You're a Stick Figure – or Two

You’re a Stick Figure – or Two


“Lead with your best self” is the way I close my RFL columns, and I thought in the next few weeks I’d share some of the seeds at the core of that expression.  Fundamental to this exhortation is  the notion that you can present to yourself and to others all kinds of versions of you – some awesome and some way less than your best.  And, in each moment, and in a thousand accumulating moments over time, you have a choice of the self with which you’ll lead.

If there is one great enemy to your best, it is fear.  I know a young guy who’s awesome with other people. He can meet other young people or adults and has an uncanny way of making them feel cared about and connected.  Yet he gets very nervous at the notion of stretching beyond his usual boundaries. He can hardly stand the conversation about joining a new league, activity, or camp. His flight instincts get activated, quite literally, sending him not only out of the conversation, but right out of the room.  Once I drew for him a picture that I’d seen Mary Ann (M.A.) Hastings, my sage business partner, draw for a client: I drew one stick figure about an inch high; and to its right I drew another about 4 inches high. Quoting M.A., I said, while pointing to the small figure, “This one is how you see yourself sometimes; and this one,” pointing to the giant figure next to it, I said, “is how others see you. You are so much more than you imagine yourself to be.”

When that guy learns to manage his natural fears and thereby lead with his best self, oh what a force he will be. I’m convinced that it is fear – natural, biological, genetic, and developmental – that puts him, and us inside that small and, we imagine, safe little stick figure on the left.  Perhaps you ask: fear of what?  All kinds of things: embarrassment, failure, attack, being wrong, being isolated, being different, getting fired!  Note that each is a variant of our most deep and ancient fears: isolation, pain, death.

To lead with your best means to choose to step outside the seeming safety and to engage. Your big stick-figure self will learn so much more by engaging than by laying back and playing small.  So, find your best self – the values or observations or work product or love – that are the best you have and see if there isn’t a way fearlessly to share them in this short week ahead.  Seems like a great game to play and one that will help in the long run for you to

Lead with your best self,


  • A big stick and a small stick, are something like a leader and follower/ employee/ parishioner/ committee member, et cetera. For some what keeps a person a small stick person is the need to belong to the group they lead, or not be different. A leader must accept that he will be different in some ways, so it is not good to seek peers among those who are lead. To become a big stick, the small stick person needs to know other big stick people. That can help a person who has the talent to lead accept that they are different. Leadership as you, Dan present mountains of examples of in Reading for Leading comes in many forms, so that everyone has the capacity to lead within different contexts.

  • Dan,

    I have found myself in some compromising situations at the Mentoring Network Of Jackson County meetings which I chair.

    In 2007, I was voted by the present members of the network (formerly the Mentoring Collaborative Of Jackson County, and is also registered with Mentor Michigan), to be the chair, being I had been a member of the collaborative just under (6) months, I had wondered why was I voted to be the Chair; There were members who had been members since the collaborative was formed in 2002.

    I had often put myself against the members professional capacity, there is a Dean from Baker College, a former DDA Excecutive Director, the MPRI Director for example, who are members of the network. I looked at these powerful individuals having Bachelor, Master and Doctorates, while I did not finish college, and working as a Corrections Officer.

    I felt I was being used as a guinea pig at first, noticing I was not equiped for this type of “corporate world”, I often felt like an outsider. I was a professional in my line of work, (I am retired from the department as of this year), however, I had to make some adjustments not only to learning how to chair a meeting but also to feel comfortable enough to feel like I was one of “them”.

    Now, my confidence has elevated. What I had learned is being myself, my passion to promote mentoring, and desire to volunteer in the community is why I was voted to chair the Mentoring Network Of Jackson County meetings.

    Thomas K. Burke – Mentor

    • Thanks, Mentor Burke, for your courage in sharing your feelings of inadequacy, the basis for them, and how you gained ways to overcome that insecurity by stepping out of your zone of comfort (learning to chair a meeting, etc.). Learning is always about stepping out of our zone of comfort / the way things always were and daring to believe that we can try something new, even though it’s scary, because we could fail.

      Perhaps your motivation to grow by trying something new was your passion for mentoring…?

      Perhaps all of us will grow into our best selves to the extent that we pursue our passions.

  • I appreciate the message of the drawing, Dan, even though the 4″ figure may have the capacity to be a 6′ figure, since we can always grow, always become better than we were, right?

    Maybe it doesn’t matter if we’re 1″, 4″, or 6′! Maybe it only matters that we keep learning, keep growing into something better, more generous and capable than we were.

    Maybe leading with our best selves means always being willing to stand at that edge where we’re moving into new territory out of a conviction that here’s where we need to go, even though there are no guarantees about how it will all work out in the end, even though it’s scary and uncomfortable to enter the unknown.

    According to FIRO theory (Fundamental Interpersonal Relations Orientation), developed by the military to increase the effectiveness of combat command teams, all of us want to feel significant, competent, and likable, so all of us have some fear of being ignored, humiliated, and / or rejected. These feelings affect the way we behave along continuums of inclusion, control, and openness.

    If we’re to become all we can be, it’s helpful to understand the extent to which we operate out of fear… or out of caring… I believe the best outcomes occur when we operate out of inclusion, acceptance, and caring compassion.

    I learned about FIRO Theory in a wonderful book entitled _Radical Collaboration_.

    In my personal life, like Mentor Burke above, I find myself feeling both underqualified to teach professionals with lots of letters after their names (since I only have a bachelor’s degree… even though I’ve been teaching professionals through our company’s corporate university for a couple of years now) and at the same time, uniquely qualified to share what I’ve learned from leaders in the disability rights community over 20+ years.

    Now, I am honored to have been invited to present at the next Michigan Works! Association conference on the subject of serving persons with non-apparent disabilities. Wow!

    This is tremendously exciting and gratifying after a lifetime of rejection as a bigmouth troublemaker every time I advocated for the rights of friends with disabilities. At the same time, in some ways, it’s also a bit scary. What if others don’t accept my message? What if they don’t like what they hear? What if the organizer hears a lot of complaints and regrets for having invited me? Eek!

    When such thoughts impinge on my consciousness, I have to re-direct my thoughts to times when my message has been gratefully received, and hailed as important progress. I have to remember that good things CAN happen. It takes thought control.

    No matter what, I can’t let this opportunity pass due to fears of rejection, fears of failure, fears of humiliation. I have to trust that my passion for universal access and inclusion will help others see the value of accessing the ABILITIES of people with disabilities every time we provide reasonable accommodations and assistive technology to supply lost or missing function.

    I see so much value in the inclusive nature of the disability rights community and its IL principle of involving people who are affected by decisions! As a result of my passion, I have to go outside my comfort zone, ignore the fears, and lead with my best self, not that scared little undereducated 1″ figure in my head.

    Thanks for encouraging us to dare to grow, even though new shoots are extremely tender and vulnerable.

  • Dan – Let’s be honest and the idea is no easy task because our entire society and system is cracking under the strain of institutions we have created to protect and guide us. We thought these institution like Wall Street, et al and our political system were to be our safe guards and now we know they are not interested in us as individuals but respond only to wealth and power. Your big stick-figure self is really our only plan going forward, hope is nice but not a course of action – too bad more Americans will never get the picture drawn for them including the Joe Stacks of the world. Remember him, he was the guy who flew the small plane into the IRS Bldg. Perhaps had he only gotten your message he might have given himself and us a break and decided to help instead of hurt his fellows. Your healthy advise is correct I believe as you say, “we need now to be willing to learn so much more by engaging than by laying back and playing small. So, find your best self – the values or observations or work product or love.”

    We can take to heart in fact that millions have already found our “best self.” For us, we do see ourselves as caring, helping decent people. We must be the roll models that display everyday the countless small actions that we the unknown people do that resolve our broken system. We collectively take these actions that lie at the roots of the great moments of history. Too many Joe Stacks who are destroying themselves, and maybe the world, need your lesson and us to show them a better way through life and perhaps they too may then learn how all of us together could be leading the way to a better future.

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