There we were. In my coach’s lounge room overlooking all of San Francisco. He turns to me and says “you know, you don’t even see it, but your problem is that you’re both arrogant and ignorant. Tony is not like this. He’s grateful for the opportunity and education. You are not.”
I took a breath. I’m paying for this guy’s guidance and today it sounds like this. The real reason I am here is because I am lost and not sure what to do next with our growing business. Then this happens!
I know my old reaction to this. To fight. To oppose. To say, “who the hell do you think you are” and then I get it. My old reaction is exactly the problem. Interestingly I don’t react. I have some kind of presence and I ask, “what do you see in me and my behaviours that has you conclude this?” and he responds with some more observations that reveal my blindness.
That’s why he’s my coach. He sees things in me that I cannot hope to reveal myself and, style aside, he cares enough to share them.
Uncharacteristically tears begin to flow. I want to fight. In the world I was brought up, tears are a sign of weakness. I cannot hold them back. Again, I relax into just what’s happening, knowing this is why I am here. I am not asking the question he’s answering, but he’s giving me a clue to the place I’ll find more helpful answers.
I have not been the same since that conversation. Something in me opened up. And it was my capacity to ‘stay with it’ that allowed it to open up. I know this because that very afternoon we spent several hours on Zoom with our team back in Australia in one of the most meaningful and moving team discussions we’d ever had, where I shared that I was not sure what to do next in our business and revealed to them I did not know.
This day was a beautiful leveller. Despite all of my knowing, intellect, intelligence and experience, these were not enough to surmount the breadth of challenge our business was experiencing. I had no choice but to yield. To give in to the feeling of not knowing, to declare that and to invite our younger staff to begin to genuinely co-design the way forward.
This is the experience of declaring yourself a learner. Painful and humbling but necessary when you’re facing the kinds of challenges for which there are no existing answers – for these ones everyone’s hearts and minds get an invitation.
Since that day many things have changed. I feel lighter and more at ease. The team has offered some new ways to go about what we do, and we’ve been listening to our under 30 year old workforce and advisory teams with a new kind of appreciation. This has led us to a podcasting studio, sudden changes in strategy, to make a declaration for less workdays in 2020 and a 7-year plan to live in Italy 3 months per year whilst we carry on this important business of transformation. And oh, did I mention the team cruise to Fiji????
Yet none of these outcomes would be possible if not for being able to ‘take on board’ those words – “your problem is that you’re both arrogant and ignorant”.
How do you do that and why would you consider it? This is what we call an assessment. It is the judgement or opinion of another person that you either choose to take on or not take onboard. I make it sound easy but listening to one of these and being open to exploring it is one of the most advanced leadership practices I know. It requires you to listen, recognise your reaction or response, identify that the words are just someone else’s view and adopt a mood of curiosity and wonder to explore why they might have said that.
Let me share the alternative (the one I have lived my whole life). He says his thing. I say, “who do you think you are?” and storm out, regretting ever trusting this bozo. From then, and for some time, I craft unhelpful interpretations about ‘him’ and his arrogance and I position him in my mind and conversations accordingly. I seek to discredit him and to build myself up with my known associates to validate his wrongness and my rightness. I live like this. For people and circumstances that affirm what I know and what I believe, I validate them. For anyone to contravene me, I invalidate them.
This is a meta pattern I see in the world right now. We seek people that affirm our world view and we avoid those who choose to challenge it. I honestly believe that the skill I’m describing, to be able to ‘be with’ the assessment of another is a skill our world desperately needs.
Notice I refer to it as a skill. I am 44 years old. I have had to work with a lifetime of patterning to be able to be with comments like this, and to recognise them as chances to deepen my sense of understanding self, understanding what others see and finding a place between where we can understand each other. This is what we will need to overcome the global issues we face but cannot yet talk about.
We cannot talk about them because we are too invested in our sense of who we think we are. The truth is our identity lives in the opinions of others. We think our identity belongs to us, but that’s an unhelpful fallacy. We think we can control and shape what others think and believe about us, but in truth, they are always using their own lens that we rarely understand nor appreciate.
These are BIG ideas. They rock our perceptions and provoke us.
I intend to do this. I want to do this. Maybe a little less directly than my coach, but I believe that if we can be with the assessments that others want to share and can adopt moods of curiosity and acceptance when we feel provoked, we have a chance of learning to live together.
In February we will take another 25 leaders on this journey to self and how we can be with the kaleidoscope of people we call our teams. To truly understand provocation. Revealing how to ‘be with’ anything another human being wants to share and stay in relative peace, choosing response over reaction. To identify the habits and hooks that halter our evolution in business and life and to navigate whatever’s happening in this crazy world, and still find peace and possibility in it.
As the smoke fills the valley outside and the crickets find their song, I know I am in some other place to share this. For this, my dear coach, I thank you for your assessment.