In Greek mythology Narcissus, a hunter, had the gift of extreme beauty. In the story a mountain nymph espied and professed her love for him. Narcissus shunned her as he did everyone drawn to his perfect visage. This left the mountain nymph with profound sadness. Nemesis, the Greek god of revenge, saw what happened to the mountain nymph and lured Narcissus to a pool of water. Once there, Nemesis brought him to the water’s edge where Narcissus gazed at his reflection for the first time. Failing to realize he was looking at his own image, Narcissus fell in love with himself. Upon realizing that his love never could be satisfied, Narcissus committed suicide.
Like Narcissus we all can succumb to our own perceived greatness as leaders. How many times have you encountered so-called leaders quick to boast about their accomplishments? What about so-called leaders who go out of their way to show you an accolade or prominently display an award? What about pseudoleaders who always play the role of the victim, never identifying themselves as the potential cause of the problem? These types of people look in the pool of water, like Narcissus, and see pure beauty in the form of their perceived leadership abilities. They fall in love with themselves, and whatever leadership ability they had—if any—crumbles. Could this happen to you?
In my leadership classes students and I often have a long discussion about why we tend to judge ourselves by our intentions, yet evaluate everyone else by their actions. The idea of judging oneself critically is not easy. We often discover things we would like to ignore, but as leaders, critical self-evaluation is essential to gaining followership. Do you remember leaders who continually failed to honestly evaluate themselves, and what did you think of them?
In the coming days or weeks, try to count how many times you use the words “I” and “my” and then ask yourself if you should be using the words “we” and “our” instead. If you are in a meeting with your boss or a colleague and something has gone wrong, see if you find yourself defaulting to the use of “you” and “them” when explaining problems. Challenge yourself by doing deep self-reflection and determine if “they” are truly the problem or if you have intentionally misjudged your actions by looking only at what you intended to do. Uncomfortable as it may seem, these are moments where true leadership can be forged.
As leaders we all should take a moment to look into a mirror and study what we see. We surely will find some beauty in the reflection before us, but, unlike Narcissus, we must look beyond the first things we see. We must get past the beauty and find the blemishes. Accepting our beauty, as well as our flaws, will allow us to avoid the fate of Narcissus and, instead, become the leaders we should be.
“Like Narcissus we all can succumb to our own perceived greatness as leaders. How many times have you encountered so-called leaders quick to boast about their accomplishments?”
Special Agent M. Bret Hood, an instructor in the Law Enforcement Development Unit at the FBI Academy, prepared this Leadership Spotlight.