iron bed.  An iron bed sounds bad to start, but it gets worse.  If people were too short for his bed, Procrustes would use his tools to stretch them.  And if they were too long for his bed, he would cut off their legs until they fit.

I thought about Procrustes while watching Bob a virtuoso carpenter working at our house.  His carpentry belt must have weighed 40 pounds; he had a tool for everything; and his experience had taught him a thousand ways to attack a problem.  He did the opposite of the old saw (forgive the pun) which says that if all you’ve got is a hammer everything looks like a nail. Unlike Procrustes, Bob can approach every challenge and situation and see it for what it is, instead of needing to force it into some pre-determined pattern.

Procrustes offers us the antithesis of mastery or excellence.  Mastery involves seeing what is, for what – or who – it is.   Each child is different. Each day they’re different. No sale is the same, nor is any customer; the idiot driver may well be somebody’s grandpa or an out of town visitor. A boss who’s being a real ass may have any number of hidden stories going on. And your usual approach to just about anything, may not really work.

I’ve noticed how great it feels to choose not to be limited by patterns; even those that have been helpful.  In my early days of coaching, I tended to make my clients fit my Procrustean bed. I had a few tools and had to figure out how to make them relevant.  As I’ve gotten older, I feel like I can pay much more attention to the client at this moment, in these circumstances, and much less to my tools.

Procrustean tools tend to treat the other (child, staff member, colleague) as an object – someone (or something) to be told, changed, fixed, or otherwise acted upon. By contrast, tools of mastery generally involve seeing the other as a subject and therefore asking, seeing through their eyes, seeking clarity about their perception and intention.

I’d love to hear the ways in which you play Procrustes or build greater mastery, as you

Lead with your best self!


  • The Myers Briggs Type Indicator helped me learn about one of the ways that I have played Procrustes (and, I hope, play that role less often).

    About 20 years ago I had a team with 4 or 5 staff. One person seemed to be underperforming especially when compared to the rest of the team. We all took the MBTI assessment and I found out that everyone on the team was an Extrovert – except the “underperformer” – she was an Introvert. She wasn’t “underperforming” – I was using the wrong measure which had her coming up short.

    I adapted my management style and lo and behold she became a fine team member. I concluded that the problem was ME, Cathy Procrustes!

  • I like how people like drawing lessons from the past, i differ to most of them if i keep looking at the past i wont have time for future. New experiences, challenges is the

  • Ouch!! Cutting your legs to re-size would more than hurt. I think we all have an idea of what we would like and how to do it. But I think Procrustes and Bob teach us that everything is not a one-size show fits all. I’m limited in my perspective if I can only see things from my point of view. Which is why Procrustes may wish he had not cut those legs at some point? Seriously though, I think when you can see the other view point (even if you don’t agree) you can resolve some things a bit better. Are we subject to each other’s thoughts? If so, I want to get beyond me and tap into what you are thinking.

    Of course each situation varies but when I can obtain depth of thought (not necessarily deep thinking) I can lead with my best self because I have a better view of the situation. Why? Position determines my view point.

  • One form of wisdom says “Don’t stew over it; it’s water under the bridge. You can’t change the past, so get over it! Just forgive and forget!”

    Too often, this comes across as insensitivity to what a person’s endured. Like, “Its rotten that you were abused, abandoned, attacked, abased and ignored… so why do you let it continue to hurt you?” Like, “Sweep it under the rug and pretend it’s not there!”

    Another form of wisdom is the answer to the question of why we so often carry around old hurts. This wisdom encourages us to mine each negative experience for every lesson we can learn from them. Was it you, because you are oversensitive or underassertive? Was it them, because they were having a bad day or because they engage in negative behavior so consistently that you should permanently avoid them and withdraw from future interactions with them? Was it something else entirely, like maybe a combination of those two, along with perhaps fairy-tale expectations that the world is fair, and there will always be someone to protect you and defend you and make you feel safe? How I wish there were! Reality check! We’re all existentially alone when it comes to stuff like this unless one is in an unusually strong long-term relationship, but there are very darn few of those any more, with divorce rates skyrocketing.

    I find that if my emotions are nagging me about something, it’s because there’s something I can learn from it. If I try to forget such hurts, my own unresolved negative emotions rear up their ugly heads in new situations where perhaps the intent was not to abused, abandoned, attacked, abased and ignored… I think this is the basis for psychotherapy.

    Once I’ve figured out the dynamics and take responsibility for my own part in a negative interaction, I can confront the other person(s) or avoid them but at least I’ll be more prepared to deal with rotten situations in more healthy ways when they inevitably recur in the future.

    In other words, when my negative emotions gain mastery over me, I take time to reflect and gather information so I can gain mastery over them…

    …and lead with my calmer, saner self. 🙂

  • Dan,

    I came across your posts “Reading for Leading” through Maria’s website, and have thoroughly enjoyed perusing all of your previous posts!

    I especially enjoyed your inspiring post on Mastery vs. Procrustes. As a teacher, it is true that I only have success with students and parents when I “see through their eyes”.

    As a reading specialist, I must look at the individual, and search for the instructional tool that fits the student’s need, and not simply rely on my own small toolbox!

    I am also very excited by your term ” Reading for Leading”. As an educator, I contribute articles for our school newspaper that are intended to offer parents various ideas on “how to get their child to read”. Reading for pleasure, and reading to learn are both topics that I discuss. I cannot wait to offer our community the concept of ‘reading for leading’.

    I look forward to more of your posts. They will help me to lead with my best self!

    • Marguerite,
      I’m glad to have you as a reader AND contributor.
      I am learning Spanish as we speak. I got very frustrated today (a distinct feeling of near-panic that I remember from Chemistry and Trigonometry; I see it now as very physical/emotional and could see my functioning brain shutting down). My maestra made a marvelous move to switch modalities, and I got it!
      Thanks again for weighing in!

    • Marguerite,
      The point I was hurriedly making above was that I agree with your point about Procrustes-for-teachers. My maestra did not try to force me into a bed that just wasn’t fitting. Instead she moved me and broke things open.
      I think a lot of kids hit a point where they are trying hard, but the anxiety level escalates, and they can’t think hard enough to get it. They need to reapproach.

  • I follow your column, but really am only beginning to gain leadership experience despite being well into middle age. I have responsibility without authority, taking charge of my library when my boss is out, including when she goes on vacation. My problem is more that my boss has been very Procrustes-like lately. I figure most bosses are and there’s very little I can do to change them, How do I learn to deal with it without becoming a nervous wreck, especially given that with jobs being hard to find lately I can’t just pick up and find a new job very easily. Help. I really need to try to keep calm enough to function and hold down my job with a boss who seems to get angry and erupt at any little thing!

  • Thanks Dan! This was a very interesting article. As a student, I feel like I do this a lot for my different classes. Although I am a double major in computer science and business, I try to use the same type of thinking for both fields.

    This takes up a lot of my mental bandwidth and I find it pretty hard to switch gears.

    Do you have some tips on how I could combat this? To change my frame of thinking and recognize the differences between the many different subjects?

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