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The Perfect Mix: Embracing Self-Leadership for Leading Others

Updated: Nov 30, 2023

Dr. Helen Rothberg on Self-Leadership

The Perfect Mix: Dr. Helen Rothberg on Self-Leadership
The Perfect Mix: Dr. Helen Rothberg on Self-Leadership

“I firmly believe that leadership begins with leading oneself. You must awaken to who you are, your aspirations, and your motivations. Only then can you simplify your vision and bring others along on your journey.” Dr. Helen Rothberg

Self-discovery is one of the most exciting and scary journeys, where we navigate through self-doubts and societal expectations to unveil the best in ourselves. Dr. Helen Rothberg, a renowned Professor of Strategic Management and author of the book “The Perfect Mix,” states that only after mastering the art of self-leadership can we authentically connect with and uplift those around us, fostering an environment of trust, growth, and collective success.

Stephen Matini: I'm curious to ask you something. Why did you pursue four different degrees? That seems like quite a lot!

Helen Rothberg: Oh, nobody should do that. It's like a jumble of letters. When I was advancing in the field of business, there weren't many women in senior leadership roles, and women in strategy were almost non-existent. So, there are two main reasons behind it. I felt that I needed to establish more credibility than my male counterparts to prove my worthiness for upper management positions.

SM: So you didn't have any female professors, only male ones?

Dr. HR: During my entire time in graduate school, I had just one female professor. The majority of the faculty in the business department were men. The field of strategy barely existed as an academic discipline at that time. My pursuit of terminal degrees aligned with the emergence of strategy as a prominent field. Michael Porter's book, "Competitive Strategy," was published in 1980, and it became the talk of the town. So, I was among the first wave of strategy PhDs. Unfortunately, there was only one female professor, and she didn't receive tenure, so she eventually left.

SM: When did you decide what you wanted to pursue as a profession?

Dr. HR: Well, it sort of found me, but I had a clear understanding of the kind of life I wanted from a young age. Here's what I discovered about myself: I thrive when the weather is sunny and warm, so I needed summers off.

I'm also the type of person who quickly grasps new knowledge and then craves something fresh. So, when I considered what career path would offer both freedom and the opportunity to continually learn, my options boiled down to consulting or academia.

I also wanted to make a bigger impact. I wanted to contribute something meaningful to help companies operate more effectively. Over the past three decades, I've juggled both consulting and teaching, but ultimately, I chose academia as my full-time career. It wasn't just about having summers off; it was about shaping the future. To me, the future lies in working with young minds.

SM: There's something truly genuine, open, and vivacious about students that I don't quite encounter when working with other people.

Dr. HR: I couldn't agree more. When people ask me what I do for a living or what my profession is, I tell them that I help young individuals discover the “magnificence within themselves.” Because once they find that inner magnificence, they realize they can achieve anything.

And there's that specific moment, I'm sure you've experienced it too, where it's like a light bulb goes off in their eyes. Something clicks, and their entire perspective shifts. For me, there's no greater high than witnessing someone awaken like that. You're absolutely right; it keeps us energized and youthful. It ensures that we don't become stagnant and that we always stay current.

SM: Have you always been aware of your own magnificence?

Dr. HR: No, I didn't always know that about myself. You know, nowadays there's a term for it - they call it imposter syndrome. But outwardly, I always appeared very competent, ambitious, and cheerful. However, internally, I harbored self-doubt. I questioned my intelligence and my worthiness, and a lot of that stems from our personal histories.

Even as I achieved more and more success, there was a moment in my graduate program when a student accused me of getting by on charm. It hit me like a ton of bricks. Yes, I had worked as a bartender for a decade, so I knew how to connect with people, but I don't believe my success was solely due to charm. That little nagging voice just wouldn't go away.

It was after my co-author, Scott Erickson, and I published our first book titled "Knowledge to Intelligence," which was reviewed by Harvard. I received an email with a link to the review, and I stared at that link for a good 20 minutes, petrified to open it. Even though I was a tenured professor and on the path to becoming a full professor, I felt like I was about to be exposed.

Eventually, I mustered the courage to open the link, and I burst into tears because they liked the book. It was the first moment I truly realized that I did possess knowledge, and it wasn't just because I could be charming. It was a transformative moment that impacted every aspect of my life - professionally, spiritually, and personally.

SM: Do you intentionally maintain a beginner's mindset despite your extensive accomplishments and background?

Dr. HR: I truly believe I'm just scratching the surface of everything. There's so much more to learn and discover about myself, people, nature, and how we can help others grow and tap into their best selves instead of constantly dwelling on their shortcomings. My goal is to inspire people to always operate from their strengths.

I feel like I'm still learning this lesson with each new endeavor, every book I pick up, and every person I meet. There's always something new to uncover. So, even though I'm in my sixth decade, I feel like a child of the universe.

I'm far from naive, and I think it's because I've endured my fair share of challenges that I can appreciate the beauty and marvels of life. People often ask me whether I see the glass as half empty or half full, and I always respond with a different perspective - I ask, "Where's the new glass?" That's how I want to approach life.

My perspective is that the world unfolds as it should. We may not choose what happens to us, but we do choose how to respond. We can choose wonder, joy, and a touch of "oh," or we can choose to feel defeated.

SM: If someone expressed the belief that they lack choices in life, how would you respond to them?

Dr. HR: I didn't have a privileged upbringing. I grew up in a lower working-class neighborhood in a turbulent era marked by race riots in New York during the sixties and seventies. My parents never attended college or even finished high school, working in what some might call menial jobs. We had little money, but we didn't go hungry, had clothing, albeit hand-me-downs, and access to medical care.

Back in my day, if you were both poor and smart, you could attend university for free. Every step of the way, there were choices. While friends partied on weekends, I studied and worked jobs. Even during college, when peers partied, I saved money to backpack through Europe during summers, believing that living in different cultures would offer profound lessons.

I scrubbed toilets, made beds, and had some unconventional experiences, like sleeping in vineyards. But it was all a matter of choice. If you want something badly enough, you can taste it. I desired freedom, not necessarily wealth. To me, freedom meant having the choice of how to use my time and what to pursue. It's always a choice.

SM: You're emphasizing the connection between choice and freedom, and as you were speaking, it struck me that it's fundamentally about being accountable to oneself.

Dr. HR: Absolutely, and being honest with oneself. That can be challenging. It's not easy to confront oneself in the mirror and admit when something bad has occurred. It's far simpler to place blame on someone else. But it's truly difficult to ask yourself, "What part of this is my responsibility?" Granted, there are situations where bad things happen due to sheer bad luck or being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

However, in some instances, there's an element of personal responsibility involved. If you can acknowledge that and endure the pain it may bring, you can learn from it and prevent repeating the same mistakes. Growth stems from accepting that we're not flawless, and that imperfection is, in a way, our perfection. Those cracks in our experiences are there to help us improve if we choose to embrace them.

Many of the negative behaviors we witness in society stem from people acting out due to their belief that they lack control. Violence often results from this sense of powerlessness, when in reality, individuals possess more control than they think. Sometimes, people are more afraid of embracing their own power than they are of feeling powerless.

SM: Is the process of discovering what makes you magnificent more challenging than you initially anticipated?

Dr. HR: During the first three decades of my life, it was undeniably challenging. It felt like an endless cycle of trials and tribulations. However, at some point, I believe I surrendered to it. That's when I began to comprehend how much of it was me, often subconsciously, creating situations to either test myself or avoid repeating the same mistakes. I used to call it "same ice cream, new flavor.”

At a certain juncture, I made a conscious decision to break the cycle. I realized that if you keep walking down the same pothole-ridden road, you're bound to fall into those potholes repeatedly. So, I opted for a different path. I achieved success after success, but that nagging feeling of being an imposter lingered.

Ultimately, I had to make a deliberate choice to approach things differently and embrace what I could control. This allowed me to lead my life differently and gradually uncover my magnificence. I came to understand that my magnificence lay in my ability to communicate with people, helping them grasp complex concepts.

SM: Has this changed your perspective on strategy?

Dr. HR: Yes, it certainly has. I used to view strategy primarily as a means of helping organizations or individuals shape a better future. While I still hold that perspective to some extent, I now see strategy as a tool for managing complexity and uncertainty. In our efforts to bring order to the chaos of reality, we assign labels, create visual representations, and establish schedules, all in a quest to instill a sense of control in our lives.

What strategy has taught me is how to dissect intricate situations, isolate the complexities within them, and scrutinize each component to comprehend its essence. Once I've gained a deep understanding of these individual parts, I can then interweave them like threads in a fabric to discern what's feasible. Essentially, it has instilled in me a distinct mode of critical thinking.

SM: Is it accurate to say that your approach to business management now incorporates surrendering and simplifying as key elements?

Dr. HR: Absolutely. While frameworks help organize data, the real insights come when you set them aside and focus on what truly matters.

I often ask students and clients about their deep motivations in life. For me, it's all about joy. I've experienced enough hardships to recognize its value. If I can't find joy in what I'm doing, I'd rather not do it. Of course, being joyous all the time isn't feasible, but seeking joy as an end goal for most things is. Some people seek peace or harmony; I seek joy.

My true secret is that I'm like a 12-year-old in an older person's body. I want to learn, read, play, explore nature, and enjoy life's simple pleasures. Even though I'm a responsible adult with a house and a business, if I can't infuse joy into what I do, I'd rather find something else to pursue. It's essential for each of us to discover what truly matters.

SM: How would you convey your insights on finding joy and fulfillment in life to a group of skeptical, young managers?

Dr. HR: When working with a younger audience, I typically begin by asking them to identify their strengths and areas where they excel. Then, as they discuss their challenges, I inquire about their ultimate goals in addressing those difficulties. I guide them through a somewhat intricate process, entirely focused on their needs, to help them pinpoint what truly matters to them. Often, this leads to moments of realization where they grasp the essence of their motivations.

I encourage them to envision their ideal future by asking questions like, "If you had a crystal ball, what would your ideal life look like? How would you invest your time? What activities would you pursue if you had no limitations?" This process helps them rediscover their core aspirations.

SM: How can we help younger individuals understand the difference between leadership and management?

Dr. HR: Management involves the practical aspects of getting things done: planning, organizing, controlling, and achieving tasks through people. Leadership, on the other hand, revolves around providing a vision that inspires people to work collaboratively towards shared goals. The two are markedly different. I often say that a manager can operate in the dark and still get tasks done, but a leader illuminates the path.

Leadership not only offers a vision but also establishes an emotional connection to the objectives. Even for someone on an assembly line repeatedly tightening rivets on car tires, a leader can make them understand the tire's significance in the car's future, its role in someone's life, and the importance of safety.

I firmly believe that leadership begins with leading oneself. You must awaken to who you are, your aspirations, and your motivations. Only then can you simplify your vision and bring others along on your journey.

SM: How do you handle the first step in leadership development, which requires individuals to spend time with themselves, even though many find it challenging because of their busy lives?

Dr. HR: It's often because they're unfamiliar with their true selves, their capabilities, and they fear disappointing themselves. Many are held back by fear, which leads to control. Breaking free from this cycle involves taking that first step, putting a foot in the water even if it feels icy, and realizing they won't drown.

This gradual process encourages them to explore their magnificence and move forward. However, it's challenging because people must shed old scripts they've carried about themselves, even if those scripts were inaccurate.

To reach new heights, they must shed these scripts, which can be a painful and scary process. As a guide, it's important to let them acknowledge their pain and reassure them that brighter days await on the other side. Letting go of these self-limiting narratives opens up new possibilities, even though it's a challenging endeavor. But it's ultimately rewarding and worthwhile work.

SM: How would you describe the essence of leadership, particularly in terms of connecting people with the story and vision while also knowing when to step aside and let them shine through?

Dr. HR: When you begin to step aside, shed preconceived notions, and share your authentic self, including stories of failures and successes, you become more relatable and trustworthy to others. Vulnerability is a key element here, as it involves taking the risk of exposing your softer side. This process requires trust not only in others but also in the entire journey.

On the other hand, a different leader, adopting a more Machiavellian approach, clings to a facade of power and conceals vulnerability. As a result, nobody connects with him. Striking a balance between being authentic and powerful is crucial to guide others effectively and help them overcome their obstacles.

SM: Throughout our conversation, we've covered a wide range of topics, all intricately connected. If you had to distill it down to one key takeaway, what would that be?

Dr. HR: To borrow a paraphrase from Oscar Wilde, I would say, "Be yourself because everyone else is already taken." Embrace who you are and have confidence in your abilities without mistaking it for conceit. Confidence is about recognizing your strengths. Acknowledge what you excel at and always operate from that position.

It's equally important to acknowledge your weaknesses. If someone else possesses the skills you lack, don't hesitate to bring them onto your team. The best leaders understand their strengths and complement their weaknesses with a talented team. So, in essence, my advice is to fully embrace your authentic self, take calculated risks, and enjoy the journey.

SM: I'm happy that I met you at the beginning of your ride. Thank you Helen.

Dr. HR: Thank you. And likewise.

Dr. Rothberg states that only after mastering the art of self-leadership can we authentically connect with and uplift those around us, fostering an environment of trust, growth, and collective success. Leadership involves stepping aside when necessary, sharing your authentic self, and connecting people with a compelling story and vision.

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