Avoiding 'empty suit' status

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(MoneyWatch) We all hate empty suits -- those individuals who aren't wise but act wise. They haven't been to hell and back, but they've seen hell in movies. They have lines and catchphrases and are masters at posturing. They haven't had an original thought in years. A long time ago, they learned by memorizing. Now they parrot. Worst of all, they have convinced themselves that they are the real thing.

What went wrong? And, more important, how can you make sure you don't become an empty suit?

I've spent much of my life dwelling on this question. What gives some people that look in the eye that says they know every game you can play, and it won't work on them? 

The answer, I believe, is to mine life's horrible experiences. I've been off blogging for months, following a near-fatal car crash in November. I give the unpleasant details, and deeper lessons for leaders, in my personal blog.

A crucible is a setback, a challenge or a failure. We all wind up in a crucible at some point. But only a few are truly changed by the experience. My friend and colleague Warren Bennis knows more about crucibles than anyone I know -- and his knowledge is that hard-won mix of experience and reflection. And being the best-read person I've ever met doesn't hurt. As he (and co-author Robert Thomas) write about what they learned in interviewing people who had been changed by setbacks: "[W]hatever the crucible's nature, the people we spoke with were able ... to create a narrative around it, a story of how they were challenged, met the challenge, and became better leaders."

So if want to make sure you're not an empty suit, bookmark this blog and return to it next time something bad happens. If times are good, the following actions will seem trite.The next time you face a crucible, they will guide you, just as they guided me in the months after my car accident.

Action No. 1: When setbacks happen, swallow the red pill. A manager I've known for almost 20 years got scathing evaluations about 10 years ago. His response was to deflect the potential learning and, instead, try to become more popular. He created a checklist of everything he could do to be better liked: more one-on-one meetings, more socializing, more introducing people to others.

Ten years later, he's in the same job and is still dogged by mediocre evaluations, although they improved enough to let him keep his job. His mistake was to not take a big step back and question who he was and how he was leading (or, rather, how he wasn't leading). When setbacks happen, people have a choice, and it's the same choice that Morpheus offered Neo in the fist "Matrix" movie: Take the blue bill and wake up, believing everything was a dream. Or take the red pill, and learn the truth.

If you are willing to swallow the red pill, to see yourself and the situation for what it is, then go on to the next action. But choose carefully. Once you open yourself up to seeing yourself and your situation as it is, there's no going back.

Action No 2: Take note of the Red Pillers who are all around you. When I got home from the hospital, barely able to walk and high on morphine, my home phone was ringing. It was Steve Sample, president emeritus of the University of Southern California and author of the "Contrarian's Guide to Leadership." He offered help and support and then gave the greatest gift mentors offer: his ear.

The next day, Warren Bennis called. He offered experiences he had involving sudden health crises. I listened.

Over the next few days, I was flooded with calls, e-mails and texts. I thought people were being nice. The cynic in me thought they were networking when I was down so that they could collect when I was better.

The point is so simple that most people reading this will skim to the third action. During your setback, people who have been there, and who have taken the red pill, will show up. They come in all forms: colleagues, spouses, relatives, acquaintances, Facebook friends and people you haven't thought of in years. Like guardian angels, the Red Pillers are there to help, and their offer is so subtle most people miss it. Unless see the Red Pillers as mentors offering help and support, you will do what I started to do: write off their appearance as niceness.

Some empty suits will show up, too -- those who deflected life's learnings by taking the blue pill. You'll know the Blue Pillers from their clichés and one-liners. It's as though they read a book on how to help people who are down and are just checking off the boxes.

Some of the Red Pillers who showed up after my accident included Mike Grice, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Marines and a student at USC; Carrie Kish, a new director at CultureSync (the firm I work for); a man who checks me in at David Barton gym in Los Angeles. You know the Red Pillers from their gravitas, their ability to convey that they've been there in a look or in the tone of an e-mail or text. 

As I wrote last year, communicate in real time with mentors. If something is horrible, say it -- immediately. If you feel hopeful today, give words to why you feel that way and without delay.

The one attitude that repels Red Pillers from helping you is the "I got this" arrogance that marks you as a chooser of the blue pill, a person who is opting for life as an empty suit. Let's be clear. You don't "got this." It's beyond you. Everything is upside down, and you don't know what to do. Your skills brought you to this point, but they cannot get you past here. If your life were a checkbook, you're now bouncing checks.

Red Pillers convey their status in a look, in a tone to an e-mail or a text. They are all around you. They want you to join their ranks. The only question: Will you let them?

Action No. 3: Wallow and then swallow. Empty suits deny the crucible or see it as a problem in need of a fix. Red Pills see it as a remarkable opportunity to see things as they really are and use the opportunity to change themselves.

A crucible is a bird's nest of loss, disappointment, feelings of failure, anger, and frustration, all tied together.  It is the place from which the new you will emerge and grow, if you let it. The hardest part of crucibles is the need to wallow in them, to feel everything, to experience everything, to reflect, to think and to wallow some more. You'll be done when you're done. Then your challenge changes: Bring all of the experiences inside you and then move on -- "swallow" it. The swallow phase is marked by the fading of the acute quality of the crucible fades and the point at which the hard-won lessons become part of you.

How to wallow, when to keep wallowing and when it's time to swallow requires mentors. If you rush it, you become an empty suit. If you dwell in the crucible too long, you weaken yourself. The Red Pillers are there to help. Listen to what they say. Measure what they say against what's happening inside you. Then act.

The truth is, the gifts that make people stand out are often discovered, refined and put to use in a crucible. This is, as I wrote in 2012, "What Makes Batman, Batman?" From failure can come greatness.

Have you faced a challenge, setback, or failure and found Red Pillers to help?  If so, I hope you'll share your experience in a comment below.  The whole story of what I learned is in my personal blog.

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    Dave Logan is a USC faculty member, management consultant, and the best-selling author of four books including Tribal Leadership and The Three Laws of Performance. He is also Senior Partner of CultureSync, a management consulting firm, which he co-founded in 1997.

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