Collard Greens and Leading Yourself

Going into the holidays, I’d never have guessed that collard greens and black-eyed peas would serve up a leadership "aha" moment. I don’t think my table mate did either.

Over dessert, my table mate remarked that she still had a nasty taste in her mouth from “that awful green dish that had been forced on her.”

“Is this your first experience eating collard greens?”

“Yes, and they’re just as disgusting as everyone says they are.”

“Good for you, though, in trying them.”

“I didn’t have much choice. He forced me. He put them on my plate.”

“I saw Arthur do that after asking you if you wanted any, and you said ‘yes.’”

“What was I supposed to say?”

“Did you want to taste them?”

“No way. Why taste something I know is going to be awful?”

“In that case, I think it would have been perfectly fine for you to have said ‘no thanks.’ Arthur wouldn’t have cared.”

“That would have been rude.”

“Not at all provided you were polite. I see it as being honest and sticking up for yourself.”

“So, you think I was wrong?”

“I think you missed a chance to do what you wanted to do. If I don’t want to taste something, I just say so. Nicely. I do think it’s unfair to say you were forced to eat them. Arthur was being a good host, walking around the table, carrying the heavy bowl and offering to serve. Several people shook their heads no.”

“I wanted to be nice.”

“Declining to take a serving of greens doesn’t make you not nice.”

“What does it make me?”

“I think it makes you self-confident and assertive.”

“Really?”

“Really.”

“How so?”

“There are things we all don’t like to do that, for one reason or another, we simply have to do. Like dealing with difficult people. There are lots of other things, like short-changing ourselves, especially if we’re women, to serve the wants of someone else that is in our control. Trying to be nice isn’t a reason for doing them.”

Table talk shifted loudly to football, so our sidebar chat ended. But my thinking about the exchange didn’t. Three topics haunted me.

1) How broad and deep the reach of confirmation bias is—even affecting if we’re going to like collard greens or not! Because someone we care for or trust says something is so, we close our minds and accept their position. It takes guts, grace, determination, and a village to counteract how these tendencies limit our experience and possibilities.

People don’t change their minds—just the opposite. Brains are designed to filter the world so we don’t have to question it. While this helps us survive, it’s a subjective trap; by only seeing the world as we want to, our minds narrow and it becomes difficult to understand opposing opinions. When we only look for what confirms our beliefs (confirmation bias), only side with what is most comfortable (cognitive dissonance, and don’t scrutinize contrary ideas (motivated reasoning) we impede social, economic, and academic progress. ~Sam McNerney, author and neuroscientist

2) How important it is to own what we do, no matter how uncomfortable or unflattering it is. Convincing ourselves that someone else is responsible, i.e., he made me eat the greens, is an excuse that may sound logical on the surface but that, when probed, shows a lack of character, confidence, and inner strength.

In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility. ~Eleanor Roosevelt

3) How the belief that simply expressing a personal preference makes us unkind, not nice, or rude so we choose to be silent. Granted, if we’re obnoxious, condescending, or disrespectful in sharing our views, then we are unkind, not nice, and rude. We have to give ourselves permission to gracefully, tactfully, compassionately, share what we think or what we want. Conversely, if we’re already comfortable sharing, we have to honor the rights of others to do the same. Learning to disagree without being disagreeable is the secret sauce.

What are your thoughts on responsibility, kindness, and disagreeing with grace?