The False Self Series, Part 2: Looking for Approval

I recently listened to an Emotional Healthy Leader Podcast episode by Pete Scazzero (The September 6 episode, Silencing the Seductive Voice of Your False Self) that greatly impacted me. In the episode, Pete said, “one of the most destructive temptations leaders face is living and leading from the veneer of the false self.” He then listed ten examples of how this can happen. 

These examples made sense to me — and I think they’ll resonate with you too. In the upcoming weeks, I’ll talk about all ten. I am doing this because overcoming the false self is the best way to head into 2023. Leadership is about doing things with and through other people, so leading yourself past your false self is step one to leading effectively.

The False Self Series, Part 2: Looking for Approval

It’s a scientific fact that a newborn baby seeks affirmation from their mother. This is why mothers are encouraged to bring their babies close to them immediately after birth. It is natural, beautiful, and affirming to the newborn. It reassures the infant they are loved and treasured.

As the years pass by, the newborn grows into a teenager. At some point along their journey, they start seeking approval from their friends. Notice that approval is similar to affirmation in that both seek a sense of acceptance. The difference, however, is that approval often deals with external factors, like what one is doing, rather than internal factors, like who one is. 

In other words, no loving mother withholds affirmation from her child. But one could also say that no loving mother approves of everything their child does. This distinction is vital when discussing leading from the false self. 

A Temptation to Lead from our False Self

I want to clarify what I am NOT saying in this post. I am not saying that looking for affirmation is wrong — in fact, I think part of what makes us human is the need for human connection, which is another way of saying affirmation. Being affirmed for who we are is critical to leading from your real, not false, self. 

But seeking approval from others can tempt us to lead from our false self — the one willing to bend to the whims of popular opinion to gain approval and be liked. That’s problematic because it can tempt us to be or act in ways that aren’t congruent with who we really are. 

One issue with seeking the approval of others — a lesson I repeatedly learned as a teenager — is that it never delivers long-term results. Approval from others is similar to a sugar high: It feels good in the moment but doesn’t offer long-term energy and nourishment. Eating more sugar is the only way to keep the “high” going. Or, in this case, seeking more approval.

Organizational Leadership and Seeking Approval

Given this blog’s focus on leadership, there are two things I want to point out regarding organizational leadership and seeking approval. First, there is always a temptation for the leader to lead in a way others approve of. This may mean acting a certain way or possibly doing (or not doing) either popular (or unpopular) things. Leaders, however, are worth following when they stay true to themselves and do the (potentially) harder thing. We should be focused on staying true to ourselves and doing the right thing, even if it is hard, rather than seeking approval in anything we do. 

The classic American example of this type of leadership is Abraham Lincoln. One can argue that he was potentially the most hated President of all time when he entered office. After all, who else’s election led to half the country seceding? That said, we now hold Abraham Lincoln up as the gold standard of authentic leadership. Why? Because Lincoln held to his convictions — preserving the Union at all costs — and eventually evolved his thinking to include the emancipation of enslaved people. Neither decisions were popular with the majority at the time. Yet, this is why Lincoln is held in such high regard all these years later.

The second consideration leaders need to make is understanding that their followers need affirmation. All humans need this. So, while a leader’s affirmation looks different than a mother’s to a child, it is important to still treat all people with respect, dignity, and grace. I use the word “grace” intentionally because we are often quick to slam reputations for the slightest infraction. Yet the wise leader realizes they can disapprove of actions while simultaneously affirming people. To this end, leaders should always treat all humans well, regardless of their actions.

Approval, or Something Else?

The thought I want to leave you with this week is one that I have often been contemplating recently: How much approval from others am I seeking, and is it really approval that I am seeking? The first part of that question is easy to measure. The second part of the question is a question of the heart. Both are necessary. 

They are necessary because the first part clarifies our behavioral tendencies in leadership and life. Changes could range from posting less on social media all the way to making harder (possibly less popular) decisions at work. These are all easy to act on. 

But the second part is also necessary because if we are not clear on what we seek, we cannot lead from our true selves. In other words, if we seek affirmation from others, not only will we not find it in the approval of others, but the disappointment we place on it, or even them, will be unfair. 

As for me, when I am feeling my lowest, I often seek approval from others the most. Unfortunately, this never gets me out of my funk. It is only when I realize where my true identity is, in Jesus, that I find what I am looking for. While this may sound strange, possibly even weird to some readers, I share it because only Jesus knows all my junk, including the things I am most ashamed about, and still affirms me. This frees me to be me rather than trying to seek His approval. For, I already have it.