In mythic terms, shapeshifters are often thought of as troublemakers. They can hide their true identity and sneak around. That makes them untrustworthy, because you can’t really see who they are. They’re inconsistent, in the most magical way possible, changing their appearance and making us believe they are one thing, when they really are another. In stories, we imagine them as the best spies, or the worst sorcerers, dangerous leaders. Most of our stories about shapeshifters are about tricking someone powerful out of something important, pretending to be loyal, but really being the enemy. But I’ve come to believe that the reason we distrust shapeshifters is that we are all shapeshifters, and we fear that part of ourselves even more than we fear it in others. Here’s a funny cartoon that demonstrates my point perfectly…
Here are the three greatest leaders in a kingdom, all of them shapeshifters! It’s a brilliant cartoon, because it captures one of the difficult truths about business today — none of us (perhaps even those in the highest positions) can wear our true face to work. We have to perform roles to fit the needs of a particular job and a particular culture. When our values are in alignment with an organization, we feel more authentic, but we still have to wear a mask, or two or three, to do what needs to be done. In the US, we value authenticity and individuality so highly that we think of this fact of life as a terrible compromise, a loss of self. That makes it hard to tap into the flexibility and freedom that being our best shapeshifter can give us. When we learn to shapeshift with integrity (yes, it’s possible!) then we can find our true authenticity.
Authenticity is not an identity, but a process.In western nations, particularly the United States, we think of it as “I am what I am,” a form of self-expression, a way of being who we “really” are. But in a crisis, suddenly, who we really are turns into a set of habits and assumptions that get us stuck in first gear. Shapeshifter leadership understands authenticity as a values-based process which has many forms of expression and many different faces and roles. In a crisis, the shapeshifter knows how to do what needs doing. When we are in service to our communities and in integrity with ourselves, being a shapeshifter is a good leadership quality.
Here’s a quick story: When I taught negotiation and branding to business leaders in China, my students laughed when I tried to convince them that our products and our business leaders needed to be consistent from the inside out. In practice negotiations, they performed many roles and ran rings around my earnest, American savvy.
I wanted them to be “authentic;” they demonstrated that finding a common interest didn’t necessarily mean being yourself in every expression of that identity. It’s not that they lacked integrity (although it can seem and sometimes even be that way in Chinese business practices). It’s that they didn’t believe it was necessary or even practical to always act the same, in every situation.
Part of this role flexibility is a reaction to the dangers from the surveillance culture imposed by the Chinese government. We have more freedom of expression, by design, and value it as part of our nationalism. Part of it, though, is that the shapeshifter isn’t as much a demon in their culture. It wasn’t so much that they disguised themselves as they exercised a flexibility that we can all channel.
They respectfully dismissed the idea that authenticity meant living from the inside out, being consistent in our roles and behaviors. Their business culture rewards shapeshifter flexibility — sometimes in a way that seems out of integrity to Americans. It’s one of the great cultural misunderstandings between our two nations. We fight for the right to be who we are all the time; they fight for the right to gain the power to take on many roles and define their circumstances for themselves. We each look ridiculous and untrustworthy to the other.
As the world has become flatter, and markets global, cross-cultural experiences like this are powerful learning experiences. If we can take the best of that Chinese understanding of the flexible shapeshifter in all of us, and the best of the values-focused ideal of authenticity in American practice, we become shapeshifters ready to step forward, in a variety of roles, in the spirit of service and excellence.
To learn more about your inner shapeshifter, join me at the International Leadership Conference in Montreal, Oct. 31-Nov. 3! You can also read my article about Shapeshifter Leadership in the BK volume, The Transforming Leader.