Board of Ancestors | Reflections Ralph Waldo Emerson American Self-Awareness & Self-Reliance

Enough is not said about the role self-awareness places in serving and leading. Too often leaders are made legendary for the ways they express extraordinary forms of “leadership.” Michael Jordan is a considered the GOAT, by millions; and with more accolades than we can name, Jordan has earned the lore, but leadership can’t just be about results.

Maybe in a sports, where it’s only for 60 minutes you can lead like Jordan, be relentless, demand others elevate their performance regardless of circumstances, dominate and overcompensate for team flaws to the point of exhaustion. But in business when launching a product or in the classroom leading a group project or classroom, being relentless, demanding, snd over stretched are usually signs of bad management, regardless of results. Mostly because people, teammates, and classmates, remember how you make them feel, not what you did.

So what does this have to do with self-awareness?

Leading teams, or guiding missions linked to multiple stakeholders requires a relentless passion, and discipline, disciplines that inform your self-awareness and your ability to be conscious of your blind spots, as it pertains to privilege, power, and oppression.

“Trust thyself: every heart vibrates to that iron string.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

While this is a nice sentiment it does not account for the self that acts in selfishness and causes malicious harm to others. Emerson is an educated man living in a time period of massive economic inequality preaching to people about how they should pursuit their own truth. I ask who is his audience here? From my point of view it is exclusively white men with similar civic freedom. His words ring hollow to a black man like me, instinctually tuned in lingering on every word for any reference to women, enslaved Africans, and indigenous people. These groups of people are unable to “trust thyself “and pursue their own truth because such actions will put their lives in danger. Emerson’s opinions, at this time, seem to never address the masses, who lack (in modern terms) the right “culture fit.” He can’t speak of a path for the American black, Fem, or native, because there’s not a, “pattern match,” for him to pull from. The structures of freedom and oppression have him speaking to a candid audience in bubble.

I don’t believe that it is Emerson’s fault that structural oppression exists. Structural oppression existed before Emerson and continues to exist. There are bubbles or freedom, access and opportunity; and oppressive forces can spur out of any intent.

Emerson’s critique on the individual and their pursuits is as relevant today as it was back then. When he speak on structural oppression in 19th century he speaks of slavery, “Was it not the actions of men ‘trust themselves’ that led to slavery? Men pursuing what they deemed important led them to pursue slavery as a source of wealth, or at the minimum a chance at supporting their family? If men can look internally and see another man as cattle what is inside that man can’t be of God or of nature can it?”

Again, self-awareness is seen as a virtue, until it isn’t. This quote articulated how men make cattle of men, how self-awareness combined with an outsized sense of vigilance can “lead” all types of people to convince themselves — justify any actions, in the name of self reliance.

Last Thought

From what I understand about Emerson he lived a life that lacked the sting of poverty. So his ideas are easier to consider and achieve when you don’t have to worry about survival. I imagine that many chose to follow societal norms out of survival instinct and the preservation of those they love.

Wealth, as I define it, (whether financial, communal, or spiritual) is the afforded space to look inward. Practices like journals, meditation, group chats even, or yoga, are ways for us to reflect. Self awareness and projecting a healthy aura of self reliance is key to bridging the gaps that come with leading. Knowing your blind spots can be the difference between leading your team into a narrative of your creation, absent of the many voices and intentions of those present, and writing a strategy that lives independent of your resolve and is evangelized in your absence.

Self-awareness isn’t about being “Woke” or an “ally”, it’s rooted in practices that focus attention on ourselves for social evaluation. Meaning, we aren’t trying to keep score of how self aware we are at all moments (I mean whoof!); Instead we’re acknowledging our limitations and the disparity between our ideal version, and our current self. We experience this reflective state several times a day, and at times we tell ourselves narratives, believe our own hype, metaphorically yelling, “Jordan” after every zoom meeting. Objective self-awareness is meant to help you identity where your self reliance can be use most valuably for you and others. Demonstrating efforts of self reliance, being relentless in your execution of what you’re uniquely gifted at, that’s the Jordan lesson, that’s where we take truly lead.

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