“I don’t believe you are committed to us.” I heard those words again and again in the late 1990s. Every time I met with my boss at the conference center where I worked, he would express his growing unease with my attitude. I had worked there for almost six years, felt called there for life, and had led the staff team while he took a three-month sabbatical, yet my conflict with him continued to increase. Nothing I did in terms of increased workload would satisfy his distrust toward me. The funny thing is: he was right and I was wrong! What my boss was sensing was an independence in me that was hidden by commitment to the mission of the center, but could be seen in my attitude toward him.
The price we pay for independence is separation from those around us, and isolation leads to mediocrity.
Those of us who are leaders can easily struggle with this temptation – to ‘be in charge’ rather than to invite others to follow us as we seek to lead authentically. We also fall into the trap of failing to value the strengths of those around us. That was the error I had embraced in my “lack of commitment” at the conference center.
See how many of these characteristics of independence you can identify in your life:
1. Following my own agenda
Independence creeps in when we follow our own agenda, rather than willingly committing to the success and growth of those around us. This applies as much to those "over" me in the structure as to those around me or "below" me.
Presumption is closely related to following my own agenda. If I am following my own agenda then I make choices and decisions, or take actions, based on assumptions and without consulting others. I may start with a vision or goal for the good of the team, but I easily drift into self-directed activity toward my vision. This was the cause of the conflict with my boss at the start of this article. I was focused on what the job could do for me, rather than on what we could achieve together, and the result was that my independence caused conflict and cost me my job.
Self-directed activity is only one area of self-focus, but it is a common snare for leaders. Other times self-focus is not activity based, but a preoccupation with myself – my progress, my faults and weaknesses, my reputation, my authority, my worth (or lack of it), and my needs and desires. Each one of these things will cause me to be preoccupied with ME, a shortcut to isolation and mediocrity.
4. Worry, anxiety and fear
Self-focus is a fruitful breeding ground for worry, anxiety and fear, yet these emotions are often overlooked as indicators of independence. I have experienced anxiety and fear often enough to recognize that these can easily be early symptoms of independence creeping back into my life. (Note: there are other causes of fear and anxiety, including physiological or psychological issues, so I am not saying fear always indicates independence, just that these emotions can indicate self-focus leading to independence).
5. Not listening
A person who is self-focused, or someone battling fear and anxiety, can be preoccupied and hampered in their ability to relate to others. A leader who is following his own agenda, or operating in presumption, is often too focused on the goal ahead to listen to those around him. Thus, not listening is another early indicator of independence returning. I am deeply aware of episodes in my past when listening to someone else (especially to my wife) would have saved me from some pain, error, or diversion. At the end of the 18 months of conflict at the conference center, we were able to seek wisdom from leaders who knew the situation; their input resulted in major positive changes for us, and opened the door to teamwork in a new and dramatically different setting where we learned much and grew in leadership.
A clear indicator of the infiltration of independence in my life is striving (or self-effort). Leaders who rely solely on self-effort for achievement not only isolate themselves from others, but also cause physical, emotional, and relational damage to themselves and those around them.
7. Desire for promotion
Although every human being has an innate need for affirmation and praise, it is common to seek the counterfeit of this need – a desire for promotion, title, or recognition. This desire can be cloaked in humility but if there is pride at the root of promotion, then the desire for promotion is another dangerous facet of independence.
In my conflict with the boss, I was really saying "I want to be recognized for my achievements or skills above others so I will have increased affirmation by virtue of my position." That was acceptable in previous leadership models, but it doesn't fly in today's connected world.
Studies have shown that 80% of our thinking can be negative, which aligns us with failure rather than success. If you are a person of faith, it is also a contradiction with your beliefs. Negativity is a symptom of independence, increases isolation, and leads to mediocrity. There is power in positivity because it is attractive and draws us into connectedness, which gives us influence.
Pride divides. It does not promote connectedness, nor does it help others. Pride feeds independence because it cherishes my success at others' expense. Pride is perhaps the clearest, most worrying sign of independence isolating me!
We will always have traces of independence in our lives, especially in light of the American culture of rugged individualism. Other cultures have much to teach us, if we are willing to learn. In some cultures honor is valued above individual pride. In other heritages there is a strong sense of community that is prioritized above self.
Here are a few pointers to help you reduce independence and isolation:
Admit that I need others in my life. They will reveal my independent pride and affirm my commitment to live by influence rather than position.
Invite input – build relationships and grow humility by actively seeking input to my life. Ask others to help me see my blind spots. When I accept I have faults I can be thankful when others point them out!
Choose positive – not a self-centered approach of pride in myself, but a choice to always look for the best in every person and circumstance.
Discover my uniqueness, and learn to value the different strengths that others have.
Here's to the death of mediocrity in an age where influence is the only qualification for leadership!