When we consider the meaning of fidelity in the context of leadership and leader development, it calls for clarification. It’s a word with a history and it sets many expectations.
It’s a high bar
The Latin verb, “fidere” means to trust. As a noun, it’s come to mean faith, loyalty, and accuracy. We think of its use in important aspects of leadership such as fiduciary duty, confidence, and to confide in others. In all its uses there are attributions of integrity. As applied to human development and identity development across the life cycle, fidelity means being true to oneself, to one’s beliefs, to one’s role, to one’s commitments. Fidelity implies being true to who we aspire to be but may not be always.
As our identity in the roles we take imply new demands of fidelity, we must integrate them as elements of our aspirational identity. We will be measured and we will measure ourselves by how we respond to these demands. So, my vital identity as a person in all arenas of life is not only a matter who I am now but who I am required to be in order to realize fidelity to that role, to fully claim it as my identity. Since our fidelity as leaders is and never can be complete, another virtue in development becomes salient.
Striving is to live and learn
Fulfilling the expectations and virtues of a new role takes time, it involves adaptive development that occurs and can only occur as we enact the role and practice it. Humility becomes an attitudinal condition that attunes us to the perennial task of striving for virtue. Paradoxically, it does this by affirming the virtual impossibility of achieving perfect virtue, even while being fully committed to doing our best. It is an attitude that welcomes discovery of new ways of being more fully the leader we aspire to be.
But expressing humility too has its limits, doesn’t it? What we may have welcomed as helpful feedback at one time, may feel like an unbearable judgment when we are exhausted from our relentless efforts to achieve fidelity in our role. Growing levels of challenge, complexity, and the perceived jeopardy of falling short generate stress and strain. Every ounce of our being as agents of action is infused with belief in our ability to thrive, even as fatigue and doubt creep in: “And now you expect me to receive criticism?”
Descending to ground
Fidelity and humility are difficult to achieve under these circumstances. We are feeling insecure, and our defenses have been aroused to protect us from the sting of “constructive” feedback. Our attunement to others and our softer affiliative capacities (social interest) are not there for us. Our composed ability to listen, consider, and then respond (temperament) have abandoned us. Here we stand, naked, revealed in our fearful, embattled state, in our defensive posture, feeling unfairly evaluated and judged.
At this moment of greatest insecurity, when we’ve hit bottom, we realize that to regain a sense of safety and well-being, we must find another person in whom we can confide. We must find fidelity in another relationship in order to restore our capacity to achieve fidelity in our leadership role. None of us is self-sufficient. We may access a transcendent source of solace and renewal. In it, just as in mortal relations with a helper, it is unconditional love (concern, support, encouragement) that makes us whole again.
Fidelity in human form is imperfect. It is not steel; it is living tissue. We have alluded to several qualities of the person (security, fidelity, agency, social interest, and temperament) that intermingle and interact to shape our development and to explain our capacity to cope with the challenges of leadership. We began by discussing fidelity, something we can so easily idealize as a virtue. What we carry within us, however, is not the pure virtue but the aspiration and orientation to virtue. The virtue itself in its purity is aloft like the North Star, at times obscured by clouds, but always there to be rediscovered.
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