Blazing Our Own Improvement Path

Blazing Our Own Improvement Path

7.8 min read

Jim Clemmer

“The self-explorer, whether he wants to or not, becomes the explorer of everything else. He learns to see himself, but suddenly, provided he was honest, all the rest appears, and it is as rich as he was, and, as a final crowning, richer.” — Elias Canetti, The Secret Heart of the Clock. Austrian novelist, philosopher.

An ass found a lion’s skin, and dressed himself up in it. Then he went about frightening every one he met, for they all took him to be a lion, men and beasts alike, and took to their heels when they saw him coming. Elated by the success of his trick, he loudly brayed in triumph. The fox heard him, and recognized him at once for the ass he was, and said to him, “Oho, my friend, it’s you, is it? I, too, should have been afraid if I hadn’t heard your voice.”

This classic Aesop fable shows how easy it is to play a part — to be someone else. But those closest to us will eventually see through us. The key question is — can I see myself? Can I recognize my own inner voice? Do I listen to what it is telling me? Am I drawn into roles, jobs, or relationships that I am not cut out for? Am I following the path that society or someone thinks I should be on or am I blazing my own path? Am I following my heart?

Reputation is what people think I am. Personality is what I seem to be. Character is what I really am. Our goal should be to blur the lines between the three until they are one and the same. That means living my life from the inside out. When I live my life from the outside in, appearances are everything. What other people think of me and want from me becomes my guiding principle. That means my confidence and self-image is out of my control. I set myself up to be a victim of the fickle opinion of others. The harder I try to make an impression, then that is exactly the impression I make.

As a leader, I do want to serve others and need to know how others see me. However, I can’t serve, support, or guide others if I am not coming from a strong inner core. Only if I believe in myself can I generate believers. In Hamlet, William Shakespeare writes, “this above all: to thine own self be true, and it must follow, as the night the day, thou canst not then be false to any man.” A modern storyteller, television producer Norman Lear, puts similar advice into modern terms, “First and foremost, find out what it is you’re about, and be that. Be what you are, and don’t lose it. It’s very hard to be who we are, because it doesn’t seem to be what anyone wants.”

Continually peeling back the layers of who we are is a life long effort. It’s the leadership process of “becoming”. Our own inner space is as vast as outer space. Like the many generations of Star Trekkers, we can “boldly go where no one has gone before” as we continue to push back the frontiers of self-knowledge. If we’re going to continue to deepen and grow, it’s our own never ending discovery trek.

“The process of spiritual growth is an effortful and difficult one. This is because it is conducted against a natural resistance, against a natural inclination to keep things the way they were, to cling to the old maps and old ways of doing things, to take the easy path.” — M. Scott Peck, The Road Less Traveled

A timeless principle of inside out leadership is continuous personal growth. When U.S. Supreme Court associate justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., was hospitalized at the age of 92, President Roosevelt went to visit him. He found Holmes reading a Greek Primer. “Why are you reading that?” the president asked. The great jurist replied, “Why, Mr. President, to improve my mind.”

Continuous personal improvement means we often outgrow our own standards and what we previously thought was acceptable. A dull author once complained to William Dean Howells, the 19th century editor of Atlantic Monthly (he encouraged a number of writers including Mark Twain and Henry James). “I don’t seem to write as well as I used to,” the mediocre writer grumbled. “Oh yes you do…indeed you do,” Howells reassured him, “It’s your taste that is improving.”

We need to find the combination of reflection, networking, participating in learning events, training, discussions, taking on new assignments and responsibilities, experimenting, — or whatever — that keep us stretching and growing. Reading is a powerful way to stretch our minds and keep growing. Not all readers are leaders, but most lifelong leaders are avid readers. A Gallup Poll found that high-income people read an average of nineteen books per year.

The 19th century president of Harvard University, Charles William Eliot said, “Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.” “Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body,” declared the 18th century writer, Sir Richard Steele. I heartily agree. However, as an author I will admit to a little bias on the subject.

Continuous learning, growing, and developing helps us find the path that is personal and unique to us. Ways of doing things depend upon tools and techniques. This can range from how to operate a machine, use a software program, deal with a customer, manage a process, cook a meal, or resolve a conflict. There are no tools or techniques for ways of being. We all need to keep searching, growing, and developing those ways that are true to our inner selves and take us where we want to go.

There are no quick-and-easy formulas to leadership development. In his book, The Heart Aroused, poet David Whyte illustrates how difficult it can be to find our own way. “In my experience, the more true we are to our own creative gifts the less there is an outer reassurance or help at the beginning. The more we are on the path, the deeper the silence in the first stages of the process. Following our path is in effect a kind of going off the path, through open country, there is a certain early stage when we are left to camp out in the wilderness, alone, with few supporting voices. Out there in the silence we must build a hearth, gather the twigs, and strike the flint for the fire ourselves…if we can see the path laid out for us, there is a good chance it is not our path: it is probably someone else’s we have substituted for our own. Our own path must be deciphered every step of the way.”

The unknown author of the following story entitled “The Moth,” illustrates the necessity for struggling to find our own way:

A man found a cocoon of an emperor moth. He took it home so that he could watch the moth come out of the cocoon. On that day a small opening appeared. He sat and watched the moth for several hours as the moth struggled to force the body through that little hole.

Then it seemed to stop making any progress. It appeared as if it had gotten as far as it could and it could go no farther. It just seemed to be stuck.

Then the man, in his kindness, decided to help the moth, so he took a pair of scissors and snipped off the remaining bit of the cocoon. The moth then emerged easily. But it had a swollen body and small, shriveled wings.

The man continued to watch the moth because he expected that, at any moment, the wings would enlarge and expand to be able to support the body, which would contract in time.

Neither happened! In fact, the little moth spent the rest of its life crawling around with a swollen body and shriveled wings. It never was able to fly.

What the man in his kindness and haste did not understand was that the restricting cocoon and the struggle required for the moth to get through the tiny opening was the way of forcing fluid from the body of the moth into its wings so that it would be ready for flight once it achieved its freedom from the cocoon. Freedom and flight would only come after the struggle.

By depriving the moth of a struggle, he deprived the moth of health. Sometimes struggles are exactly what we need in our life. If we were to go through our life without any obstacles, we would be crippled. We would not be as strong as what we could have been.

About the author:

Excerpted from Jim Clemmer’s latest bestseller, Growing the Distance: Timeless Principles for Personal, Career, and Family Success. Jim Clemmer is an international keynote speaker, workshop leader, author, and president of The CLEMMER Group, a North American network of organization, team, and personal improvement consultants based in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada. His recent bestsellers include Pathways to Performance: A Guide to Transforming Yourself, Your Team, and Your Organization, and Firing on All Cylinders: The Service/Quality System for High-Powered Corporate Performance. His web site is


  • Quote of the Day

    “No man will make a great leader who wants to do it all himself, or to get all the credit for doing it.”

    — Andrew Carnegie