In the Fall of 2005, I had the unexpected privilege of shuttling Meg Wheatley to the Atlanta airport. Little did she know she was in for a 20-minute career counseling session for an ambitious and committed young me. I confessed to her a closely held conflict between what I was doing and what I thought I should be doing. I shared the strong and compelling voices telling me to pursue traditional paths of influence. About the grad school professor interested in sponsoring my doctorate, and my wondering about the wisdom of resigning from a Fortune 500 organization as rising talent in their high potential pool. I wondered out loud what had been on my mind since I left ‘real’ employment: Wouldn’t it be smarter to be bolstering my experience and credentials with a large organization?
After a thoughtful response to my internal conflict, she didn’t miss a beat before explicitly noting Joseph Campbell’s timeless counsel to follow your bliss and go where your heart takes you.
As far as I could tell, that meant continuing on the road I was on. I was a newly independent consultant with venerable clients, leading large organizational change initiatives via internal corporate teams. I offered a change process that consistently created desired change through an internal, organic, facilitative leadership approach. The work was aligned with my own sense of purpose and after just a couple of years, the practice was already a hardy container for personal growth and professional exploration. Dr. Wheatley’s advice was like a shot of ‘permission’ that renewed my sense of professional dignity.
Fast-forward a few years and I’m returning home from The Leadership Circle certification determined to integrate these powerful tools into my portfolio of change management services. This was not easy. There was a lot to learn about what all this meant and how to make it useful to leaders and their change initiatives. Since then, I’ve spent my time in the deep end of the pool pursuing all of The Leadership Circle’s offerings, leadership and relationship systems coaching certifications, and practicing. Looking back now, I can’t imagine another path that would have made more sense.
Knowledge is knowing that tomato is a fruit. Wisdom is not putting it in fruit salad.
While The Leadership Circle framework can be a powerful foundation for transformation, knowing its ins-and-outs—and being able to bring it to life with clients—is as different as knowledge and wisdom. This article will highlight three distinct and subtle shifts I have noticed in my practice that seem to be increasing the impact with the leaders and teams I serve.
Moving From Talking About It to Being About It
The first subtle shift reminds me of how my personal trainer invites me to stop reporting my progress and start lifting weights: “OK Shannon, why don’t you stop talking about it and start being about it.” Getting to know the Leadership Circle framework started, for me, with a gradual deepening and eventual up leveling of my relationship to our beloved and berated ‘Reactive Tendencies.’
Tracking The Movement. One of the first insights about working with The Leadership Circle came from a coach I was supposedly helping to get prepared for his first round of debriefs. After our first day of sessions, he reported at dinner that the day had gone well, and that the only thing he hadn’t been quite ready for was the client’s reactive tendencies actually showing up in the session!
This was both obvious and profound. Of course it shows up, but I didn’t know why I hadn’t thought about it enough to make it explicit. This is core to The Leadership Circle debrief coaching readiness, and it entails much more of me than I had originally expected. In a nutshell that feels like anything but a nutshell, it’s about getting to know how each of the tendencies moves through me, so I ‘know’ them. This has meant getting to know my own physical response, and then identifying the flavor of fear that is driving it. It continues to take incredible ‘noticing’ discipline to link somatic reaction to hidden beliefs and then even more courage to be able to speak from that place. For example, to notice my throat and chest tightening as a client group starts to panic about the next group activity slated for them, and then be able to connect it to the fear beneath being rejected, or ignored.
Being Amused. As time went on, it became clear that there was always another expression of limiting belief waiting for me to discover it. Eventually, this reality of no ending became so prevalent, that amusement became part of the “belief reframing” process. And then, without fireworks or trumpets playing, this amusement morphed into a full-fledged admiration. I began chuckling about my most quirky qualities and considering those formally forbidden aspects that had been kept under lock and key, and smiling about the character I had become (as if it were new). It became my little secret, a burgeoning affinity for this collection of traits that makes life so interesting, dramatic, and maddening.
Building A Circle. Most of us review this and recognize that what I’ve described is simply what we ask of our clients. The advantage our clients have is they have the support of a coach. This mucking around the inner terrain is not for those, clients or coaches, who prefer their drinks neat. This is the land of shaken and stirred. One of the most coveted dimensions of the wisdom emerging from my practice now is the circle of colleagues willing to champion and challenge me. The largest leaps of personal and professional growth have come through these relationships and I believe our ability to impact global leadership in a profound way depends on us cultivating these relationship circles for ourselves.
Moving From ‘Figuring It Out’ to ‘Inviting It Out’
As a longtime consultant, the default tendency to anticipate and find solutions is always present. And it is rarely helpful in coaching conversations. Effective development work has required a major shift from “figuring it out” to “inviting it out,” especially in the realm of exploring beliefs and assumptions. Intellectually I understand how coaching works, and the powerful structure it becomes for co-creating. Additionally, I am personally committed to mastering this elusive partnership dynamic. In practice though, the seasoned organizational change and communications advisor slips out and wants to be seen—to help, to impress, or to expedite.
The reasons this shift is challenging are not surprising:
- The expert-mode it seductive. My desire to help others get out of their own way or to ‘see the light’ through insights that have made themselves clear to me, is often present. There is positional power present in this mode as well, which can feel enlivening, until I realize we are modeling something other than partnership.
- The expert-mode is expected, and very often preferred, by clients. It took me a long time to not be confused by this, and to start expecting it. The Controlling–Complying dynamic is comfortable, familiar, and expected. As I show up as someone who knows a lot about how the The Leadership Circle framework works for change leaders, it is not uncommon for clients to want to be told how to think and what to do—with their results, development plans, or relationships.
- The expert-mode also appeals to my sense of efficiency. ‘Can we finish up this understanding part and move into the what do you want to do with this part?’ I have a bias for action, and a natural urge to just tell someone instead of fostering discovery about it.
A couple of strategies that seem to be working for this:
Moving From Owning the Results to Sharing the Experience
- Getting clear about roles. This sounds basic, but getting myself re-programmed was anything but basic. Here are the things I remind my Expert-self before a session. My role is to:
- Join the client as a fellow traveler in the exploration of what this means for her
- Be present and listen deeply
- Be less of a pace car, and more of a body surfer, riding the wave of the client’s awareness
- I needed to build the habit of exploring with, and not for, the client. To do this, I’ve found a few questions that evoke my beginner’s mind curiosity, and they are becoming my new default. When a client describes a situation and drops into the experience of it, these questions are top-of-mind: What are you aware of? What do you notice? What is trying to happen? They generate an exploration into underlying patterns and energies that keep me guessing, with the client, right where I need to be.
The last shift toward wisdom for this Leadership Circle Practitioner is as simple to understand, as it is difficult to do. In partnering and co-creating, responsibility is shared. Simple. This becomes problematic when I consider a situation such as a coaching engagement where nothing seems to be happening for the client. At those times, I have a tendency to want to make something happen, or to do more than what is mine to do. If I realize that I care more than the client about the results, or about doing something about the problem, it is time to re-calibrate.
My ability to do this constellates around trust in a creative intelligence greater than the problems, challenges, and complications we are working. When I hold that trust, it is easy for me to operate from the belief that the client is naturally intelligent, creative, resourceful, and whole. I like to think I hold all clients, colleagues, and people this way all the time. The truth is that I don’t, but I do intend to. Here are some of the common occurrences in my practice that signal me that I’m am unconsciously doubting a client’s resourcefulness, and probably taking on more than my share of the responsibility:
- I’m concerned that a client ‘can’t handle’ his feedback
- There doesn’t seem to be enough happening in the debrief and I’m wondering if I am creating enough value for the client
- I notice that the client is having a boring/uncomfortable/tense experience and I want to do something to improve it
- I assume that because I don’t see anything happening with the client, nothing actually is
- The client has selected a focus for development, and I’m telling myself it is not relevant
When you walk to the edge of all the light you have
and take that first step into the darkness of the unknown,
you must believe that one of two things will happen:
There will be something for you to stand upon,
or you will be taught how to fly.
~ Patrick Overton
Moving toward the wise and vital application of the The Leadership Circle framework in my practice has indeed felt like one step into the dark after another. I have great anticipation for the flying part, and for now I’ve just grown quite proficient at navigating in the mud. Perhaps some of these thoughts and practices will inspire you to join me there.