What Do you See: Leadership & Identities

“The question is not what you look at but what you see.”  ~ Henry David Thoreau, 1851

Amidst news of violence, chaos and suffering from around the world, a story emerged to give us a little light relief: “Dutch king reveals he has been a KLM pilot for 21 years,” as CNBC headlined matter-of-factly. Many news channels dramatized the story with headlines like “Dutch king reveals secret life — as a KLM airline co-pilot” in the Washington Post or “Dutch King Willem-Alexander moonlights as KLM airline copilot” in USA Today. Words like “secret life” or “moonlight” suggest that the king was doing something more sinister than flying an airplane as a licensed pilot. Trevor Noah took the story to the next level. He not only made jokes about the Dutch king flying commercial airplanes but also mused whether royals had secret identities when we see them operating vehicles, “You know, all those pictures we have seen of Queen Elizabeth driving, what if she is actually an Uber driver, huh?” So, what if the Dutch king is also a licensed commercial pilot? Or what if the Queen is also an Uber driver, assuming that she had passed all the qualifications to be an Uber driver? As long as they carry on their responsibilities as heads of state, and as vehicle operators, is there anything wrong with people in leadership positions having two or more identities? What do we see and expect in our leaders? What do others see and expect in us in our respective leadership roles?

I don’t have a royal identity – nor am I an Uber driver or a pilot – but leadership and identity has recently been a topic on my mind. There has been one instance too many in the last few months that people assume or expect what role I play or should play at work. In one of those instances, I was selected to participate on a strategic, leadership-level project. When I shared the news with a close friend, I didn’t get “Congratulations!” or even “My condolences. You are about to get more work.” All I got were questions like these: Why did they pick you? Because you are a strategist? A number guy? Or are you supposed to represent your program area?

I thought to myself: Can’t you just see me as a nice guy who has accumulated knowledge about the organization and the industry over the years, who has experiences in running divisions, who is an active listener, who asks good questions, who sees the big picture, who connects the dots, and who knows how to get things done? Why do I have to describe myself with one or a few labels? Why do other people see me as one or only a few labels?

Or is this how we see other people in general: with one or a few labels? A visually-stunning, witty book They All Saw a Cat by Brendan Wenzel helps me reflect on the question. The opening pages of the book read:

The cat walked through the world,
with its whiskers, ears and paws…
and the child saw A CAT,
and the dog saw A CAT,
and the fox saw A CAT,
Yes, they all saw the cat.

The story begins with a specific cat, the cat, so specific that the author even italicizes the word. But as the child and the other animals see the cat, the cat not only becomes merely a cat, but the illustration of the cat also changes with the child or the animal that sees it. As the book continues, more animals see the cat as a cat. What the cat looks like changes with the eye of the beholder.

What each animal sees gives us clues about how we might see in others or how others might see in us. The child sees a pet. The cat snuggles up against his legs, he pets the cat, and the cat smiles, presumably satisfied. That’s how we expect our pets to behave and respond to us. The dog sees a suspect, a scrawny animal, tiptoeing away and staring back at the dog with big suspicious eyes as if it were trying to escape a crime scene. The fox sees a meal as he chases a fat cat across the page. The mouse sees an angry monster. I don’t know if the mouse does think that, but between the drawing of an angry black cat on a red background and my human mind conditioned by Tom and Jerry, I’d say that that is what the mouse thinks. The bird sees a small cat from a bird’s-eye view, literally, from the sky while the flea sees only part of a huge animal from the tip of the cat’s fur. The earthworm sees – or more likely feels – the cat from its weight above ground while the bat sees – or more likely hears – the cat based on the echo that comes back to the bat. Past experiences, expectations, stereotypes, biases, perspectives, ability to perceive or tools used for perceiving, and other factors give each beholder a very specific view of what it sees. It is unlikely that the fox would see the cat as a pet, that the child would see the cat as a meal, or that the flea would see the cat from a bird’s-eye view. Towards the end of the book, Wenzel compiles bits and pieces of what the child and each animal see into a chimera. He writes, “YES, THEY ALL SAW A CAT!” Interestingly, none of the beholders will ever see this composite picture. Their respective perception is limited by their own lens.

What does the cat see in himself? The author leaves us a lot to think about at the end of the book:

The cat walked through the world,
with its whiskers, ears and paws,
then it came to the water…
and imagine what it saw?

The conclusion is left to each reader to behold. Or, to go with the theme of the book, shall I say, “The reader saw a conclusion”? For me, I see a cat from its back leaning over the water. An image of a colorful cat emerges, but it is not very clear in the ripples. Will the image gets clearer as the ripples fade? Or will the image get blurrier if the waves get stronger? Will what the cat sees continue to change? Will we ever know?

If what the cat sees in itself is unclear or is continuously changing, can we ever reconcile what the cat sees in itself and what others see in the cat? We may cast judgment that what others see in the cat is inaccurate, incomplete or even wrong, but if the cat’s own perception of self is unclear or fluid, can we say that those other views are wrong?

These questions post an interesting dilemma for me in the context of leadership. In his writing about authentic leadership, Bill George summarizes that authentic leaders understand their purpose, practice solid value, lead with the heart, establish connected relationships, and demonstrate self-discipline. In his recent article to demystify some of the misconceptions about authentic leadership, George writes, “Authentic leaders are constantly growing,” and, “Authentic leaders are not perfect, nor do they try to be.” This means that authentic leaders continuously self-reflect, learn and change, hopefully in a positive direction. So, in their moments of self-reflection, authentic leaders are likely to see themselves like the cat sees itself in the water, sometimes clear, sometimes not, and forever changing. Even for me, an aspiring leader, even though I listed out several qualities that I would have liked others to see when they picked me to be on the project team, I don’t see those qualities in me all the time, or all at once, or with full confidence, or without hard work behind them.

If identity of a leader can be fluid and multiple, do we miss leaders or potential leaders when the lens through which we perceive and evaluate people can be rigid and narrow? And while it might be part of our DNA to see people that way, if we remember to remind ourselves once in a while that identity of a leader can be fluid or multiple, we might widen our lens enough to let more leaders into our lives.

So, the next time you hear that King Willem-Alexander flies an airplane, maybe there is nothing more to the story that there is a king who is also a licensed pilot. But in my own narrow, self-serving lens, I do wish that Queen Elizabeth drove Uber in her spare time. It would be a really cool identity I would like to see as one of her many identities.