Facing & Embracing Your Fears | Dr. William Sparks

On this week’s episode of the Vibrant Leadership Podcast, we speak with William Sparks. He has been a Professor and Chair at the McColl School of Business at Queens University of Charlotte for fourteen years, and is the bestselling author of Actualized Leadership. He has taught and coached leaders across a range of industries to become more effective and impactful in their roles.

Will says, “Self-actualization is about realizing your unique potential and purpose. The only way you can effectively do that is to have the courage to face, and even embrace, your darkness. And by that, I mean the side that you go to under stress; I call it your leadership shadow. When you are aware of that, and you acknowledge it, and you give those that you work with permission to call it out when they see it, it’s a powerful transformation that occurs not just for the individual, but for the entire organization.”

We chat about company culture when a leader is under stress, as well as:

  • The three sequences of self-actualization

  • Reaching your highest potential

  • Coming to terms with your leadership shadow

  • Nine attributes/characteristics of self-actualized leaders

  • And more

Mentioned in this episode:

  • William Sparks’ Upcoming book, Actualized Teamwork, Managing Shadows

  • www.alpfree.com for a free assessment

  • Text willsparks to 36260 for the free app

  • Will’s Ted Talk: The Power of Self Awareness on Ted.com

  • Will website: www.drwillsparks.com


Voiceover: You’re listening to The Vibrant Leadership Podcast with leadership speaker and consultant, Nicole Greer.

Nicole Greer: Thank you for tuning in to the Vibrant Leadership Podcast. My name is Nicole Greer. And I am so excited to have with me today, William Sparks, but he lets me call him Will. And let me tell you about William Sparks. He is somebody I’ve had a glass of wine with. He has somebody I have meditated with. And he is somebody who has given me a grade on my report card. So I’d like to introduce Dr. William Sparks. But again, we’re going to call him Will. He is a professor at Queen’s University and has his own organization. And he wrote this book that is so stinking good. We got to get this book, free assessment included. Don’t miss that. So Will, how are you doing tonight?

William Sparks: I’m doing great. Nicole, thank you so much for inviting me to be on the Vibrant podcast and really looking forward to this conversation.

Nicole: Yeah, well, so I am all about leadership. It’s like the place that I am zeroing in on because when I go inside organizations, and I know you go in organizations all the time, I look around and it’s like, well, we have a lot of process. We have a lot of procedure, but really what is needed, especially in times like this is great leadership. And I’m curious, you know, how would you define leadership in a nutshell, what would you say?

William: Well, I would define an actualized leader as a more fully integrated individual. And by that I mean someone who has a high degree of self awareness, and they have met and and sort of embraced what I call their leadership shadow their darker side where they go under stress. So more fully integrated individual who elicits the willing collaboration of others. And that part of the definition is a standard Harvard Business definition, eliciting the willing collaboration of others. And then the other bookend I would put on that is someone who consistently engages and what I call the three sequences of self actualization, which are confidence, performance, and renewal.

Nicole: Hmm, that’s awesome. And it’s all in this book. Now, here’s what everybody needs to know is that I have been taught everything that is in this book by you personally. Talk a little bit about the actualized part. I know people are like actualization, self actualization, what are you talking about right there, people know this, they took psychology in high school or college.

William: Yeah, they probably remember Abraham Maslow and the Hierarchy of Needs, and self actualization is at the top of the pyramid. So that is, essentially it’s reaching your highest potential. The if those of you listening to this or watching this that are old enough to remember the 1970s army campaign, which was be all you can be that is essentially, self actualization in a nutshell, it’s living your highest potential. And my research and work in this field over the last 20 plus years has really focused in on the finding that the only way to actualize your highest potential is to have the courage to acknowledge your darkness, we, I think we have it many, in many ways, we have it backwards, we feel like if we can sit up straight, and always be right, and sort of, you know, play the part in fake it until we make it. But that’s not what it’s about. self actualization is about realizing your unique potential and purpose. And in my view, the only way you can effectively do that, the only way you can really do that is to have the courage, the courage to face and even embrace your darkness. And by that, I mean that the side that you go to under stress, but I call your leadership shadow, when you when you are aware of that, and you acknowledge it, and you give those that you work with permission to call it out when they see it. It’s a powerful transformation that occurs not just for the individual, but for the entire organization.

Nicole: Yeah, I love that. So, you know, when I first was, you know, exposed to this when I took, you know, leadership at Queen’s when I was getting my mnsod you know, I had this like revelation, because one of the things I would say, when I would teach another assessment, as I would say, Now, listen, if you’ve never taken a personal assessment like this, you know, turn the mirror inward and done that, you know, that self assessment, you read the first like eight pages of whatever report it is, and you’re like, Oh, I’m awesome. Like, look at all these great things about me. And then like the last eight pages are like, be careful, you get ugly. And I was like, this, this book and this process like actually calls it out and let you see that there are two ways that you show up and I love this powerful coaching question. What is it like to experience you? And I think this tells you there are two ways so will you talk a little bit about what a shadow is? Because people are like, Okay, well shadow. What do you mean?

William: Yeah, it’s a comes from the famous Swiss psychologist Carl Jung who’s known for many if you’ve ever taken the Myers Briggs or referred to yourself as introverted, or extroverted, or synchronicity, all of these notions were came from Carl Jung. And for our purposes, his concept of the shadow dealt with the darker side of what it means to be a human being. So it’s not personal. It’s not that you have one and I don’t, or that somehow mine is darker than yours, we all have this shadow, it’s part of anything that has substance cast a shadow. And so the goal, according to Carl Jung, was to have the courage to acknowledge it and face it. So when I say a leadership shadow, I’m referring to very three specific tendencies, that individuals, they fall into one of these three sort of categories, and it’s understanding that negative side. 

So let me use an example on a paper. a high achiever is someone who is detailed oriented, very organized, Uber efficient, color coded to do list, color coded spreadsheets, deep discipline in their field, technical experts, they like to have a plan for everything. They like consistency. They’re sort of the engines that drive performance. And Harvard Business School is profiled famous achievers from Oprah Winfrey, to Michael Jordan, to Bill Gates to Tom Cruise, Lady Gaga, you know, a number of individuals that are very disciplined, very focused. And that’s great. But so if the conversation stops there to your first point, then we have this skewed view of what self awareness is because we have a skewed view of ourselves, because there’s a shadow side of that think of it is the sort of Mr. or Mrs. Hyde to our Dr. Jekyll, the Dr. Jekyll is the persona when we’re at our best, but our Mr. or Mrs. Hyde is that shadow piece and so achievers, their challenge under stress, is that they become a classic micromanager. 

They become rigid, they become critical, they become obsessive, they have a difficult time of spontaneity, and things that trigger and I call that shadow the fear of failure for an achiever, and things that trigger the fear of failure shadow are things like ambiguity, uncertainty, the prospect of losing and feeling like it wasn’t done your way Exactly, and therefore it’s not going to be perfect. And so there are a number of unique triggers for the achiever style. Now, the heart of the matter, the bottom line in all of this item is, the bottom line is that the wisdom that comes from Viktor Frankl and his classic Man’s Search for Meaning Frankel survived the Holocaust. And he had a number of insights about human nature. But one of them that I think is the most important is his notion of paradoxical intent. And simply stated, it means this, the more we fear something, the more likely we are to experience it. It’s a tragic irony of the human condition, think about the very thing that we’re trying to avoid. If we let fear, drive our behavior, we increase the likelihood that we’re going to experience it. 

So if I’m an achiever, and I let my fear of failure, Shadow kick in, and I begin to micromanage and become obsessive about details, I will at best, artificially limit the trajectory of my career because I’m not delegating. I’m not thinking strategically and at worse, I will bring about failure because I create a detached climate folks sort of disengaged and become apathetic when reporting to a micromanager. And so it’s either going to be my success is artificially lowered, or I experience outright failure and call young captured this concept in a slightly different phrase. He said, we meet our destiny on the road we took to avoid it. And in this case, the destiny of a shadow achiever is failure. The road we take to avoid it is micromanaging. And that’s exactly where we ultimately meet that failure if we allow our shadow to drive our behavior.

Nicole: Right. And so like, I know you do 360s inside organizations with people and said why and the word micromanager comes up all the time. It’s a common thing now, you kind of skated right past it, because you are I mean, you’re so passionate. I absolutely adore it. You’re so passionate. So you said a detached climate, but like I just want to say that like a lot of the people that are going to listen to this podcast, are curious about how do I build the right kind of culture. But you know, let’s talk about that detached climate or culture that happens when you’ve got a leader who is in shaping their shadow achiever.

William: Yeah, so the my research actually 25 years ago, started with culture and then switched to leadership in the early 2000s. But I initially started researching culture and the impact of leader style online. Culture and so in a shadow achiever creates a detached culture. And there are two other styles the affirmer, which is the relationship oriented person, empathetic one family, but their shadows a fear of rejection, they’re conflict avoidant. And they create a dramatic culture, which is rarely on the surface, but there’s a lot of frustration bubbling underneath. And then the the most common culture is a dependent culture. And that’s created by the third style, which is an assertive, which is my style. I know this very well. And so the shadow of an assertive Yeah, I wasn’t gonna say it. 

But yes, I think we are decisive, results oriented, willing to take a risk confident, but at our worst, we have a fear of betrayal that is our shadow. And so the fear of betrayal means that we have a hard time trusting others. We have a hard time being vulnerable, asking for help saying I’m sorry. And the sort of fear that we create another’s creates a codependent culture where folks want to give us the right answer. They do exactly what they’re told when they’re told to do it. But they’re not being innovative, they’re not being creative. And so in all three of these cases, a detached culture, a dramatic culture or dependent culture, what’s needed is a more self actualized style. So that you create an open environment where people feel psychologically safe, to disagree to challenge, they don’t feel micromanage. They can bring their own ideas to the table, they can do things their way, as long as they meet the deadline. And most importantly, in a dramatic culture, you can have those crucial conversations so people can tell you what’s really on their mind. 

Conflict isn’t something that’s taken offline. You know, so many times in corporate America when things start getting a little bit tense in the meetings that will take that conversation offline. And that what that means is a dramatic cultures bypassing what needs to be said, the conversation that needs to occur among and within the group. And so having candor mutual respect, but that means there’s going to be disagreement in the light. So it’s really a way of just injecting passion into an organization where people feel empowered and engaged. And those just aren’t buzzwords. I mean, they really feel like they take ownership and what they’re doing and in the best leaders, and the best managers know when to push, when to pull back, when to inspect, when to trust, when to ask a clarifying question, you know, and the like, and said, they don’t just go to their sort of shadow default mode. They’re thoughtful about that. And they, but most importantly, they convey trust in the people that we’re working with, and for them. 

Nicole: That’s fantastic. Okay, so you told me a story one time about how you were working with the Hornets. And you did the group culture? profile. So you said that, you know, they were they were sitting there, and they were looking at the results? And they’re like, what, and then somebody very famous? Can we tell this story to everybody?

William: Sure. Okay,

Nicole: So what will you tell it? Because I think it was, I think it shows like how you just fall right into your, your shadow, like, well, we can’t talk about this, we don’t have a problem.

William: Yeah, well, just just like individuals, every group, every working team, every management team, every organization also has a shadow side. Again, it’s not a personal collective, like, it’s just, it’s anything that has substance, whether it’s an individual or Bank of America, or the pic, or any, you know, any organization, any size, is going to have a shadow. And so in this case, we were talking about a more dramatic culture, where, you know, people sort of went with the flow and sort of agreed, and played a little bit of follow the leader. And, and that was the reason I was asked to come in. And so when I was talking about this sort of warm and polite culture, one of the members of that senior team said, a timeout, you know, take a look around the room and look at who you’re talking to. And we’ve, we’ve achieved the pinnacle of success. 

And you know, you’re we are, and they, and that’s true, they, you know, they’re all very successful, wealthy, you know, famous, I mean, you pick the however you want to define success. And to the chairman’s credit on the chairman of the organization, he said, timeout. If I understand this concept correctly, what I think Will’s telling us is that we are agreeing, we’re making decisions, and we’re agreeing together on the table, but privately we have concerns or we’re not voicing those concerns. And he said, let me give a couple of examples. And he proceeded to give three examples from the last season of decisions that the group made, and they agreed during the meeting that they really no one really wanted to do it that there were some concerns about the decision. They have agreed to do it anyway, that’s what’s what’s known as the Abilene paradox, which is a kind of groupthink, when a group makes a decision, and no one really wants to do it, and this is so pervasive in organizations, and so it’s not personal, it’s just you just see this dynamic play out over and over. And so there was a, there was a tremendous breakthrough, that that just sort of injected this energy, where there was some agreements made about how conversations were going to go and how when you had a disagreement, or you had a concern, how they were going to be elevated and raised without retribution. In fact, that was going to be a condition of sitting around that table, a very successful people. 

So it was a, it was a it was really terrific experience. And I think, I think we came out on the other end of that a much closer team that felt much more engaged. Because here’s the magic and all of this, and I learned this from my now late, the late Dr. Jerry Harvey, who was my advisor, mentor, George Washington, when you’re doing this kind of work in groups, he drilled into me, you’re not providing the group with any new information. It’s not magic. It’s simply making explicit what everyone in the group already knows, which is, you know, we’re going to do something that we’re going to go have a conversation over a glass of wine around the watercooler. Why are we doing this and yet we get in the room together, and we’re all stacking hands and saying it’s the right thing to do. Again, it’s not personal with any organization or any team. It’s just a very common dynamic. And but it’s also a very costly dynamic that needs to be addressed. And so I think that’s, I feel really good about how we were able to talk about that, and I think sort of have a breakthrough in that in that one area.

Nicole: Right. Right. And so that’s that work is using the group culture profile now, have we transition the name of that yet?

William: We are in the process of doing that now. So I’m writing the next book, which is Actualized Teamwork, Managing Shadows. Yeah, there’s the companion to that managing the shadow side of, of group dynamics. And that assessment, which is now called the group culture profile, will be rebranded the actualized team profile. And that will happen sometime in q1 of 2021.

Nicole: Okay, fantastic. Fantastic. Okay, so let’s, let’s talk about like, you know, well, how do I keep my team, my shadow? How do I stop being the bad part and be more the good part, so so there’s nine things we can do, right?

William: There are nine, what I call the nine attributes of self actualized leaders or their non characteristics. And, you know, you get a score for each of those in the assessment that I’ve developed. And you can, you know, maybe pick your lowest scoring one, and you could work on developing, let’s say, for example, being more objective and the way you think, dealing with facts instead of feelings as being more objective, you can be more accepting self acceptance is a huge gift that we can give ourselves. And so often, the people that are the kindest to others, are their harshest critic. 

So they’re very friendly and very supportive with everyone except themselves. And if you could hear what these people tell themselves, it’s terrible. And so, yeah, self that negative self talk, solitude, spending time alone, there are certain things that you can do to help develop an enhanced self actualization, but all of those kind of notwithstanding, it starts with, you know, awareness and acceptance. And so if you are blissfully unaware of your shadow, or you just say, hey, that I agree with the good stuff, but not the bad and you continue to deny it, or projected onto others, or to ignore it, you actually feed it. And when you feed it, you give it more power over you. And so it starts with acknowledging accepting that shadow side and then I think for folks that are busy and that, you know, they don’t want to get on the couch and do a psychoanalysis I get it. I don’t want to, I don’t want to be on the other side of that couch, quite frankly. So how what do you do like if you’re in a hurry, and you you know, you get it? It really comes down to stepping back and reflecting a little bit and thinking about what price Am I currently paying? Or what price my ultimately pay? If I if I don’t deal with this? 

And so when we step back, and we start thinking about what what are the patterns in my relationships at work? What am I patterns in my relationships at home? Are there reoccurring patterns in my professional life? I’m not quite getting what I want or not quite excelling on all cylinders, or my personal life. And so oftentimes when we step back, and we have that reflection, it’s just a cost benefit analysis. is the cost of changing going to be painful. Yeah. Is it? Is it tough to sort of sit with that self acceptance? 

Yeah, that’s why we don’t do it. I mean, it’s uncomfortable at first, but it’s only through that, that we are motivated with a sense of urgency to make a lasting change because we realize the price that we’re ultimately going to pay if we don’t do that. And so I think it’s just the most basic level, we do a cost benefit. And when you realize that the cost of not changing is going to be greater and more painful than the cost of doing some self awareness and reflection and making some changes, then people often feel motivated. And quite often they look back and they’ve already paid a tremendous price. And they use that pattern again.

Nicole: Yeah, well, you call that your F in life story. Like you’ve got one. And you could you know, if you want to hear Will’s, F in life story, he’s got a little TED Talk. what’s what’s the I’ll put it in the show notes. But you were up an hour.

William: Yeah, it’s the power of self awareness. It’s, it’s on ted.com. It’s the power of self awareness. It was released in 2018. And it’s essentially a summary of my first chapter in the book, which is, I’m not very creative. So they have the same title, you know, my F in  life. And people can relate to it. I mean, that’s, that’s for sure. Yeah.

Nicole: Yeah. And I think what you’re talking about is when you know, if you’re not willing to change, you’ll just keep having that F in life moment over and over again, the groundhog things like how did I get here?

William: That’s exactly right. And this is not anything new. So back in the, in the early, you know, 1900s, the 1910 2030 call young talked about this, what he called the fallacy of fate, he said, individuals that were just unwilling to take responsibility for themselves, they were unwilling to acknowledge the darkness. And so it was easier for them to be a victim and to blame fate. And so they would rather sit in and Dr. Jung’s office in the chair and be analyzed and say, well, fate was against me, the stars were against me, they were not aligned when I was born. 

And Jung was very clear, there’s no such thing as fate. It’s not that the stars weren’t aligned, is that the individual refuse to take responsibility and ownership of that darker side. And when you do that, you just you experienced the reoccurring patterns until you break that cycle. And sadly, I see a lot of people well along their journey in life that have not been willing to do that. And, you know, it’s not for anyone else to judge and so I don’t have any judgment around it, but I can’t help but feel some degree of sadness. When I see someone who is in that sort of reoccurring Groundhog Day, as you say, it’s everybody else, you know, and has a problem.

Nicole: Yeah, yeah. Yeah. And, you know, I think the thing is, both of us coach individuals, both of us sit down with individuals. And you know, one of the things that grieves me in my work is, you know, when I first got involved in coaching there, like, coaching is to help the people with high potential go even further. And I was like, Oh, this is for me, I want to work with all these hungry people that want to just really do amazing things with their life. But I get a lot of phone calls of people who are being coached because they have a shadow.

William: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, it’s, it’s, you know, we all we all have that. And so I think that, you know, everyone you’re going to be working with has that darker side, and there’s some that are, the great thing about executive coaching is that years ago, before it was even called coaching, I was coaching when it wasn’t in comp coaching. You know, it was remaining to remain. Yeah, I mean, it was, you know, it’s counseling. I mean, you were working with a shrink, and it was a remediation, and it was sort of a, this is the last, you know, ditch effort. And it had a very negative stigma today, thankfully, it’s a rite of passage. You know, I know many organizations where if you’re at a certain level or above, you have an executive coach, it’s a, it’s an investment in the individual for him or her to perform at their highest level. And so they’re, you know, that that’s great, that stigma has gone away, I think for the most part, in certainly progressive organizations, coaching is seen as something that really is just a continuous learning, continuous improvement, helping the person. 

And I think it depends on you know, the kind of what end of the pool you’re dealing with, if you’re in the shallow end, and you’re talking about incremental performance. And maybe you’re a technical expert in a certain area, and you’re helping the person be better whatever, your technical areas, and then it’s great, there’s absolutely terrific. Then there are other people I think, that are more in the line of work, Nicole that we’re in, which is more process expertise, which is it doesn’t matter what the individual does, and I’ve worked with, you name it, I mean, literally rocket scientists with the Department of Energy and defense to, you know, sports management and, you know, CEOs and financial folks and manufacturing, and everything in between. 

And that doesn’t matter that the content doesn’t matter. It’s more about the process of helping the person understand what’s getting in their way where there’s reoccurring patterns and whenever you use start that conversation, always the shadow will make an appearance sooner or later, it typically comes back to either fear failure, fear of rejection, or fear of betrayal. And helping a person understand that and just giving someone the framework in the language, having a person call it out by name is almost half of the journey, right? The last half of the sort of breakthrough. Having that saying, like, you know what, it’s not just me this, this is common. I see it and other people now, and that’s a can often lead to a very powerful transformation in the individual.

Nicole: Yeah, awesome. Well, you know, we’ve covered a lot about this, but I do want to say you need to go to Amazon and and buy the book. But one of the things that I love about well, sparks is he’s a very generous person, like, really generous. And so he has put together a free version that that you can take right now, like pull out your phone, tell them how to do that? Well.

William: Yeah, so they can, there are a couple of ways you can you can, the easiest way is just to go to www.alpfree, and that’s actualized leader profile, so just alpfree.com. And it’s a very short, it will take you less than a minute, it’s very quick, you get your results immediately. And that’ll tell you your style and your shadow. The other would be to download my app if you wanted to have the free assessment, but you also wanted to have the resources for that.

Nicole: So not only is the Alp free available, but you also have an app where people can take the free version, and then there’s resources for them. So they can actually start to go to work. They can do a little self coaching, right?

William: Yes, there there are developmental resources, there’s a link to the TED Talk. There’s a link to consultants, and I think, Nicole, I know you’re on that list that would be in your area, if you want to reach out to someone certified in these assessments, the app is free. And if you just text, my name, all one word lowercase willsparks. S  P as inPeter A R K S willsparks to the number 36260. Again, this willsparks to the number 36260, you just add the app to your home screen and you’re good to go. It installs in just just a few seconds. And you can access a number of resources in that way as well.

Nicole: That’s fantastic. Okay, and so we’ll actually have it right here on the screen. So it’ll be right there for everybody to do. So we’ll do that. Alright, so um, you know, I think that today’s world is like, talk about stress. so stressful out there right now. So I’m glad we’re past the elections. I’m glad we’re through the summer. I’m like you earlier, we were chatting before we started. You said I’m bullish on 2021. Me too. So um, give us some advice. You know, from a leadership expert, I’m a leader inside my organization. What should I be thinking about in 2021? Leave us with a little word of wisdom about how to approach 2021 be bullish.

William: I think it’s a combination. This is gonna sound a little union, he was always dealing with counterpoints, and so he would have the hot and cold or the, you know, white and black. I mean, he was always dealing with that. And I don’t mean it to sound like this. But I think there’s, I do think there’s a sense of bullish energy, and tenacity, on the one hand, so I believe that that people that come out of the gate, that are aggressive, that are tenacious, that are discipline, that are willing to put in the work, they’re going to be it’s going to be rewarded in this in this new year, I think that people that come out quickly, are going to have an advantage. I mean, that sincere like, on the other hand, for managers and leaders, I think you need to couple that with grace, for those that you are, that you’re responsible for, for managing I think that some folks are going to be slower coming out of the gate, people, there’s a wide range of views around the world we’re living in right now. And wherever you fall in that spectrum, be mindful that there are people who fall in a different place in either in either regard. And so I think having some grace for individuals and and acknowledging and allowing a different perspective is the is the best way that a person knows that you know, you care about them, and that you’re going to support them. 

And ultimately, I think if you are able to exhibit authentic grace and understanding to others, they’re going to remember that and I think there’s a loyalty and an ultimate sort of engagement bump that you’ll get for that but I wouldn’t do it for that reason I would do it just because I think it’s the humane thing to do. So kind of this counter balance of you know, persistence and tenacity coming out of gripping 21. And not letting go until you win. And then on the, on the other end, granting grace and understanding to those that, you know, we people have struggled this year. It’s been tough. We’re not through it yet. I do. I do think we’re getting on the other side of it, but we’re not quite there yet. And so I think managing that kind of dichotomy is going to be key for being successful in the new year.

Nicole: Yeah. So, you know, what I heard you say is, you know, take the lead, and so that people can follow your example. But when they can’t turn around, and coach counsel, get people to stand where you see where you’re standing, why it’s important. So I think that’s great advice. All right. So I want to finish up with saying actualized leadership available on Amazon. And if you need help with your team, both will and I would be delighted to come in and work with your teams. And we finally tell us where what your website is, and we’ll finish with that.

William: Yes, it’s www.drwillsparks and that’s drwillsparks.com. That’ll take you to everything you that I’ve got out there with the book and the TED talk and the app and everything else.

Nicole: Okay, well, we’re looking forward to the culture piece and 2021 and it’s been my absolute delight to spend more time with you. Always a delight.

William: Always great to be with you. Thank you Nicole.

Voiceover: Ready to up your leadership game. Bring Nicole Greer to speak to your leadership team, conference or organization to help them with her unique shine method to increase clarity, accountability, energy and results. Email speaking@vibrantculture.com, and be sure to check out Nicole’s TEDx talk at vibrantculture.com/tedtalk.

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