Turf wars and the road to perspective.
Recently I had an opportunity to work with one of the world’s most respected training organizations. I went in with stars in my eyes, full of awe – a bit like Peggy in the musical 42nd street – arriving in NYC, fresh off the bus to chase her dream on Broadway. I was brought in because I’m different and they wanted different. But different can be threatening.
The other faculty members were very talented facilitators and experts in their field. They had spent decades working with this client. To say I was a bit intimidated would be an understatement. I looked up to them and in doing so, left my own power on the side-lines.
I normally never allow anyone to just observe OnStage Leadership. Since it’s an intimate group setting and an experiential process I believe that everyone in the space needs to have skin in the game or doesn’t work the way I know it can. But with this client that wasn’t possible. So there was lots of observing going on in the back of the room. Computers open. Notes taken. Whispers going back and forth. After my first brief content segment, when I anxiously pulled one of them aside and asked what he thought, I hadn’t anticipated the response. Very seriously he said, “Authentic? You call that authentic? When I teach I tell a story about (intense personal story)….that’s authentic.” Wow. I felt a bit like I had been slapped.
“Thank you for your feedback,” I stammered. “I…I…haven’t heard that before…”
Here’s the thing. I’ve done OnStage now for almost 700 people. I’m sure it doesn’t resonate with everyone. I know that I’m certainly not perfect, I have “off days” and my style may not be right for everyone. I’m sure that there are critics out there who might feel the same way as he did. But what was interesting about how all this went down is how I experienced his comment. In a flash, I let this person’s words erase the overwhelming evidence to the contrary. The testimonials, the transformations I’ve witnessed, all evaporated in seconds and I was absolutely sure that my work was crap. I was sure that I had made a complete fool out of myself, and I was caught up in such a torrent of shame that even Brene’ Brown couldn’t help me.
But I still didn’t see what was happening. The jabs kept coming – although they came from the side – leaving me never quite sure about my own perception of reality. I could see evidence from the participants that the work was really making a difference, but received no affirmation from anyone on the faculty that my contribution was worthwhile.
I finally got it, when, on the third day with a smile, he leaned over and said, “How are you this morning?”
“Fine.” I responded tentatively.
“Look, I’m sure they brought you in for some reason. You must have something valuable to offer.”
I finally got it. It wasn’t really about me.
Later that day the evals for the first two days of the week-long program were released and overwhelmingly, the consensus of the participants was that the OnStage contribution made a tremendous impact and was extraordinarily helpful.
I felt better and worse at the same time.
What I’ve come to learn about myself is that I’ve got a long way to go. Every time I think I’ve got my own “stuff” in check, situations occur that trigger old insecurities and my need for external validation keeps me from focusing on the things that really matter to me the most.
In a perfect world I would have taken the feedback I was getting as a single data point – to be added to the hundreds of other data points that make up my reality. But I didn’t do that. His words trumped everything and I lost myself.
It’s funny (not funny ha-ha) that our most painful experiences yield the best lessons. I learned a ton from this situation about myself and about leadership, but here’s just a few:
1. Changing the status quo unleashes a side that’s not so pretty. I strongly suspect what was going on is that my presence threatened the status quo. If the client wanted “different” then “what’s always been done” is at risk. We’re all capable of doing things when we’re in survival mode that aren’t so great. How do we keep that very human instinct in-check for ourselves? How do we identify it when it’s showing up in others and see it for what it is in real-time?
2. Leaders are enormously influential. What a responsibility! In this situation, I saw my faculty colleagues as the leaders. I looked up to them. Trusted them. Sought their respect. Their words held weight and meaning. Those words brought me to my knees. As leaders we all have a responsibility to think about how our words and actions might impact those around us. That doesn’t mean we aren’t honest and don’t sometimes have to take actions that are hard. But authentic leaders with strong emotional intelligence bring an awareness of how their words and actions might land.
3. Focusing on externals can take us off-track. As much as I aspire to always focus outside myself, I didn’t do a great job of it in this situation. However, I have to say that once I realized what was going on, focusing outside myself was what got me back on track. When we’re “jockeying for a approval”, as Brene’ Brown calls it, we give away our power, sometimes act in ways in which we’re not always proud, and aren’t as effective as we’re capable of being. When I was able to look beyond what others thought and re-focus my attention on what really drives me – connecting the participants to the best of who they are – then I was able to tap into what I do best. In doing so, not only was I able to make a difference, but as a bi-product, experience the true joy that comes with it.
In the end, I didn’t win the turf-war – it wasn’t my turf to fight over. But I did win something much more enduring: perspective.
What about you? When do you find yourself giving away your power?
©OnStage Leadership, 2013
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