My late 20’s and early 30’s were spent seriously exploring the world and adventuring. One trip I made was to Ecuador. For several days the group I was part of camped on the Agua Rico River in the Ecuadorian rain forest. Our guide was a man whose parents had been bible translators who had come to work with the indigenous Cofan Indians. Randy grew up with the Cofan; eventually marrying a member of the tribe and becoming a tribal member himself.

Assisting him were several Cofan men. None of them spoke English and only the younger members spoke limited Spanish. Our primary means of communication was through using Randy as a translator.

One of the older Cofan men was Mauricio. He was 5 feet tall and wore the traditional Cofan garment called a cushma. It looked like a kind of long shirt that hung down to the knees. He also wore a baseball cap and a bandana tied around his neck. Mauricio had children and grandchildren but it was impossible to guess his exact age.

When it came to survival in the rain forest, we all depended on Mauricio. He was expert at navigating the sometimes treacherous environment and his extensive knowledge of the rain forest came from a lifetime spent there.

After our rainforest experience, the group was to fly to the Galapagos Islands and spend a week exploring on a sailing boat. We had one extra space and Randy extended an invitation to Mauricio to join us. He became my roommate on the boat.

Although neither of us could speak the other’s language, we got along well and became good friends. It was fascinating spending time with Mauricio and watching him apply the skills learned in the rainforest to this new environment. Members of our group were continually commenting on Mauricio’s keen eyesight and his often surprising reactions to what he saw.

The trip was nearly over when it occurred to a woman in our group that we had been talking about Mauricio a great deal. He knew we were talking about him, but he didn’t know what we were saying. She asked Randy if that bothered Mauricio. His response became a great life lesson for me. Randy explained, “Of course Mauricio has noticed that you’ve been talking about him. But is hasn’t bothered him at all. In the Cofan culture, members are so sure of their sense of self that nothing you might say would bother them.”

I had never thought about sense of self that way. The concept became real to me in Mauricio. He moved as someone supremely confident in himself and his abilities, but he was never cocky or superior. Mauricio knew himself and his abilities and that was enough for him. He seemed completely comfortable with his life and surroundings and exhibited a kind of centeredness that I have seldom seen since.

Frederick Buechner, from his biographical work Telling Secrets alludes to how easy it is to lose touch with our sense of self. He writes, “(Our) original shimmering self gets buried so deep we hardly live out of it at all….rather, we learn to live out of all the other selves which we are constantly putting on and taking off like coats and hats against the world’s wrath.”

Yet a strong sense of self is not about selfishness, or self-absorption. A terrible excuse for bad behavior is “I was just being myself.” A sense of self recognizes not only one’s strength, but one’s weaknesses and what Jung called the dark side. The objective isn’t to “be yourself.” The challenge is to “be your best self.” That requires recognizing and eliminating or improving our vices and weaknesses. Being one’s self is never a legitimate excuse for being less good to other’s than one is capable of being.

A sense of self does not close a person off to the opinions of others. Suggestions and insights, especially from those who know us well and whom we trust, are valuable for our personal growth. What a sense of self does is steel us against the unnecessary suffering criticism and feedback often cause. While we all thought well of Mauricio, I doubt it would have bothered him the least if one of us had been critical of him. He might have benefited from some instruction offered, but his feelings wouldn’t have been hurt.

A sense of self is what makes us truly unique. It recognizes both similarities and differences. It allows us to see what we share with others as well as those things that are true only of ourselves or of few others.

Sense of self is the foundation for the construction of a life, and for being a stable leader. While we are continually learning and sometimes revising what we know of ourselves, we are building our lives and relationships on this foundation. Leaders, like Marico, have a clearly defined and strong sense of self.

Leadership Lesson
How would you define your sense of self? Have you taken the advice of the Oracle at Delphi to “know thyself?” And based on what you know, what is admirable and what needs to be improved? Are your current behaviors as a leader congruent with your sense of self? What could you do to strengthen your sense of self?

Mark Sanborn
About Mark Sanborn

Mark Sanborn, CSP, CPAE, is president of Sanborn & Associates, Inc., an idea studio dedicated to developing leaders in business and in life. Mark is an international bestselling author and noted expert on leadership, team building, customer service and change. Mark Sanborn graduated cum laude from The Ohio State University. In addition to his work as a business educator and author, Mark continues to be an active leadership practitioner. Most recently he served as the president of the National Speakers Association.

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