Commitment Without Guarantees
Last night I had the privilege of teaching Authentic Influence for SMU’s Certificate of Leadership program, and while the session is only three hours long, at the end I was wiped. While the group responded quickly when I asked questions, with very thoughtful answers, they were much quieter than I had anticipated. After reading all the faculty reports of this group’s previous sessions, where they were described as “lively” and “talkative” around break-time I grew worried. I knew that my session was falling on week 9 for them of a 10-week-long certificate program, and I knew that they had all worked a full-day already before they got there. But I also knew that “quiet” when I’m aiming for “engaged” could be a bad sign. As we launched back in after break I found myself searching their eyes and their body language for clues, “….what are you experiencing?” I kept asking in my head. As I curiously watched them complete the evals when 9pm rolled around, I had no idea what to expect. I was sure that it wasn’t what I had hoped for them and I found myself feeling a little sad and noticing that the adrenalin that had propelled me through the evening was fading fast.
And then, the most miraculous thing happened. Instead of leaving, like they always do at the end of every session (because they’ve worked all day and want to get home), there was a crowd forming. Probably 9 of the 20 participants were standing there, lost in their thoughts, waiting their turn to talk to me.
“I had the biggest ah-ha tonight. I never realized before….”
“Everything you said went right to my heart. I couldn’t believe it…”
“This purpose-stuff was hard for me. I can talk all day about processes, but I’ve never thought about that before….”
One after another, they privately shared the very personal discoveries they had made during our three hours together, entrusting me with their stories. It was almost 9:40 when they had all trickled out the door. I stood there in that classroom with the custodian who had been so patiently waiting to lock up for the night, thumbing through the evals, saying a little thank you prayer in my head in recognition of my mistake. They were engaged – intensely so – it just didn’t show up in the classroom as chatty and lively.
One of the things I talk about in all my sessions is how critical it is to be checking for impact. If we’re aiming to experienced by others as “genuine, worthy of trust, reliance, and belief” from their perspective (authentic leadership guru Bill George’s definition of authenticity that I so love), then it’s important to be paying attention to whether or not they’re indeed experiencing us that way.
But what last night reminded me, is that human beings are incredibly complex. While we can be sincerely seeking to understand what is happening with someone else, we can’t always know. While our brains may be working a hundred miles an hour to make meaning of every little move people make, we still read people wrong.
Maybe we can never really know what’s going on with others. Maybe our job isn’t to know, but to remain committed to having the impact and committed to sincerely understanding in the midst of never knowing for sure. Like a leap in the dark.
And it’s certain to feel uncomfortable – vulnerable and frightening – and yet we must risk leaping anyway. We cannot be or bring our best playing it safe on the cliff’s edge.
For I suspect to commit ourselves fully without guarantees is where the magic lies. It’s the only way we learn to fly.
©OnStage Leadership, 2014; Kimberly Davis is the Founder/Director of OnStage Leadership, a full-day experiential leadership workshop.
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