Spirituality as a mature

Easter Sunday, April 1, 2018

Thinking about how I make meaning of my life and sense of purpose. It is still an open question for me. I circle the question warily because I can see the edges but not the bulk of it.. I know, for instance, that I’m less concerned with the details of my faith and its story than I once was. Do I care about the virgin birth or the divinity of Jesus? Not so much anymore. I’m persuaded that it is OK to talk about the intelligence of the universe, but I’m blindingly clear that I don’t know what that might mean other than that the categories I use to apprehend this world are stupidly inadequate. I still think of myself as a Christian and read my bible quite often. I still enjoy the deep dive into exegesis of a passage and take pleasure in thinking that I’m getting a window into the thinking of those who kept the stories and reflections alive and those who recorded them. Do I feel smarter than the fundamentalists who would like to pretend that they are not interpreting these texts from which they are centuries removed? Sometimes, but not deservedly.

So what is Easter then? It is certainly my admission into a millennia-long conversation about ultimate things. That conversation is dominated by futile attempts to draw lines between the sacred and the ordinary. It seems obvious to me that the attention to the sacred is powerful insofar as it shines a bright light onto the possibilities of the ordinary. I find it harder and harder to see the divine as something altogether separate, even if that is the meaning of the word “sacred.” My suspicion is that the sacred depends on the ordinary for its existence and that mutuality is the core truth within the conversation.


Here’s a snippet of a presentation that the inestimable Candice Frankovelgia and I did at the 2017 Human Capital Institute conference in October.

Treating people with respect and still exercising judgement

A client saw a portion of a talk I gave at the Human Capital Institute conference. She shared with her HR leader who interpreted it in a way I had not predicted:

My statement: Every person in my organization has worth and value and can make a contribution.

What HR leader interpreted: Every person in my organization is top talent (worth = 9 box high potential status)

My response: Thanks so much for this feedback and questions. The short response is that treating people with respect and as having a potentially-valuable contribution to a situation/opportunity does not absolve us of the responsibility as leaders to make judgments about people’s performance and over-all value to the organization. I can treat you and your ideas with respect and still insist that they get better or else.
This is actually where “powerful questions” come in. You come to me with an idea or a question about what to do. If it is unclear, I ask you to clarify it. If it seems wrong because it doesn’t take some important facts into consideration, I can ask, “what will you do about X?” If it shows a lack of consultation or preparation, I can ask, “what did X say about that?”
The same is true of an assignment. Powerful questions let me deal with results that don’t measure up in a respectful way, but still focus on getting it right. “What else did you consider?” “Who did you involve in this?” “What if this premise is wrong?” “What assumptions did you make about our customer?” They focus the attention of everyone on learning how to get it right. After you’ve asked several of these questions, you will not have people coming to you without having done their homework. It takes a little more thoughtfulness and time up front and it saves lots of time down the road.
At the same time, some people don’t learn and talent processes are designed to surface those persistent gaps in performance and identify a path to improvement or a path out of the way. Using powerful questions surfaces the thinking processes of people around you so you make less biased judgments about them. If you don’t ask these kinds of questions, you end up getting rid of people who annoy you because of mannerisms or cultural differences rather than true ability to do what we need of them. The consequence is steadily diminishing diversity of thinking planting the seeds for group think and other enemies of performance and innovation.

The problem with potential

A colleague asked me for help on his dissertation topic. He asked if I would respond to some prompts:

– As a coach, what do you see / define as personal ‘potential’?
– In your experience, how can coaching help coachees reach their ‘potential’?
– How has coaching helped you, personally, fulfil your ‘potential’?
I think “potential” has no dependable meaning and lacks a specific referent. It is a word/concept that suggests that a person’s current manifestation or display (characteristics, skills, performance, maturity, etc.) is capable of advancing in some way. “How you are today does not represent the limit of your possibility.” To the extent that the idea of potential opens up a conversation about advancing in some important way beyond current (self) expectations, it can be quite helpful.
Measure of potential are measures of some present construct (intelligence of various sorts, for instance) that have some demonstrated or hypothesized relationship with future performance. They propose that “if you are smart enough in some measurable way that you are likely to be able to perform in the next phase of your life in such and such a way.” When we are young, that is most often a measure of your current school performance as a predictor of your next school performance.
So, the typical metaphor of “fulfilling your potential” is problematic in a variety of ways. It posits some characteristic, called potential, that represents an open space, an emptiness, that could be filled. The metaphor implies an inelastic quantity of possibility for a given individual and, as a coach, that worries me because it invokes the idea of fixed possibility. There’s plenty of evidence that such an idea cannot be substantiated. We are all growing in unpredictable ways and assumptions about our development, while potentially limiting in the way of all self-fulfilling prophecies, can be crushed by an inspired individual or can be crushing in the case of a very suggestible person.
wrt to my coaching experience: fortunately I’ve garnered insights, conversions, growth, improvement, enjoyment, reversals, and correction in coaching, but nothing in my change model has done much to help me fulfill my potential other than demolishing the idea of a known horizon of potential and opening to a perpetually receding limit.

Regression in Senior Leaders

Regression in Senior Leaders: Positional power as a last resort

It had to be described as a tantrum. He was red in the face, pounded the table, yelled “bad” words, and pointed his finger. “This is not OK!” was the mildest line from his outburst. Later, when we talked about that communication that took place in his team meeting, he explained that he was frustrated that such senior executives could be satisfied with the “half-assed results” reported. I asked if he had used such strong language and such impassioned speech when he was a more junior leader. “Never.”

As his coach, I asked, “Why now?” and he couldn’t actually tell why. Although some in the executive ranks have simply had poor self-control throughout their careers, we have repeatedly seen leaders regress when they get the promotions they seek. Not all throw loud fits, but many behave in ways that would be more typically expected from a small child. Why do so many senior leaders behave so badly when they are frustrated or disappointed?

Sometimes it’s merely a working pattern that has never been challenged. Steve Jobs, when asked about his habit of leaving employees in tears with insults and derogatory comments told his biographer, Walter Isaacson, “That’s just the way I am.” Surgeons who move into healthcare administrative roles can sometimes carry over the culture and expectations of the operating room into the executive suite. Absolute clarity and perfectionism are necessary in the surgical suite and most surgeons have never been really faced the impact on their teams. In fact, like Steve Jobs, many have found that their teams are more loyal when they’ve had little praise and work extra hard to experience that again. They don’t always resent the demanding and critical environment when it leads to the absence of errors and high percentages of successful outcomes.

In other cases, senior leaders can make use of explosive moments because they use them deliberately and selectively. Sometimes a tantrum is useful if people doubt your seriousness. But the costs are high so we need to make sure it is the right response. For those leaders who are generally calm and tend to focus on what’s working and affirming the efforts of those they lead, a measured passionate reaction can provide the right frame for their typical geniality. I realize that measured and passionate probably don’t belong in the same sentence, but the point is that there is an important distance between an energetic and deeply felt communication, full of fire for some important theme on the one hand, and an explosion driven purely by unexamined emotional fury on the other. Emotion can be a powerful tool unless it has taken over and is itself the only driver of our behavior. This is particularly difficult for executives who are unused to expressing more moderate emotion or who have difficulty knowing how they feel except when they’re angry or disgusted.

In recent years, I’ve seen some cases that seem different to me. Like the CEO described earlier, angry outbursts that weren’t seen earlier in a career emerge with promotion to very senior positions. Is promotion necessarily a regression-inducing experience? Probably not, but there are some interesting dynamics that affect the ways we adapt to a new position. Of course, there are the usual suspects: multiple changes, new responsibilities, new reporting relationships, and so on. The sheer number of surprising changes can throw a person off kilter. We are so often excited at the prospects in a new job, we forget the demands of the learning curve. Michael Watkins and others have presented these demands whether or not we give them the attention they deserve.

There’s another dimension of the changes that accompany promotions that is not as well documented and seldom discussed. It is the changing way power operates as one moves up the ladder in most western organizations, including healthcare. There is a paradoxical quality to the nature of power associated with promotion. Early in our careers, we have little positional power and rely on the influence built on technical expertise and relationships. For those who want to make a difference (or are simply ambitious), the prospects of wielding the power of high positions has a glittery appeal. We all know how we will ‘accomplish much without forgetting where we’ve come from.’ Unlike the senior leaders under whom we serve, we think we will not be remote and distant and apparently indifferent to the impact our decisions have on the regular people of the organization.

The reality is that no one is a technical expert in senior leadership before getting there and every relationship (except possibly with one’s coach) is different when you’ve become everyone’s boss. One of the unhappy consequences is that some subset of senior leaders over-rely on the power of their positions when they’ve become unmoored from their familiars. The most astute senior leaders recognize this problem and acknowledge that the constraints on their actions have become more restrictive. They have more stakeholders with more conflicting demands than ever before. They have few places to explore alternatives and it is very difficult to suss out who is legitimately in agreement among all the people lined up to be rewarded for agreement. This leads unprepared leaders to try out all the power associated with their position, issuing orders, second-guessing associates, correcting subordinates or reducing the authority ceded to those who report to them.

Naturally, this undermines morale, stimulates opposition, and invites information filtering by subordinates. Such a climate can instigate a downward spiral of bossiness and consequent conflict. The gathering sense of helplessness on the part of everyone makes tantrums more likely because they are usually expressions of perceived powerlessness.

Healthcare leaders who move up through the ranks would do well to remember that positional power is best left latent and not actually used. Positional power is best implied, not stated. If you ever find yourself tempted to respond, “because I’m the boss” be aware that you are about to give up your authority, or at least its effective use. It may be useful to remember that the scrutiny increases as you advance and so does the consequent amplification of what you say and do. Even subtle communication of disappointment or a sense of urgency tends to come across loud and clear to all but a few. Don’t overestimate the need for shouting. Take the time necessary to understand the levers at your disposal and avoid over-reliance on overt power. We need leaders who are also grown-ups.

“I don’t go for that touchy-feely stuff”

I sat down after a brief presentation to a class of 20 leaders over dinner. A central theme of the talk was the importance of creating a sense of community among leaders for mutual development. I heard one of the leaders at my table say to her colleague, “I don’t go for that touchy-feely stuff.”

I’d been talking about the role of emotion in development, but I don’t go for that touchy-feely stuff, either. Whenever I’ve heard that phrase it has almost always referenced some blunt attempt to manipulate or pressure people into having a particular kind of emotional experience. Like predictions that “you’re going to love that movie” or demands that we sing with more enthusiasm, the insistence on creating a shared reaction is irritating at best. While it is true that feelings typically are shaped by actions more than the other way around, the rousing cheerleading of group leaders so often comes off as phony and coercive. I don’t want my emotionfireworks Coronado 2013al response to a given situation to be dictated to me.

It seems likely that genuine emotional engagement will only come from individuals who have the freedom to have no engagement if that’s how they feel.