What can you control?

Posted by on Jan 15, 2010 | One Comment

Have you ever noticed that, no matter how hard you work at it, no matter how focused and goal oriented you are, no matter how educated, wealthy, popular, or beautiful you may (or may not) be, “stuff” happens? And just when you mistakenly think that you’ve got it all under control, you’re reminded that control is exactly what you do not have…

Following a terrific meeting on Tuesday, on my way to lunch with one of my most favorite people in the world, I was toolin’ along in my beloved red Prius (probably singing or talking to myself) when out of nowhere a Chevy Cavalier turning left slammed me into a fire hydrant in the middle of downtown and all semblance of control disappeared.

While stiff and shaken, everyone involved thankfully walked away from the accident (with the exception of my poor, squashed Prius). I can’t speak for the other drivers, but for me, what emerged from the wreckage was three things: a keen awareness of life’s fragility; a realization of how little control we really have in the big picture of our lives; and an understanding of how interconnected we all really are. Anyone who knows my family, or has heard the story about my amazing brother, knows how all-too aware we Davis’ are of the repercussions a car accident can have. I was fine, and yet the flash of reality, how my life could have been completely changed in the blink of an eye, is something I can’t shake. Life had quickly shifted… my afternoon…my car…my spine…my nerves…my ability to workout…even my perspective. Changed by strangers, in a matter of seconds. And boy was I lucky.

So if the truth is, much of life is outside of our control, and we can’t control the “stuff” away with any guarantee, what can we do?

As with most stressful situations, what made a difference in my experience was effective leadership.

Have you ever met someone who, simply by their presence, was able to restore a sense of calm and rationality to a situation, even in the most chaotic of circumstances? It’s such a rare gift, and one that the police officer on the scene definitely possessed. Due to my adrenaline overload, I sadly didn’t retain her name; but her actions will be carved in my memory forever. And here’s the deal: She didn’t do much. She was simply very present with me. When she looked at me, I felt seen. When she spoke, I felt calm. It was such a respectful experience. I felt comfortable telling her everything I remembered from the accident. She asked thoughtful questions that made me think and reflect, and she took time to really listen. She was simply very, very present. At that moment in time, I would have trusted her with my life.

As I was getting ready to leave, I looked at her and said, “You know… You are very good at what you do. I really appreciate you.” She smiled, a little embarrassed, and said, “I’m just doing my job.”

But she wasn’t. She was doing so much more.

Consider, that in a world where we have so little control, the most important thing a leader can do is to be very, very present. To focus and see what’s really there.

In the theatre, we train for years to learn how to focus our attention. Focus our attention on the moment. Focus our attention on listening. Focus our attention on taking action. And we learn, that it is that focus of attention that gives an actor a sense of presence. That makes them memorable. That makes them come alive. In live theatre, as in life, anything can happen at any moment. The only thing you can control is your attention. To be fully present in the moment.

But to focus your attention you have to stop – really stop. Stop multi-tasking, stop thinking 15 steps ahead, stop judging, stop assuming, just stop. Not forever (don’t start breaking out into a cold sweat). But consciously, in the moment, stop. Focus. To get present. To see what’s really there.

I was in Chicago last month leading a program for 25 leaders and 175 of their staff. The leaders were incredibly frustrated. They would repeatedly ask people on their staff, in passing, how things were going, and would hear, “Fine.” And then their results would be anything but fine.

When I asked the staff, “How many of you, when your boss asks you how things are going, do you say, ‘fine’, when things aren’t really ‘fine’?” Every hand in every group shot up.

Think about that for a minute. Every hand, in every group – 175 staff members – all confessing that they’re telling their boss things are fine when they’re not. What is the cost of that?

What if these leaders were to adopt some of the skills from the police officer’s playbook? What if they were to stop and ask thoughtful questions that make their staff think and reflect? What if they took the time to really listen? What if they were to simply get very, very present? How might that make a difference in their results?

The simple act of being present, is you putting some skin in the game. It’s what creates the kind of trust that makes people want to tell you what’s really going on – want to tell you if things aren’t fine.

I find it interesting that one definition of the word “absent” is: “To withhold from being present”. We’re all so busy these days. We feel like we need to be taking care of a million things at once. But what if, in our zest for keeping things under control, as we zip from one fire to the next, telling ourselves we don’t have the time to really be present, that we’re actually absent from the lives we’re leading?

Maybe our presence is the only thing we can control….

To learn more about how to focus your attention to build trust and get better results, be sure to register for OnStage Leadership.

1 Comment

  1. Kimberly
    August 3, 2010

    Hi there –
    Thanks for your note. If you go to our website: http://www.onstageleadership.com, you can subscribe to the newsletter (which is essentially our blog as well). Thanks so much for your interest.

Leave a Reply