Mirror, mirror, on the wall, Who in this land is fairest of all?
To this the mirror answered: You, my queen, are fairest of all.
Then she was satisfied, for she knew that the mirror spoke the truth.
It’s the line from Snow White that everyone remembers.
Maybe it’s just me, but I think it a shame that Snow White gets all the press. When it comes to fame and star power the rankings are clear. It’s Snow White and the evil queen in the contrasting lead roles. Snow White is the picture of innocent beauty. The queen is the nemesis that we love to hate. Prince Charming saves the day. And, thanks to Disney’s adaptation, the seven dwarfs steal our hearts. But, what of the mirror?
The brothers Grimm highlight many virtues in the classic tale of good vs. evil. Perhaps the greatest virtue in the story is often overlooked. The beauty of Snow White is unforgettable. Likewise, the valor of the Prince leaves a lasting impression. Even the mixed bag of contrariness and nurture displayed by the dwarfs lingers in our minds. But, what of truth? In particular, what value do you place on honest feedback? This small detail interjected in the initial introduction to the mirror is the linchpin of the story. The mirror has one job: speak the truth. Without the truthfulness of the mirror, there is no story.
Good mirrors do not lie.
Why the obsession with a mysterious object from a fairy tale? I can assure you it’s not just that I’m a fan of the Brothers Grimm. It’s because truth matters. Surveys, both formal and informal reflect that honesty is an irreplaceable virtue. It is the basic expectation that we have of others. Whether coaching leaders in an organization, speaking to an audience about best practices or teaching leadership in a classroom, I seem to always be drawn back to the same foundation. It’s unavoidable. Truth is a vital force. Truth is inextricably bound to integrity, trust and credibility. It’s not difficult to discern the damage done in recent years by dishonesty and betrayal.
A healthy noun doesn’t need adjectives. Adjectives clutter a noun that is robust. But if the noun is culture-damaged or culture-diseased, adjectives are necessary.
In my idealistic mind, “leader” should be that kind of noun. It should be unnecessary to add “honest” to the word “leader.” Leader is a robust noun. It could and should stand-alone. However, such a robust noun requires integrity and credibility that is grounded in truth. Such truth begins at the mirror. A momentary pause and an honest gaze into the mirror can spare us from a character crisis. A mirror can protect us from a performance-based and fearful identity. If you are not honest with yourself, you will struggle to be impeccable with others. The pressures of culture are immense. Sometimes the gap between the expectations of others and our own self-induced anxiety will feed a temptation to choose veneer over authenticity. If you are feeing tempted, find a mirror.
Is it possible to protect your true identity and sense of purpose? I believe it is. I consider integrity as a defining attribute of leadership. In Summoned to Lead, Leonard Sweet describes greatness in terms of “arresting the drift.” The most dangerous drift is the slide away from integrity. Courageous reflection will help you look for incongruence in your identity, values, beliefs and actions.
When you look into the mirror, you must be willing to swim against the current. You must be willing to take the risk to see what is a true reflection even when you feel the pressure to pose. You will always face the temptation to hide the truth behind an image that you create. It’s ironic that we live in a day when cries for leadership authenticity are common and an honest look in the mirror is becoming increasingly rare.
How do the best leaders look in the mirror? Leaders need reflection. They need a self-check protocol. That’s the primary function of a mirror. Here are two types of reflection that are necessary for every leader:
This is the most personal and the most difficult. It requires a significant investment in two things. Time. Running past a mirror so fast you can barely catch a glimpse of your reflection will not serve you well. In order to reflect on the deeper aspects of how your identity shapes your leadership, you will need to give adequate time to personal reflection. Specifically, you need to reflect on how your leadership reflects what is most important to you. Are you living a purposeful life or are you losing your identity? Quiet. Don’t kid yourself. You cannot engage in meaningful reflection in the midst of noise and distractions. Find a quiet place and check yourself for signs that you are drifting away from your true self.
If you have ever looked at yourself in a 3-way fitting room mirror at a retail-clothing store, you understand the value of seeing yourself from different angles! Sometimes a single mirror is insufficient. Some aspects of leadership are hard to see. Blind spots are real and we all have them. Unless you have a talking mirror on the wall, you will need to engage other team members. Great leaders crave (and pursue) honest feedback. In order to receive an honest reflection from your team, you must create a culture that is safe. Honesty from team members is not automatic. The teams that provide the best reflection are those teams that are relentless in their efforts to create a healthy team culture. Healthy teams build healthy trust. One of the telltale signs of a healthy team is when it is safe to speak the truth without fear of repercussion. Only then, will you receive the gift of a true reflection from your team.