The One Critical Question that Determines Your Success as a Leader

The Window, the Mirror, and the Problems that Cross Our Paths

What kind of a person are you?

Are you a day person or a night person? Are you a dog person or a cat person? An introvert or an extrovert? A beer person or a wine person?

My wife is a day person, a dog person, and an introvert who enjoys the occasional glass of wine. This means we wake up at roughly the same time and are amused by the same two silly mutts, but she’s someone I don’t have to share my IPA with nor my stupid jokes (which is just fine by her).

None of the answers to these questions, while they may contribute to marital harmony, will determine your success as a leader, however. But there’s one critical question that will. Here it is: Are you a window person or a mirror person?

Let me explain …

The Window and the Mirror

Windows and mirrors are alike. Both have frames; both are made of glass (mostly); and we use both to see more clearly. That’s where their similarities end. We look at others and the outside world through a window. We look at ourselves in a mirror.

Leaders embrace one of these two perspectives, the window or the mirror, when problems cross their paths.

The leader who’s a window person sees the problem at hand, looks outside his or her frame of reference, and immediately assigns blame. In the assignment of blame, there’s also the assignment of villains, evil actors, and victims, most notably one’s self. As a result, interactions with these people are viewed as personal attacks, destroying any chance at meaningful collaboration.

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The leader who’s a mirror person also sees the problem at hand, but instead of assigning blame, the reflection in the mirror compels this leader to accept responsibility and find solutions, asking, “What can I do to help?” Instead of assigning villains and victims, a mirror person appeals to others with dignity and respect, engaging equals in positive, productive communication.

Only one of these two perspectives is effective in leadership. Can you guess which one? I’m waiting…

Psychologists call this dynamic “locus of control,” which simply means the way a person perceives the cause of life’s events. An external locus of control, or what I’ve referred to as the window, perceives the cause of life’s events as outside of one’s influence. There’s nothing that can be done about them except rage at the injustice of fate. An internal locus of control, the mirror, views the cause of life’s events—or any contribution to their cause—as one’s own responsibility and takes action accordingly.

When problems cross our paths in leadership, being a window person or a mirror person shifts power from one’s self to others or others to one’s self. Once that shift occurs, the latter leads and the former follows. Nelson Mandela became the true leader of South Africa during his time in prison—the victim of real villains—when he was determined to endure his imprisonment with dignity and grace.

“It was during those long and lonely years that my hunger for the freedom of my own people became a hunger for the freedom of all people, white and black,” Mandela writes in his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. “I knew as well as I knew anything that the oppressor must be liberated just as surely as the oppressed. A man who takes away another man’s freedom is a prisoner of hatred; he is locked behind the bars of prejudice and narrow-mindedness. I am not truly free if I am taking away someone else’s freedom, just as surely as I am not free when my freedom is taken from me. The oppressed and the oppressor alike are robbed of their humanity.”

Great Gifts the Mirror Gives Us

There are three great gifts being a mirror person gives us as leaders: agency, humanity, and opportunity.

1. Agency

The first great gift the mirror gives us is agency. That is, the drive to take action within our sphere of influence. A lack of agency overwhelms us with helplessness, hopelessness, and despair. And while it may feel good to blame the bad things that happen to us on others, that reaction kills the impetus we need to change those things.

Agency infuses us with a sense of responsibility. Not guilt, which shrouds us in shame, but rather, initiative. Often when looking into the mirror, we’ll see our own contributions to the problem. Agency aims to change those contributions. Sometimes, as with Nelson Mandela, nothing we did contributed to the problem, yet agency still aims at change, asking that all important question, “What can I do to help?”

Agency maintains the dignity of self-government and empowers us with the ability to choose our response in any circumstance, good or bad.

2. Humanity

The second great gift the mirror gives us is an impulse to speak with people in a positive and productive manner. When we see the world through the binary lens of villains and victims, it doesn’t matter how we speak to a villain, for as everyone knows, villains are evil and don’t deserve anyone’s respect, least of all from a victim. This destroys our humanity.

That is what grieves me so much about the state of public discourse in America today, a total lack of humanity. Both sides of the aisle point fingers at each other and cast the stones of angry accusation devoid of any self-reflection. Differences of opinion, which in the past were respectfully debated (albeit vigorously), have become blood sport in our cancel culture. This must stop or we as a country will unravel at the seams.

Even when there are true villains and real evil, as with apartheid in South Africa, Nelson Mandela’s response preserved both his humanity and the humanity of his oppressors. Which leads us to the third great gift the mirror gives us—opportunity.

3. Opportunity

Finally, when agency and humanity meet, like best friends at a class reunion, opportunity is not far behind. Leaders who take action, no matter the obstacles in their path, and speak to people in a positive and productive manner miraculously get things done. Big things. Hard things. Important things.

Sometimes they become heads of state, other times heads of their businesses, classrooms, churches, or homes, always initiating change where none seemed possible from the perspective of those who stare out the window, pointing out the imperfections of others.

“It’s not the critic who counts,” as Theodore Roosevelt boldly declared a century ago, but the man or the woman “in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood … who knows great enthusiasms and great devotion; who spends himself (or herself) in a worthy cause.”

We need you to lead in this way. Opportunity awaits. Will you seize it or will you waste your life sitting in judgment of those who do? The choice is yours.


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