How Leadership Forced Me To Confront My Sense of Emptiness–Then Own It.
Image: Adobe Spark / Simfalex
During my late twenties and thirties, I worked diligently to suppress the emotionalism and wild ambitions that had characterized most of my youth. Instead, I applied consistent effort to make only safe, predictable, and well-reasoned life choices.
As the years passed, this became a more central part of who I thought I was. While I often longed for a life that was somehow “bigger and bolder” than what I had chosen, I drew a deep sense of comfort and stability from my middle-class lifestyle and my work as a supervisor in a large social agency. In fact, I was quite proud of myself when, at age 41, I decided to increase my earning potential and job security by getting Master’s Degree in Leadership.
My plan was very practical and my goals modest. Hence, I had no way knowing that, ultimately, things would go so awry. I had no idea that my sensible ambitions would, in fact, turn my life upside down and awaken things within me I did not know were there and never expected to see.
A Simple Plan Disrupted
It all started simply enough. For most of the two and a half years it took to get my master’s degree, I spent my days as a social service supervisor and my nights and weekends as a graduate student. Yet, as I neared the final stages of that process, something unexpected occurred.
I was working on my final thesis examining the connection between staff burnout and management practices. While doing background research, I noticed a pattern in most of the popular management models that frustrated me.
As I reviewed the literature, I saw that in nearly all cases, modern management practices were predicated on the idea of managers maintaining emotional distance from those they supervised. While this detached aura of confidence and invincibility may have worked decades ago, my own experience had shown me that this was no longer the case.
As I thought about this situation and its impact, my frustration only grew. I saw, for example, that issues such as burnout were merely symptoms of a much bigger problem. The real issue was that management thinking continued to treat people like they were machines rather than human beings.
My mind raced. I now understood why so many managers avoided emotions and vulnerability as if they were threats to productivity. But everything I knew, including the research, said the opposite. Emotions and vulnerability were not threats; they were catalysts for productivity, motivation, creativity, and so much more.
Now I was obsessed. I decided that I was going to help fix this problem once and for all. I told myself that if, after finishing my master’s degree, I forged ahead and got a Ph.D., I could do the research to create an approach to management that put people’s humanity first.
My decision was made. I planned to get a Ph.D. and then become a consultant to share my findings with the world. I thought it was all quite simple.
The Dark Night of the Ph.D.
Occasionally, I still wince when I think of how naïve I was. While I completed my master’s with a lot of confidence, it did not take long for me to see that my scholarly ambitions to overturn modern management were uninformed at best.
The actual process of getting a Ph.D. was so much harder than I ever imagined it could be. The workload and complexity of the material were staggering. By the second semester I was desperately fatigued, mentally spent, and continuously haunted by the fear that I wasn’t smart or strong enough to do this.
Except for brief respites, those feelings were unrelenting throughout the more than seven years it took me to finish. During that time more than half my classmates quit. I almost joined them several times. Ironically, the closest call came as I was nearing the end of writing my dissertation.
I had finally completed my fieldwork and was compiling the data. However, I was so depleted that none of what I had gathered made any sense to me. I became so disgusted with myself and my progress that I was ready to pull the plug.
Thankfully, my advisor was able to calm me down by assuring me that the data was good and would all make sense in time. The problem, she said, was that I was simply too worn out to see any of that.
Of course, she was right. Instead of quitting, I took the weekend off and got some sleep. Eventually, as predicted, the data started to make sense, and I somehow finished the degree. Now I needed to decide what I would do with it.
The Curse and Blessing of Vulnerability
Even though I was no longer obsessed with transforming management, I still wanted to do consulting work and share what I learned. But my confidence had been shaken, and I overwhelmed with doubts about my ability to help organizations and the people that ran them.
Luckily, I found a great coach who helped me with a lot of this. But even that process was not easy. One session still stands out.
That day we were discussing my vision for my consulting practice. Awash in confusion and a bit of self-pity, I remember saying something like “It’s so ironic. For years, I wanted to be some kind of renowned authority on teaching organizations how to handle vulnerability. But now I feel so caught up in my own vulnerability I don’t know how I can help anyone else.”
My coach was quiet for a moment but then asked me a question that turned everything around. “But don’t you think that a lot of leaders feel the same way?” That confused me. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“Think about it,” she said. “Most people who achieve remarkable things start out just like you—with a big vision. Yet no matter how great the vision, it never works out exactly as planned. Even if you accomplish something life-changing, some problems and compromises constantly force you to confront your limitations. That’s why a lot of leaders say they often feel vulnerable and inadequate. But most of them have an even bigger problem.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
She went on, “Their real problem is that they have no one to talk to who can genuinely relate to what they’ve been through. So, they end up keeping everything bottled up inside because they don’t have someone like you. THAT’s their biggest problem.”
A Vision Revised
It took a long time for me to process all she said. As everything sank in, I started to see a lot of things differently—but none more than myself. By trying to become an “authority” on leading people, I was trying to outrun the same emptiness and vulnerability that led me to only make safe, well-reasoned choices during my twenties and thirties.
This was all part of my unconscious quest to always feel invincible and strong; but as I learned the hard way, invincible and strong is not real.
Instead, I’ve come to see that any notion of my own strength can only come from owning that sense of emptiness and vulnerability I spent my life trying to outrun. But even that is not enough. For any of this to have value or meaning, I now see that I must share all of it with others.
Originally published as Confronting My Sense of Emptiness at The Good Men Project.