I recently received an email from a colleague friend who owns and operates a very successful executive search firm. She’s quite familiar with The Power of Professionalism. At the very end of her note she added the following PS:
“I was comparing two people yesterday. I said to myself, ‘Person A is highly professional. It’s not that Person B is unprofessional, but Person A is notably highly professional.’ I really couldn’t put my finger on some detail or example that brought me to this conclusion. Odd.”
Isn’t that the truth? Often times it’s our intuition that whispers to us how professional someone is. And more-often-than-not the assessment this woman was making is an unconscious process for most of us.
There’s just something about how the person conducts themselves—which often translates to a lot of little, yet terribly important, things. Taken in aggregate, it reveals a tapestry that could only have been created by a professional.
In organizational settings (particularly) we’re prone to compare—it’s the nature of the beast. We compare because we must. Who do we hire—candidate A or B? Which service provider—A or B–gets the new maintenance contract?
Differentiating oneself is tough. Yet, I’ve learned that professionalism can be a big differentiator. For trusted professionals the key is to get others to notice—even if the person really can’t put their finger on the ‘why’.
Some of our toughest (and often best) decisions are by-products of competing identities we hold. For example, a politician courageously acts in the best interests of the nation—rather than acting in the best interests of their political party.
What competing identities, you ask, were in ‘play’ for the politician? Namely, being an American versus being a Republican. (NOTE: The example of being a Republican is for illustrative purposes only. The politician could have just as well have been a Democrat). In this particular instance, the politician felt the ‘tug’ of being an American outweighed being a Republican (their revered political party). Thus, the politician was willing to take an unpopular stand—unpopular, at least, from members of their own party.
Recall Stanford Professor James March’s research on decision-making wherein he theorized that our choices are strongly influenced by one of two factors: 1) the consequences one is subject to–what one gets versus what it costs OR 2) an especially important aspect of one’s identity. The former is quite calculated, the latter is quite intuitive.
Yet, decisions aren’t always rendered exclusively by a comparison between March’s two factors. Sometimes the decision is rendered as a result of a comparison within only one of March’s factors. In the politician’s case, the defining struggle became one of identity. Which identity (being an American versus being a Republican) was more important? In the end, the politician made a value judgment in putting the country first, their political party second.
It’s not unusual for one’s most difficult and consequential decisions to be influenced by an especially important identity they hold. That shouldn’t be surprising—given the inseperable correlation between identity and one’s personal values. And it also shouldn’t be surprising that an identity-based decision is one that, while difficult, is often one that the individual is especially proud of. After all, it frequently reveals their very ‘best-self’.
1) they tend to be impatient with ‘mere mortals’
2) they tend to reinforce what they already believe or trust they know
3) they get overly defensive when others challenge them
4) their listening skills have tended to atrophy
5) new ideas are often seen as a threat or source of discomfort for them
6) frequently they tend to hang around with people of similar stature
7) they have become over-reliant on the approach that enabled them to become an expert in the first place
If these signs are prevalent, it portends an expert in decline.
President George Washington started a precedent, Pope Benedict XVI broke one—both stepped down. Both did so on their own volition—neither was pushed (think: fired).
Relinquishing one’s responsibilities at the height of one’s power goes against the grain of human nature. In fact, many may believe that stepping down is a sign of weakness in a leader. That’s not always the case.
I chose to believe that Washington and Pope Benedict did so for the greater good of the entities they led—Washington for the United States; Pope Benedict for the Catholic Church.
In Washington’s case he believed that over time the country would be best served by having a number of people serve as the country’s leader—rather than one person serve indefinitely (as a King would in a monarchy). Washington was revered; he could have served far beyond his initial two terms. Yet he chose not to.
In Pope Benedict’s case the Catholic Church currently faces many substantive issues. To effectively deal with those issues, the church’s leader must be both focused and energetic. It’s no secret that Pope Benedict’s health has deteriorated—largely due to his elevated age (85) —at the time of his resignation. Today Emeritus Pope Benedict turns 86 with some reporting that he is suffering repeated falls and is nearly blind in one eye. His energy is reportedly waning. Is it any wonder he chose to step down?
Did these two leaders shirk their responsibilities in stepping down? Not from my perspective! Rather, they did what they felt was in the best interests of the entity they had been entrusted with. Both were willing to withstand the inevitable second-guessing and criticism that came with their decision. Isn’t that what we’d expect from someone who realized that “it wasn’t all about them”—consistent with mind-set two?