Thinking about the subject of being ordinary and extraordinary, it appears to me that in our society, there is a bias toward being extraordinary. A quick search on Yahoo or Google yielded lots of “From Ordinary to Extraordinary Leader” articles and zero article on “Let’s Be an Ordinary Leader.” And in my work with my executive clients, no one wants to be ordinary. Everybody wants to be extraordinary, the best, the enlightened one, or as Tim Ferris said in his book The 4 Hr Work-Week, be the expert in 3 months or less.
I think our drive to be extraordinary is overrated. In fact I think it is harmful to our psyche.
Our human tendency is to rush ourselves into being better than. I believe at the core, we can’t justify our worth if we admit that we are just an ordinary human being doing an ordinary job, and in the case of work, an ordinary leader leading an ordinary organization. Who wants to be an ordinary leader? Nobody promotes or write story about an ordinary leader!
Our need to be extraordinary is mostly ego-driven. It sets us up to fail because we are impatient with ourselves and our process for maturity. It supports us to be in denial about our frailty and our imperfection. We need to look good, be good so that we can keep our job, justify our existence, and get promoted. So we cover up our ordinariness with fancy degrees, superior talks, expensive suits, and clever strategies to manipulate the world into seeing what we want them to see: “our extraordinariness.”
I want to make a case for being ordinary and for doing ordinary things. This practice of accepting our ordinariness will bring us more balance, more ease, less pressure, more acceptance, and perhaps more joy and fulfillment.
I have been practicing yoga for almost 10 years now. I have attended about 500 yoga classes and one week-long yoga retreat. In each class, no matter where I went, we did the same core poses over and over: mountain pose, down-dog, triangle, warrior one, warrior two, etc… They are very ordinary poses, nothing impressive.
Lucky for me, my very first yoga instructor said “in yoga, you don’t have to force it, or try to be best at it. Some poses you will be able to do in this life time. And others, you may have to wait till the next life time to achieve.” Those phrases set me free from my ego. I surrendered my needs to look good, do it right, achieve extraordinary result with yoga and embraced the truth that some poses I will get to in the next life time. So I started out clumsily and just focused on the simplicity of doing the pose, with no expectation of achievement. My favorite pose is savasana, the resting pose. At the conclusion of your practice, you lay down and rest for 5 minutes. And that counts as a pose, a crucial pose of the practice. It’s as ordinary as it gets: Rest!
It has been ten years of practice. I am 43 years old with one kid, and my body has never looked better. I didn’t come in to yoga to achieve extraordinary results, to get fit, or to be a yoga instructor. I just wanted a place to practice, do some ordinary stretches, and maybe find some peace in my mind. And to my surprise, I am now advanced enough that I could do some of those crazy twisty poses that you see in the yoga journals. Of course, there still are poses that I will get to in the next life time.
I do coach a lot of emerging leaders. In their 20’s, 30’s, and even 40’s it is so hard for these leaders to come to work wanting to “practice” being a leader. They want to be extraordinary right away. They want to shine, take on big things, over-work themselves to prove how great they are. They don’t want to admit they don’t know, are scared, lack the experience and/or confidence. Because if they do, they believe that they then have no value, can’t command a team, and worst of all no one would follow or listen to them.
To me, leading is a lot like practicing yoga. In most days, there is nothing extraordinary about being a leader. One comes to work, one talks to people, gets curious with what is going on, studies the facts, and makes a few decisions, then goes home. When we are so caught up in our ego, trying to be great so that people notice us, we miss out on the profoundness of these simple acts. Learn how to really talk to people. Do the ordinary things like: look them in the eyes; talk less and listen more; when you listen, listen for what is truly important; acknowledge the efforts and subtleties of the situation; stay really curious (focus on the person you are talking to, instead of your own thoughts and agendas); make room for other possibilities; breathe; make meaningful decisions (instead of easy decisions); work efficiently; grow leaders around you; and go home on time, so that you can have a balance and fulfilling life. Every one of these acts requires present of mind, a generous heart, deep wisdom, and personal commitment. Paradoxically, these are the ingredients that will make you into an EXTRAORDINARY LEADER.