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False Identity

Business school bestowed an extra, unstated diploma upon me. Sure, I received the faux sheepskin one, properly bound in a green leather case, with a more powerful, insidious, tacit one invisibly attached.

After those full-immersion years of case studies, conferences, and cow-towing, I fancied myself some kind of leader. Other than getting myself chosen as the chapter head of a small student organization, I’d had little practical experience, and certainly no large-scale strategic involvement in anything. But I carried that attitude, that confident mindset that, given half a chance, my presence would improve any organization.

My first wife would ask what had happened to me, and I would respond absolutely baffled by her question. I felt on top of an expanding world, powerful in ways I had never before imagined. Sure, I worked long uncompensated hours as a management trainee, but I was working with the big dogs, ... digging, it would turn out, really big holes.

I applied theories and produced graphs, drafted position papers and laid out options. I assessed others’ capabilities and recommended courses of action. I dressed (as some B-school advisor had suggested) a level or two above my pay grade, and engaged in this expanding charade unselfconsciously. I felt pretty freakin’ prescient, projecting trajectories seriously intended to solve, finally, once and for all, long-standing operational problems. Nobody believed in my abilities quite as much as I believed in them, but this ‘positive attitude’ seemed communicative. I was, as the euphemism insisted, ‘respected’ as a leader.

I spent the first half of my career building that house of cards and the second half disassembling it to construct a more stabile identity, one less dependent upon meme-based motivational mantras and studied self-deception. I hope that maturity brings this great gift to every once-aspiring leader.

I suppose that no sheep ever feels completely safe in the company of wolves. One might reasonably wonder what the heck that sheep thinks he’s up to running with feral dogs, but in my humbling experience, this sheep had a story that framed this unlikely engagement to at least his temporary satisfaction. My own self-satisfaction didn’t last because it could not.

Now, I guess I’ve outgrown that wolf coat and am finding adequate cover within my naturally sheepish clothing. Now, on my better days, I successfully imagine that we’re all sheep, some still stuck in wolf clothing, others still shopping for wolf coats, but all basically sheepish inside. Maybe it’s naturally part of the sheep genome to aspire to become wolf-like, a survival strategy honed by eons of more or less successful experience. The sheep I remember being before B-school had never changed his nature, but had learned how to survive in what certainly appeared to be a big bad world. Seems reasonable to respond by becoming just as big and just as bad as possible.

I suppose it’s part of sheep nature, too, to encourage others to follow this curious lead, once they’d camouflaged their own fluffiness and started running. I now interpret invitations to become a more effective leader in just this way, once innocent sheep exhorting other innocent sheep to learn how to become more effective in alien skin. I believe that most of us eventually awaken from this once alluring dream state to recognize that they always held the ability to fluidly follow, lead, follow, and lead which remains the birthright of every self-respecting sheep. No tough wolf hide required.

©2013 by David A. Schmaltz - all rights reserved

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