It’s interesting to discover what people have found to be true about life and leadership, but it’s fascinating to hear what they’ve found to be false. In the “sh*t that isn’t true” blog we explore cultural clichés and lessons you should “unlearn” on Day One.

A Walking Cultural Cliché

“T

his was hard Dudley!” Christy laughed when we began diving into the interview.

“Really?” I asked, surprised. “I figured it would be fun!”

“No, it was really challenging for me,” she responded. “I read the questions at first and I’m like, ‘Ha, ha, oh, this is fun; cultural clichés, let’s do some Googling and see what ones resonate for me – ones that I’ve moved on from.’” She paused for a moment before blurting out, “But I think I’m a walking cultural cliché Drew.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I thought about it at first and thought, ‘Yes, I can do this, no problem.’” She replied. “But then I started to realize, ‘I don’t disagree with any of these, I kind of giggle at them.’ They more resonated with me than came off as things I’d moved on from…the glass is half full, pay it forward, shoot for the moon…I look at the world through rose-coloured glasses. I wake up every morning with optimism and looking for opportunity.”

And it’s here our conversation deviated from what I intended, and instead made me aware of some personal behaviour I hadn’t considered before.

And it’s here our conversation deviated from what I intended, and instead made me aware of a distinction I’d never considered before.

Are you handing out A’s?

“I

guess the hard part about being a walking cliché is that you can get disappointed really easily,” she said. “Because I do go into a room hoping for and expecting the most of others, and truly believing in what’s possible. That can be tough when it doesn’t work out that way.”

Christy paused for a moment.

“Have you ever read ‘The Search for Shining Eyes’?” She asked.

“No,” I responded. (Though you can read it here).

“It’s a great piece,” she said. “It talks about what happens when you walk into a room and you give everyone an ‘A’.”

“I don’t understand,” I said. “What do you mean by giving someone an ‘A’?”

“It’s about expectations,” Christy said. “Think about children – if you make them feel like you have high expectations for them, like they’re someone who deserves to generate those expectations, they’re going to live up to them because they want to be that person you see them to be.”

“The problem,” she continued, “was that as we get a little older we stop having high expectations of people.  We start to get a little cynical and we start to think that the worst might happen.”

That observation got me thinking about the expectations I set for people when I meet them.  Let’s adopt the perspective “giving someone an ‘A’” means simply assuming they can live up to your highest expectations from the moment you meet them.  The problem is that somewhere along the way I adopted a “prove you deserve them” approach to setting expectations.  I’m more than happy to expect the best from people…once they give me a reason to do so.

Think about children – if you make them feel like you have high expectations for them … they’re going to live up to them because they want to be that person you see them to be.

Christy made me realize that my approach was akin to giving everyone you met a “C” – a grade right in the middle.  And perhaps lowering your expectations for people avoids the occasional (or perhaps all too frequent) disappointment that comes from people not living up to your “A” expectations, but it also guarantees most of what you’ll get in life from others is the “C” you expect.  If it’s true that people aim to live up to the expectations you set for them, having the courage to consistently expect the best from others (to keep handing out “A’s”) may push many around you to be better – which I see as a fundamental tenet of leadership.

In “handing out C’s” I’m trying to reduce the number of disappointments in my life.  However, I’m setting myself up for one huge disappointment: a life with fewer moments where I was a catalyst to help someone become better.

But I have to accept if I’m going to commit to “giving out A’s” to everyone by keeping my expectations high, I’m going to continue to face those moments of disappointment, which isn’t something I relish.

However, Christy helped me realize that there’s something to celebrate in disappointment – the fact that it can act as an indicator of which relationships you value the most.

Anger vs. Disappointment

“I

think it’s exhausting to be disappointed in someone,” She said.  “It’s easier to reconcile being angry about something. Disappointment is an emotional investment. I think when it’s disappointment, it’s not quite so easy to put your finger on what caused it. With anger, there was usually something specific –a tipping point–something to get past. With disappointment, it’s not so much that way.”

“I wonder if expectations are necessary to be disappointed?” I asked.  “Anger can happen without previous expectations. Anger can be spontaneous.”

“Completely,” Christy agreed. “And it’s fiery.”

“But does that mean you can’t be disappointed with someone you don’t know?” I asked. “Don’t you have to know someone to have expectations of them?”

“Let me put it this way,” Christy replied. “I don’t think you can be disappointed without being invested. I can read something in the newspaper and be angry about it, or I can decide I don’t like someone, having read something about them, but I don’t think I could be disappointed in them. I think if you’ve chosen to invest time, energy and emotion in someone, then that’s when you can get disappointed.”

“Ah,” I said, laughing. “So the key is to never invest in someone, and you can’t possibly be disappointed!”

“Yeah, absolutely,” she deadpanned. “A wonderfully lonely, unfulfilling life.”

But her response reminded me of something—life is empty and unfulfilling without relationships that are important to us.  But with emotional investment comes the inevitable possibility of disappointment.  Disappointment that can be difficult to process, and even more difficult to forgive.

And even if you can find a way to forgive, can you forget?  Perhaps not, but maybe that’s a gift that we’re given.  Perhaps we can treat the memory of disappointment as a reminder that someone is a person we care about and are invested in. When we feel the frustration of disappointment, we have a choice – dwell on it, or use it as a reminder that the relationship in question is important enough to fight for.

When we feel the frustration of disappointment, we have a choice – dwell on it, or use it as a reminder that the relationship in question is important enough to fight for.

Feel Free to Have All the Feels

“L

aughter isn’t the best medicine.”

Coming from a woman who has cracked me up more than almost anyone I know, I found this to be a strange assertion on her part, and said so.

“Yeah I know,” she said. “It suits my personality to say laughter is the best medicine. If you think about joy, you think about laughter and smiling. But In all honesty, you can experience joy and there can be tears involved, too.  Sometimes laughter isn’t the best medicine – sometimes it’s a good, long, hard cry and the best sleep afterwards.”

“So, if you sat down on Day One with your 13-year-old self, you’d tell her ‘don’t always feel like you have to damn well laugh in the face of shit, feel free to just cry’?” I asked.

“I’d tell her to feel free to have all the feels,” she shot back.

It’s natural to be driven to seek out things that make us feel good and avoid those that cause us discomfort.  It’s easy to lower our expectations to avoid disappointment, but in doing so we may be making our lives far less impactful than they could be.  It’s easy to think that it’s best to force ourselves to smile when we feel otherwise, but doing so ignores the fact that sometimes acknowledging our pain is a far faster way to move through it.

Leadership isn’t always looking on the bright side.  Sometimes it’s having the courage to “feel all the feels” and recognize that powerful emotions can be seen as an indicator of that which is most important to us.  Optimism can be a leadership tool, but like all tools, there are some projects for which it is a poor fit.  Effective leadership requires we tap into our entire range of emotions, and recognize the upside of the downside of our experiences.

Leadership isn’t always looking on the bright side.  Sometimes it’s having the courage to “feel all the feels” and recognize that powerful emotions can be seen as an indicator of that which is most important to us.

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