Commitment Without Guarantees
Last week I had the privilege of teaching Authentic Influence for SMU’s Certificate of Leadership program, and it brought back my previous experience teaching there, after which I was reminded of a huge lesson.
While the session is only three hours long, the last time I taught there I was wiped. Even though the group responded quickly when I asked questions, with very thoughtful answers, they were much quieter than I had anticipated. I had read all the faculty reports of the group’s previous sessions, where they were described as “lively” and “talkative” so 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 arrived for the evening. 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 at 9pm, when the end of class 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 be 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 the people we’re trying to lead and influence indeed experience us that way.
But what that session reminded me, is that human beings are incredibly complex. While we can sincerely seek 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 frequently 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 we want to have, and committed to sincerely understanding in the midst of never knowing for sure. Maybe our job is to, as Agnes DeMille said, “take leap after 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, 2015
Upcoming sessions of OnStage Leadership: We will be offering open-enrollment sessions in Dallas and NYC again in the summer/fall of 2015 (specific dates tbd), please notify us if interested in participating or being put on the wait-list.
Kimberly Davis is the Founder/Director of OnStage Leadership, a full-day experiential leadership workshop. Click here to read what people are saying! If you’re interested in more information, or in having Kimberly come speak to your group on topics around Authentic Leadership, Influence, Presence, Engagement, Purpose in the workplace, or Presentation Skills we’d love to hear from you!
Did you catch my interview last week on Voice of America’s Working on Purpose Channel? If not, you can! Bringing Our True and Best Selves to Work: Cultivating Authentic Leadership with Kimberly Davis