09/14/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Dialogue on Leadership in Uncertain Times: Session 2

This is the second article in a series that invites the reader to easedrop on coaching sessions between JFM, who has recently been fired from her role as President of a medium-sized company, and her advisor, Jan Birchfield, Ph.D., of Princeton Leadership Development. We talked about the impact that the firing had on her sense of herself.

JFM: I was stunned. My boss - with whom I had worked so closely - was not in the room when the board let me go. In fact, he had been out 'sick' for the three days leading up to the event. Decisions I had made had been ratified by him. I was the President, he, the CEO and yet, it was clear I was going to take the fall. In addition to being shocked by what was happening to me, I felt completely betrayed by his absence.

Jan: It's not uncommon when you know you are about to fire or lose someone, to inadvertently look for all of the things that were wrong with that person in the first place in order to soften the blow of the loss. When leaders are in the position of having to let someone go, one of the challenges is to stay connected to that person through this process. A client once said to me that when he was faced with having to fire someone his goal was to have that person leave his office with his/her self-esteem in tact. A leader can't do this, if s/he uses distance as a way to get through this difficult experience. It sounds like this may have happened in your situation.

JFM: Yes...the moment I lost my job is stored in my memory in a series of freeze frames; I left my office right away. I left everything behind. I called my husband immediately, and walked the streets - stunned - until he met me and brought me home.

The days that followed were a blur: waking at my usual early hour I had no office to go to, no need to put on a suit, no business to conduct, no one to see. I began to realize how fragile my self esteem was. It took me two weeks before I could start to take action in order to begin to understand what had happened to me, how I had contributed, and what I needed to do to address my bruised sense of self.

I have never NOT worked. My notion of "success" was defined by my work, my title, my scope of responsibility. I equated what I did with my value in the world. It is a narrow definition of a "successful" life, so, not surprisingly, when I lost my job I felt like I lost my identity, and with this my self esteem. I wondered how I would "get back on the horse" after a failure like this.

Jan: Being fired didn't hurt your self esteem, rather it brought to the surface doubt about yourself that already existed. Many of us struggle with tenacious feelings of self-doubt; this is embodied deep within American culture. When this doubt arises we tend to look at the external trigger, and blame it for our bad feeling. It is helpful to recognize this - that negative experiences can't trigger self doubt unless the doubt is already there. When self doubt is not present in the first place, a person will not be shaken when rejected or when treated unkindly. There may be an initial feeling of hurt or anger, but this will pass relatively quickly.

Once you have recognized that the negative feelings that have arisen are coming from within, as opposed to being something that has been placed on you from outside of yourself, you are in a better position to work with it. Your attention shifts from blaming the other for having hurt you, to focusing on what you actually have the capacity to change, which is your relationship to yourself.

To attend to your self doubt requires moving towards it, resisting the temptation to push it away. There is a natural tendency to turn away from negative feelings, similar to what happens when we touch a hot stove. A significant challenge in leadership - and in life itself - is to stay present and connected to whatever is arising in any given moment. True strength might be defined, in part, as the capacity to meet our experience, no matter what is arising. Our tendency is to lessen the intensity of moments of discomfort or difficulty by dropping out or becoming defensive. But when we drop out, we lose our clarity.

Our discomfort is like a flag marking the places within where it is fruitful to drill down. It continually amazes me, when a client comes in and together we inquire into hardship or ill feeling, how many leadership lessons are embedded there. Every bout of anxiety, moment of rage, every period of insecurity, every maddening interaction with a coworker serves as a mirror, or more accurately, serves as a potential mirror. Of course, to understand that it is best to stay present and connected in the face of ill feelings is one thing, but to actually stay connected is a different matter. It helps immensely to have others that can drill down with you.

This is, in part, your challenge: to stand in the fire of what is happening to you without turning away, or turning down the volume or becoming defensive, "bearing witness" to your experience without self judgement. When you develop the capacity for nonjudgemental self inquiry, you begin to see the world with greater objectivity, and you grow in self knowledge. You become a more integrated person; this, in turn, makes you a better leader.