The reflective leader-discovering the unknown quadrant
In 1955, two psychologists, Joseph Luft and Harrington Ingham, created a framework to explain how individuals manage their relationships with others. The framework was called “Johari window” after the initial syllables of their names. The Johari window or more accurately, its four quadrants, have been used in countless management interventions and personal coaching programs. In essence, the Johari window divides all our relationships and interactions into four quadrants based on a person’s knowledge about him/herself and how he/she chooses to manifest that knowledge in his/her interactions with others.
The first quadrant (and they are in no particular order) is known as the ‘Open' Quadrant. This depicts what the person (and others) agrees to be common knowledge. For instance, a leader’s educational qualifications, command over communication, the ability to resolve complex situations etc. are all things that the world knows about the leader and the leader herself knows that too.
The second is known as the ‘Hidden' Quadrant. This depicts knowledge that the leader has about him/her, but chooses to hide from the external world. For instance, the leader may have a reputation of being a great public speaker, but in reality, the leader could be petrified in front of audiences. Or the world may fete a leader as a superb negotiator but only the leader knows that confrontations are terrifying.
The third quadrant is the opposite of the 'Hidden', in that, the world knows something about the leader, which the leader doesn’t realize — hence is called the ‘Blind Spot’. For example, the leader’s insecurity during public speaking could make her seem untowardly aggressive and while that is apparent to everyone else, she could be completely oblivious to it. The last quadrant is called the ‘Unknown’ because this symbolizes knowledge that is unknown to both, the individual and the external world.
Most leadership development interventions focus only on ‘Hidden’ and ‘Blind Spot’ quadrants for good reasons. After all, the information in the ‘Open' quadrant is known to all and that in the ‘Unknown’ is known to none, hence most of the leadership coaching hinges around making the leader drop the façade and be open to getting feedback about the blind spots.
This line of leadership development is fairly straightforward.
The façade is dropped by encouraging the leader to be more vulnerable and self-forgiving and the blindspot is overcome by becoming receptive to feedback. The crux of this approach is an assumption that improvement requires engagement with externalities. The leader learns about his/her blind spots through feedback of the external world and seeks to inform the external world about his/her truer self by dropping the façade.
And that is why the fourth quadrant – the ‘Unknown’ – is usually ignored in most leadership development initiatives. It appears logical too. After all, how can someone be educated about the ‘unknown’? And by whom? But ironically, this is the quadrant where leaders ought to be spending more time, especially if they have to thrive in a VUCA world (Volatile, Uncertain, Complex, Ambiguous).
We have always assumed that all forms of knowledge, including that, is needed for self-improvement, must come in a two-way interaction. After all, most of our skills and competencies have been learned by engaging with someone else either directly, like a teacher-student format or indirectly through books, lessons, films etc. In both these formats, the presence of at least one other individual is mandatory. But the fourth quadrant has only one person that is the leader, who has to engage in reflective conversations with the ‘self’.
Fortunately, this is not as eccentric as it sounds. We constantly have conversations with our selves. As a matter of fact, at any given time, we have at least three selves. We have a self of our past, which is usually erroneous and embellished because it is based on our memories which are highly inaccurate. Every time we revisit a decision of our past, we rationalize them with far more acumen and sense of control than we actually exercised when we took that decision. Similarly, our ‘recollection’ of a past accomplishment is usually far more enjoyable than the actual experience.
Our second self is that of the present, which is guided much more by material incentives and disincentives. This is the self that is attached to the physical pain and pleasure being experienced in the ‘now’.
And our last self is our self-image of the future. This image is far more idealistic and fanciful than the realistic present self. Let’s understand these three selves with some examples.
Consider an amateur runner who decides to run a grueling marathon, trains hard for it and manages to finish it. The runner’s memory of the entire experience is laced with a euphoric sense of accomplishment triggering a dopamine rush. The recollection is ‘pleasant & happy’ through the months of training and the final run was painful and exhausting. When the runner’s present self-remembers that ordeal, the runner’s past self, shows an inaccurate picture that is denuded of all the suffering and only focuses on the ‘happy ending’, and a sense of accomplishment.
Similarly, when we plan ahead, our future self is far more idealistic and unreal than the present self. This is why we put off quitting smoking into the future or convince ourselves that our future self (New Year resolutions) will be able to go on a diet while our present self is gorging during the festivities of the year-end.
The ‘Unknown’ quadrant is the reflective pool containing knowledge of our past decisions, our deepest fears, previous actions that make us squirm in shame and our innermost self. That is where our psyche, our character, and our full potential reside. The ‘unknown’ quadrant is the battlefield between our idealistic self of nobility and our real self with its crass materialistic goals. It is in this quadrant where we can find behaviors that hold us back or goals which have been foisted on us by someone else.
But this journey into the ‘Unknown’ quadrant is not easy. For one, it takes a certain sense of maturity to appreciate the importance and inexorability of reflective introspection to grow as leaders. Secondly, leaders who have been molded into Alpha personalities find it difficult to subject themselves to sincere critique. Their embellished self-images stand in the way of honest self-reflection. Lastly, most leaders see no need to go beyond the ‘hidden’ or ‘blind spot’ quadrants. They are too busy fixing deficiencies of their blind spots or dropping their facades.
But those who believe that leaders are not born, but ‘made’ within ourselves, make the effort to understand their innermost fallibilities and strengths. And the best way to do that is to seek the counsel of a true friend, philosopher and guide who resides in the ‘unknown’ quadrant — our own unknown self.