Actualized Leadership: My ‘F’ in Life Story

“It is only when we have the courage to face ourselves as we truly are, without any illusion or self-deception, that a path to growth and development will emerge.”
I Ching

I have facilitated many leadership programs and taught a large number of classes over the last 15 years and I’ve discovered two things: 1. The personal and painful story of my introduction to self-awareness – what I refer to as “My ‘F’ in Life Story” – always seems to connect with the audience.  I’m not sure if that’s because it’s easier to muse about the misfortune of others, or if it’s because my story resonates in a “me too” sort of way.  Maybe it’s a little of both.  And 2. I have to be very careful how I refer to this anecdote because saying it too quickly causes it to be taken in a slightly different context.  At any rate, here is how Dr. Jerry B. Harvey introduced me to the painful but ultimately transformational mistress – Self-Awareness.

I was 27 years old when I began the doctoral program in organizational behavior and development (OB&D) at George Washington University.  I was a freshly minted graduate with a master’s degree in psychology and management.  I was going to study under the great Dr. Jerry B. Harvey, famed author of “The Abilene Paradox.”  I was beyond excited.  And, I was going through a divorce.

My first class in the program was a group dynamics course with Dr. Harvey, and it was unlike any class I had taken before.  Students wrote poems, performed songs, and played musical instruments to illustrate their understanding of the theoretical models of small group behavior and change.  Since I had sold my drums to help pay for grad school, and since I wasn’t sure how receptive the other classes in our building would be to me trying to channel Neil Peart (okay, more like Mick Fleetwood), I decided to write a paper about my divorce and the dysfunction of dependency.

During our last class meeting Dr. Harvey returned the final project grades to the class with one exception, mine. In front of the entire class, staring at me over the top of his glasses, he said “William, son, you’re going to need to come see me for your grade.”

Not good.

Oh well, I thought, at least I flunked out early in the program before too much time, energy and money had been spent.

The next day I went to see Dr. Harvey.  I knocked on his office door and he had his back to me reading the Bible.  Without looking up he pointed to the empty chair in front of his desk.  I took my seat nervously and fidgeted while he finished reading chapter and verse, literally.

Rubbing his eyes and sighing, he turned to me and said, “Well, William, what do we need to talk about?”  Clearing my throat, I responded that I was there to talk about my paper.  “Wrong,” he said.  Well then, I must be here to talk to about my experience in the class, right?  “Nope,” he responded.  “Son, we’re here to talk about you.”  Okay, I thought, let’s just get this over with so I can beat the commuter traffic back to my local watering hole in Northern Virginia, which I suspected I might need a little more than usual tonight.

“So, tell me, how the hell did all of this happen?” Dr. Harvey asked.  Assuming “this” meant my divorce, I proceeded to tell my version of the events discussed in my paper.  I won’t bother you with the details but suffice to say I blamed my ex for changing; being overly needy and dependent, not having or expressing her views and opinions and not growing with me.  Dr. Harvey listened intently, nodding occasionally and grimacing frequently.

When I finished Dr. Harvey said he was very sorry.  He also said he would be praying for me, and for my ex.  And, he said he was ready to give me some feedback.  “William,” he said, “I’ve got good news and bad news for you. The good news is that you made an ‘A’ on the paper.  It’s well researched, thoughtful and well-written.”  He proceeded to explain to me the difference between intellectually and emotionally “knowing” concepts, asserting that I both cognitively and affectively understood the dysfunction of dependency.  That meant, according to Dr. Harvey, one day I could teach it.

“But,” he continued, “The bad news is that I’m giving you an ‘F’ in life.  Son, I am of the professional opinion that the only thing more dysfunctional than a codependent, which is your soon-to-be-ex-wife, is a pro-dependent, which is you.  You created this dynamic.  I bet you had to make every decision.  I suspect you had to solve every problem.  And, I bet you were always right.  Now you want me to feel sorry for you, but I don’t.  Not at all.  I feel sorry for her.”

He then proceeded to tell me if I really wanted to learn something during my time at GW, and do the rest of the world a big favor, I should spend the next four years figuring out why I did that to her.

And with that comment, he turned his back to me, opened up his Bible and continued reading.

I drove home that night very upset, and spent the next few days thinking about what a hypocrite the “great” Dr. Harvey had turned out to be.  Claiming to be a Christian, telling me he would pray for me, and then when I was my most vulnerable, cutting me to the quick and pouring metaphorical salt on my wide open wound.  I told myself he didn’t know anything about me or my situation. No, I decided Dr. Harvey was not only rude and cold, he was factually wrong.

Then, a few days later, something magical – dare I say transformational – happened.  As I looked into the mirror one morning, with tired eyes staring back at me, I said out loud “He’s right.”  You see, I had to admit that Dr. Harvey, although my professor and acquaintance for only a few months, knew me very well.  In fact, and this is what really hurt, he knew me better than I knew myself.  I had created this dysfunction.  It was my fault, and many had suffered.  That was a bitter pill to swallow, but I did.  And in that moment of personal responsibility and acceptance, I felt awake.  I did not feel good or at peace, but I felt aware and wide awake for the first time.

That experience started me on this path of research and practice into human growth and development.  I had experienced two of the three elements necessary for personal transformation – vulnerability and responsibility.  Identifying and experiencing the third element – forgiveness – was sadly a much later discovery for me.

Next week, I will outline these elements of the Personal Transformation CycleVulnerability, Responsibility and Forgiveness – and provide some context for each in the hope that your discovery will be sooner rather than later.



  1. Christine Hess

    Dr. Sparks,thank you for sharing such a personal story which allows me to know you better, as a person as well as my favorite professor. I was very moved when reading the experience that led you to your own self-awareness and furthered your development. My journey to my own self-awareness has been truly humbling, the most difficult and has allowed me to take responsibility for my part in any relationship rather than blame others. This is a hard practice to follow. — Christine Hess

  2. Will Sparks

    Thank you for your comment Christine. Life can often be humbling. But when we take total responsibility for out life and our happiness, we reclaim what Viktor Frankl identified as our only guaranteed freedom: the ability to choose out attitude and response to anyone and any situation. Ultimately, total responsibility = freedom.

  3. Dana

    I think it’s interesting that Dr. Harvey hadn’t known you for long but that he actually knew you very well. To me, it seems natural to expect those who know me well to point out my shortcomings when it may actually be easier for someone who has only known me a short time (or not at all) to provide feedback because they have less invested in our relationship.

    Either way, it’s difficult to be “called out” on our own behavior and even more difficult to accept responsibility and decide to change as a result.



  1. Actualized Leadership: A Tribute to Dr. Jerry B. Harvey | Dr. Will Sparks - […] you may recall from My “F” in Life Blog, Jerry quickly analyzed me when I started the graduate program…

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