During my late twenties and thirties, I drew pride from the belief that I had successfully vanquished the emotionalism and wild ambitions that had characterized most of my youth. My ambitions were for a life that was practical and business-like. So I worked hard to make only safe, predictable, and well-reasoned choices.
As the years passed, this sense of practicality 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 liked my work as a supervisor in a large social agency and the middle-class lifestyle it afforded me. For example, I was quite proud of myself when, at age 41, I decided to increase my earning potential and job security by getting a Master’s Degree in Leadership.
The plan was practical and my goals were modest. Hence, I was floored when things went horribly awry. Despite all my caution and sensible ambitions, something within me turned my whole life upside down and awakened things within me I never knew existed.
A Simple Plan Disrupted
For most of the two and a half years it took to get my master’s degree, things went smoothly and according to plan. 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 something in my readings that started to bother me.
As I dug into the literature on management, I saw that most current management practices took their lead from the idea that managers needed to maintain emotional distance from their staff.
Based on my own experience as a manager, this idea seemed way off base. I thought that even though this detached, heroic persona may have worked in the industrial era, I knew that this approach was designed for another time. This approach no longer worked; in fact, it frequently create its own series of problems.
That’s when my frustration started to grow. I started to see clearly that this emotional detachment was the underlying cause of many workplace problems. I believed that if management thinking was going to be effective, it needed to reject the notion that it was necessary or effective to treat people like machines.
A Fateful Turning Point
My mind raced. I knew that emotions and vulnerability were not threats. Quite the opposite: they were catalysts for things like productivity, motivation, and creativity.
I was obsessed. I realized that if someone was going to fix this problem once and for all, it needed to be me. I told myself that if, after finishing my master’s degree, I could easily forge ahead and get a Ph.D. I could do the research to create an approach to management that put people’s humanity first.
Before I could see the implications of what I was doing, I committed to joining my school’s Ph.D. program. I told myself that when this was done, I would become a consultant to share my new vision of management with the world.
The Dark Night of the Ph.D.
Man, was I ever naive. I completed my master’s with a lot of confidence, but it wasn’t long before I saw that my scholarly ambitions to overturn modern management were way off-base. I had no idea how difficult the process would be.
The reality of a Ph.D. was so much harder than I ever imagined it could be. The physical and mental demands were staggering. By the second semester I was desperately exhausted, mentally spent, and continuously haunted by the fear that I had made a terrible, terrible mistake.
It took me more than seven years to finish. During that time the feelings of remorse and dread were unrelenting. During those seven-plus years, more than half my original classmates quit. I came close myself more than a few times. Believe it or not, the closest call came as I was nearing the final stretch.
I had finally completed my fieldwork and was compiling the data. However, I was so emotionally and mentally spent that none of my data made any sense. I was so disgusted that I was ready to pull the plug.
Thankfully, my advisor talked me down. She assured me that the data was good and would make sense in time. She said that I was simply too worn out to see any of that.
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. Worse yet, I was 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 weaknesses and shortcomings 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 make sense of 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 really trying to outrun the same emptiness and vulnerability I had been rejecting since my twenties.
My big mistake was that I thought that disowning these parts of myself would somehow help me feel invincible and strong; but as I learned the hard way, that was just an illusion.
Instead, the gift of all the pain, as well as the lifetime of isolation self-doubt taught me that strength could 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 meaning or influence, I have to share it with others.
Originally published at www.davidholzmer.com