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Embracing Differences, Not Deficits

By Mac Bogert

Taking Stock

The first rule of navigation is not to know where we’re going, but where we are. For leaders, that may be more about learning who we are. And that learning hinges on self-reflection. The toughest part, for me, has been acknowledging my “self”—who I am, my entire story—without judgment.

Biased by our expectations, we see ourselves unrealistically. We compare ourselves and deflate or inflate, defining ourselves in terms of shortcomings—deficits. If we can set those expectations for ourselves aside, we may be better at doing the same for others, especially our students if we’re teachers and our employees if we’re managers. To do this, we can take a courageous look at ourselves, not framed as positives or negatives, strengths or weaknesses.

The Perils of Childhood

When I was in primary school, which I think is a better term than elementary school, I discovered that I was shy. I also stuttered.

Shyness is a little different from introversion, I’ve found. Shyness has to do with fear of judgment. On the other hand, an introvert is someone who prefers a minimally stimulating social environment. On assessments, I show up as introverted: I’m friendly but not social. The distinction clarifies a lot about my teaching and leadership style.

The stuttering was a bigger deal. I learned to feign an upset stomach to dodge speaking in front of the class. To “cure” my affliction, an audiologist parked me in front of a giant tape recorder with a microphone and headset repeating back “stuttering words.” Decades later, singing in a recording studio, I flashed back to those days.

For many years I thought my shyness, introversion, and stuttering held me back. I framed them as deficits. These days I make my living speaking to, and interacting with, groups of people, which seems to fly in the face of these deficits.

What Happened?

I stopped framing my differences as deficits. I realized—only recently—that because of my stutter, I had a college-level vocabulary by the time I was in seventh grade. If you have a stutter, you’ll know why. You learn to stockpile synonyms. You need to switch in an instant, like substituting pleased for happy before anyone notices that happy has stopped you in your tracks. My “deficit” paid off in other ways. I learned to love singing. We can’t stutter when we sing. Because I made a living singing for a while, I took voice lessons. And that’s paid off long after I quit traveling the countryside from gig to gig. I can use my voice as an instrument. It’s a bonus not needing a microphone unless I’m in a large auditorium.

Similarly, I no longer see my shyness as a liability. I learned to pay close attention to other people and to appreciate quiet reflection. Like Bill Gates, I find acting like an extrovert an “out-of-body experience,” and I also like the stretch as long as it has an ending. Paying close attention is fun and powerful, a way to connect with others in my work but not miss that connection when I’m finished for the day.

So, What Next?

The biggest payoff is that I can see other people more neutrally as well. Others’ differences become resources, interesting rather than problematic. As a teacher, I can accept others on their terms and engage more closely to what Timothy Gallwey highlights in his Inner Game books: The root word for education means to bring forth, not to put into.

We teachers can do a much better job of releasing expectations for our students’ performance. Everyone’s approach to understanding is different. No two are identical. As soon as I stopped framing myself in terms of deficits, I could do the same for others. As we teach, we can strive to become more flexible in accepting and working with the rich variety of our students’ different personalities, approaches, and styles.

As leaders in the workplace, we can accept, even treasure, other people’s perspectives, preferences, and insights as different rather than wrong. When we provide a more neutral place for other people to be who they are, they have a more powerful starting place for who they might become.

Please drop in and give the back2different podcast a listen. I’ve found people all over the world (or vice-versa!) who want to push forward rather than back during this time of opportunity.

About the author

Mac Bogert is President of AZA Learning and a regular columnist for the Learning Counsel. He began his career as an English teacher. For the past 25 years, Mac has focused on the intersection of leadership and learning. In between, he is a musician, professional actor, yacht charter captain, staff development consultant, curriculum designer and author of Learning Chaos.

Visit Mac Bogert on Twitter @azalearning

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