human resources development

“I am a supporting actor in your life” – A thought on leadership

2020-05-17

We tend to see ourselves as the main character and everybody else as side characters. When we accomplish something we tend to think, “I did it,” but for mistakes, we tend to turn defensive and assert ourselves being not responsible or wrong. This is what’s happening with the coronavirus, too.

There is an essay written by Shusaku Endo titled, “I am a supporting actor in your life.” It goes like this:

In a play, there are supporting actors. Obviously, they are there to support the lead actor. They play roles pivotal to the story line together with the lead, but their job is to assist or act as a foil to the protagonist.

You may think, “So what? Who doesn’t know that already?” Please bear with me. The reason why I state such an obvious thing is because we always think that we are the protagonist of our own life.

Of course, everyone is. And everyone thinks that whoever appears in every scene of their life story is there to play a supporting role. But if you pause for a moment and give it a thought, we, though being the leading actor in our own life, are all supporting actors in somebody else’s life.

(…)

You may say, “Again, I know that already. Don’t waste my time.” Please don’t be irritated yet because what I want to say is that, sadly, we humans tend to dismiss things we take for granted. For example, aren’t you acting as if you are the lead actor in your wife’s life even though you are supposed to be a supporting one?

(…)

Nights when I can’t fall asleep, I think of my deceased friends and ponder that indeed I was a supporting character in their lives. I wonder if I did a good job supporting them. And then of course I think about my wife in my half-asleep head – if I have been a good supporting person for her.

Shusaku Endo, Iki-jozu, Shini-jozu (Good at living, good at dying), 1994.

Eastern political philosophy does not favor ostentatious leadership as is evident in many popular sayings such as the lines, “What does the emperor’s power have to do with me?” in the poem Beat the Ground of the Eighteen Histories in Brief or “One who performs hidden deeds will certainly have illustrious fame” in Huainanzi’s Renjian (In the World of Man). Similarly, in Sun Tzu’s On The Art of War, there is this line which I think teaches what “victory” truly means:

“Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.”

Sun Tzu, On The Art of War (Translated by Lionel Giles)

In Japan’s Kojiki (Records of Ancient Matters), there is Sukuna-biko-na-no-kami, a tiny deity (divine being) that is not observable by the naked eye. Sukuna-sama* plays a significant role in making and forming the land, but because of his microscopic size, nobody knows that the jobs were done by Sukuna-sama. And because of this, people’s faith towards the god is deepened all the more. Educator and author Kuniharu Abe explains this point in his Shinshaku Kojiki-den (the newly interpreted Kojiki) as follows:

Even if you accomplished an important job that leads to someone’s prosperity, you shall not seek recognition or reputation for that, or it will not become a truly virtuous accomplishment. This story powerfully illustrates this point.    

Kuniharu Abe, Shinshaku Kojiki-den Vol.3 “Sukuna-sama”

I recently asked someone in business coaching to assess myself and found that I have substantially high self-efficacy. I received a comment that people who have very high self-efficacy tend to do everything on their own, demotivating subordinates or counterparts or restricting their chances to grow. I was advised to depend more on them, encouraging and appreciating them.

She continued that if I am too active at the forefront, people around me will feel left behind. If I commend them more often and depend more on them, that will make them happy and motivated. This feedback was an eye-opener.

Leadership these days, in this rapidly changing world, is more and more about demonstrating the ability to show the right direction and guide people. But then I wonder if this is the “supreme excellence.” Perhaps not. And, perhaps those who often complain that their team members (subordinates) don’t think things through had better reflect their own leadership.

“Nights when I can’t fall asleep, I think of my deceased friends and ponder that indeed I was a supporting character in their lives. I wonder if I did a good job supporting them.”

Have you thought about this?

*-sama is the most formal honorific.

-human resources development

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