A client was struggling with feelings that he’d been overlooked by his supervisors. Plagued by feelings that he was doing something wrong, he wondered why colleagues were being chosen to lead efforts that he was equally, if not more, qualified to take charge of. What was going on? He admitted to feeling a bit jealous of his colleagues. They had something bright and shiny, and he wanted it too.
We began to dig into those feelings. What did it mean that he was being overlooked? What information did he need to gather in order to understand the situation? Who did he need to get that information from?
In the course of our conversation, it became clear that he was being groomed for another leadership role. One that he had expressed particular interest in. Suddenly, he didn’t seem invisible. And he gained tremendous clarity about how he needed to focus his time and energy to make the most of the opportunities that were being made available.
We’re all part magpie: attracted to shiny things that are just out of reach. Sometimes the glittery thing that catches our eye is exactly what we need to see to grow. Other times, it’s simply a distraction.
What’s catching your eye today? Is it valuable, or just a bauble that will pull you off course? How do you tell the difference? And how will you act accordingly?
It’s Spirit Week at my daughter’s school. Each day, they get to dress up according to a theme devised by a panel of 8th graders. And while there may be those among the older kids who are feeling jaded and bored with the idea of having crazy hair today, Lily is over the moon that she has TWO PONY TAILS! ON TOP OF HER HEAD! And she’s almost mad with excitement that on Friday they get to wear pajamas. Outside! At school!
Kids love it when they get to break the rules. Things like spirit week create energy through the controlled chaos they generate. Lily generally loves school, but getting her out the door in the morning is generally a huge chore. Not today. The prospect of showing off her crazy hair was enough to send her rocketing down the sidewalk.
What rule – big or small – could you bend today to create a bit of enjoyable chaos? What’s just crazy enough to get you and your colleagues excited without upending the apple cart completely? And how can you make it happen?
An intriguing article in the October 3rd issue of the New Yorker describes Atul Gawande’s decision to hire a coach. Dr. Gawande, a surgeon, offers a smartly worded inside look at the benefits and risks of being coached.
Early on, Dr. Gawande makes the distinction between the medical understanding of expertise and that of the professional musician and the professional athlete:
The coaching model is different from the traditional conception of pedagogy, where there’s a presumption that, after a certain point, the student no longer needs instruction. You graduate. You’re done. You can go the rest of the way yourself…
Dr. Gawande discovers during the course of his exploration what those of us who have worked in the performing arts already know: coaching is a regular part of most professional performer’s lives. People who sing for a living work with vocal coaches throughout their career. Turns out even Itzhak Perlman has a coach. During the course of the article, Gawande explores coaching in musical, athletic, and educational settings as well as sharing his own journey working with a coach in the operating room.
After exploring the benefits of coaching for musicians, athletes, teachers, and the potential benefits for surgeons like himself, Dr. Gawande takes the distinction between pedagogy and coaching a step further:
Self-improvement has always found a ready market, and most of what’s on offer [as coaching] is simply one-on-one instruction to get amateurs through the essentials. It’s teaching with a trendier name. Coaching aimed at improving the performance of people who are already professionals is less usual. It’s also riskier: bad coaching can make people worse…
What extraordinary things are you responsible for? What could you achieve with the kind of guidance Dr. Gawande describes?
Somewhere during the last two years, I forgot how to sleep.
I didn’t forget to sleep. I get 7-8 hours a night. But I started waking up with terrible shoulder and neck pain. It made sitting at my desk torturous. Every yoga practice was focused exclusively on pain relief. Picking up my daughter or the groceries was difficult at best.
During the year before and the year after I had my daughter, I had no choice but to sleep on my side. It was the only comfortable option. Early in my pregnancy, I had to train myself to stay on one side or the other, slowly shifting away from what had been comfortable for years before. Circumstances had changed. So my behavior changed with them.
Lily is now three years old, and I have no more reasons to stay perched on my side while I sleep. In fact, doing so seemed to be the cause of my neck and shoulder pain. I had adapted to a change in circumstances when Lily was a baby, but I failed to re-adapt when circumstances changed again.
Lessons learned (again)
It took extraordinary amounts of discomfort to remember the simple fact that I’m far more comfortable when I sleep on my stomach. So I got rid of the extra pillows, rolled over, and woke up the next morning able to turn my head without wincing. So simple. Why on earth did it take me two years to remember what I already knew?
We’re creatures of habit. Habits make our lives easier and better – take brushing our teeth. Great habit. But when habits stop serving us, they can be hard to let go of even if they’re causing pain.
What’s making you uncomfortable right now? What habits are you hanging on to that no longer serve you? What do you already know that could help you eliminate that pain?
Last week, I was lucky enough to accompany a good friend to a performance of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company. Throughout the program, each dancer embodied exquisite counterpoints of grace and strength, precision and fluidity. And as art is meant to, that performance stuck with me, its meaning radiating out into my life and work. It wasn’t long before I began seeing the parallels between these beautiful dancers and the leaders I’ve had the privilege to work with for over a decade.
Strength and Grace
One need only look at a dancer’s body to see that their work requires incredible strength. But without the counterpoint of grace, they’re not dancers – just muscly people who can pick each other up at will. Useful? I guess. But who wants to work with someone who scoops you up without warning and may not set you down gently or in the place you expect?
Similarly, no one will deny it takes strength and stamina to fully step into your own leadership potential. But leaders who rely solely on their strength can fall into the trap of picking people up and putting them where they “should” go rather than leading them there. And people who do this repeatedly eventually get called out for what they are: bullies. Grace must accompany strength if it is to be of any use in the long term.
What does graceful leadership mean to you? How do you know when you’re embodying grace?
Precision and Fluidity
The first dance on the program last Wednesday drew my attention to a particular company member. She was so precise. So exact. But after focusing on her for a few moments, I realized it was her precise stillness coupled with her fluid quality of motion that made her so engaging. She hit her mark, then flowed, floated, poured herself across the stage to hit the next mark at exactly the right moment. This pairing of stillness and fluid motion was astonishing and inspiring. Watch it. See what I mean.
As leaders, we’re responsible for hitting a lot of marks: bringing in money, delivery programs on budget, getting butts in seats, meeting others’ (and our own) expectations on a number of fronts. Hitting those marks is critical. But a dancer wouldn’t be doing her job if she simply ran from place to place, flinging her arms into formation when she paused. It is the quality of motion between and toward goals that truly makes a leader. The flexibility to bend around obstacles. The fluidity to move through the daily challenges of making a difference in the world. The precision to stop at just the right moment to celebrate and then reach even higher.
How would you describe the quality of your motion toward your goals? What would make your movement more fluid?
How are you honoring the need for stillness? What would make your stillness more precise?
The Company and the Spirit
The final dance on the program last week was a piece by Alvin Ailey himself. Choreographed 50 years ago, it speaks to the power of spirit, spirituality, and community. Together, the dancers wept, comforted, celebrated, mourned, and began anew. They held each other accountable. They congratulated, they scolded, they prayed. They gave thanks, and they reached for more. And as they did, there was no single leader. Building, flowing, weaving, they moved as a whole.
By the final movement of the piece, every dancer in that company was on stage, and it was nearly impossible for those of us in the audience to stay in our seats. The spirit that moved through those dancers had also flowed into all of us in the theater.
Leaders must be ready to accept the spotlight that comes with a solo performance. But we must also feel the spirit that moves through our colleagues. And we must be ready to move to the place that inspires our entire community to access their spirit – even if that place is behind the curtain.
How is the spirit moving through you? What will you do today to share that spirit with your community?
My daughter learned how to ride her tricycle last weekend.
We cheered her on as she combined pedaling with steering and balancing. And as we did, I heard myself repeating the same instruction over and over: “Don’t look at your feet, honey. Look where you want to go.”
Move your feet
When we’re learning how to do something for the first time, we naturally fixate on the details. It’s a necessary part of mastering a new skill. Lily stared at her feet to make sure she was getting that part of the equation right. Were her feet still on the pedals? Were the pedals going around?
We can also get fixated on the details when something just feels hard or unpleasant. I’ve been riding a bike for decades, but the physical effort of pushing those pedals around and around can lead to fixation on just. How. Much. Energy. It. Takes. (I’ve had similar experiences while attempting to balance budgets.)
What are you fixating on? What feels difficult right now?
Pedaling and its equivalents are critical for getting us where we want to go. But moving your feet alone won’t do it. You also have to steer.
“Where do you want to go?” I’d ask Lily when she started to veer into a wall. She’d stop, look around, and point. “Okay. How do you get there?” She’d point her front wheel, and away she went. We continued this way – pedaling, steering, stopping, assessing, starting up again – all the way to our destination.
What would happen if you looked up from your feet? What would you see? How would you adjust course?
When Lily completed her first solo ride (four city blocks to a nearby playground), she was thrilled with herself. We celebrated with a snack and some runs across the bouncy bridge. Thirty minutes after we arrived, she was exhausted. The ride home featured a lot of stops to admire the flowers and was followed by a well deserved nap.
Pedaling and steering and balancing all at once takes a lot of effort. Just as important as keeping your head up is slowing down or even stopping to take a break. Give yourself credit for the effort you’re making. Recalibrate. Have a snack.
Then look up, remember why you started pedaling in the first place, get back on your bike, and get moving.
I’ve been learning to work less.
It seems counter-intuitive. I’m the only employee at my organization. If I don’t do the work, no one will. Everything I know as a person who grew up in a Western, capitalist society and came of age professionally in the nonprofit sector tells me I should be working 18 hour days. Getting it done. Building the business. Supporting my family.
The thing is, though, I remember working 18 hour days. Was I productive? Absolutely. Was I satisfied? Sometimes. It’s hard not to be when your identity is work and work is all you do. Was I energized? Nope. I was exhausted. Which meant I wasn’t terribly happy either. And I’ve learned that the old axiom is true: if mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy.
So I’m learning, slowly, that taking care of myself really does mean taking care of my business and taking care of my family. I’m learning that I’m not a Type A personality at all. And forcing myself to act as if I am? Downright unhealthy. Turns out that letting myself sleep in occasionally and taking time for yoga practice before sitting down to work is the best way to assure a productive day.
How do you take care of yourself so you can take care of business? What will you do to take care of yourself today?
You may know me from my years at Arts Alliance Illinois. If so, you know that’s where I learned a lot of what got me where I am today: how to write a grant, run an event, manage volunteers, lead a meeting, build a community. It’s also where I fell in love with coaching.
Opening the door
My first exposure to coaching came in early 2004. Having conducted extensive research about leadership succession in arts organizations, we realized that people in our field needed more support if they were going to succeed as leaders. So we created a peer coaching program to address those needs.
We recruited facilitators and brought in marvelous consultants to train us in the art of leading peer coaching circles. Minutes into the first day of training, I heard a whisper in the back of my brain: “This feels like home.”
Coaching, they explained, is not about telling people what to do or how to do it. Instead, good coaching allows the coachee to (re)discover their own wisdom and be accountable to people they trust while reaching the goals they’ve set for themselves.
It seems so simple. Figure out what’s important to you, act in accordance with those values, get where you want to go. All of the leaders I’ve worked with understand that this is what’s necessary to succeed. But to a person, they all struggled to find the time to plan and reflect in order to make that happen. Coaching helped them make that time.
Almost immediately, I saw what a difference coaching made for those leaders. Having support from and being accountable to a non-judgmental partner helped them make huge shifts. I heard the change in their voices. They were lighter. Instead of road blocks, they began to see possibilities. Instead of bemoaning their lack of resources, they were tapping into new sources of support.
At the same time tension was easing out of our peer coaching participants, I heard it seeping into my voice. Everything about my days was slightly off. I knew I had opportunities aplenty at work, but I didn’t know how to make the most of them. I felt stuck. So I listened to that whisper and hired a coach.
In the course of working with her, I learned a lot about what is important to me. Collaboration. Developing people. Creating space for people to hear and learn from one another. And with Julia’s support, I began to see how I could do all of those things right where I was. I grew programs, I built my
network, I took on responsibilities instead of shying away from them. The tension drained from my voice (and my shoulders). I stopped feeling stuck and started celebrating my ability to make choices that align with my values.
A home of my own
What started as a whisper had changed to a full voiced mantra: coaching is where I belong. I followed a sudden instinct one bright November afternoon and signed up for a coach training program. If this was home, I was going to need a foundation.
Since then, I’ve worked hard to put a solid structure in place that includes 12 years of nonprofit experience, a year of coach training, the support of my own mentor coach, and a deepening ownership of my own strengths and values. And now, seven years after I first opened the door to the world of coaching, I’m living in the space I’ve created. There’s lots of space for light and air. I’ve even done some decorating.
There are plenty of finishing touches still to come. But just as it’s been at every professional home I’ve had, what really makes this space come alive is the people who join me here. The leaders who trust me to partner with them, the teams who are willing to learn from each other, the creative individuals who follow their own brave instinct that whispers, “the world will be better if you fully express your gifts.”
That whisper? It’s right. Listen. And if you’d like some help getting it to speak a little louder, come for a visit. I built this space just for us.
I bumped into a colleague last week. “I’ve been getting your emails,” she said. “And I’ve been thinking that I need to call you. But it seems like I’d need to be really clear on what I want from coaching before I do. I’m not sure how I’d use a coach.”
If you’ve put off taking action because you’re not sure what action to take, let me share a simple truth: coaching is great for people who don’t know what they want.
To get results from coaching, you need to be ready to make a change and committed to doing the work it takes to get there. But you don’t have to be crystal clear on where “there” is before you call me. Defining the change you want to make is part of the work we’ll do together. In fact, it’s a crucial first step I take with all of my clients.
If you have a sense that something in your life or work needs to change and you’re ready to make the shift, don’t struggle with it alone. Contact me today. Together, we’ll define what success means for you and make it happen.
I have a handful of trolls I’ve cultivated over the years. They distract me with their pessimism, remind me of my failures, and assure me that this is the best it will ever be so I may as well lie down and give up now. You may call yours something else – inner critics, gremlins, negative self talk, frenemies. Whatever their name, they can be rotten and persistent companions. And if yours are anything like mine, they have a tendency to appear whenever you set about making a change.
Triggered by my desire to grow my business, an old troll recently reappeared. “We’re doomed!” it cried over and over again. “We’ll never make it! What have you done?” It collapsed, weeping, on whatever surface was nearby, declaring every effort hopeless and announcing it was too exhausted to move.
Soon, I was exhausted by the effort of dealing with it. I tried stepping around it, and it shifted. I tried pushing past it, and it grew. I tried reasoning with it. I tried asking it what it had to teach me. It just shook its head sadly, slumped a little lower into a corner, and wept. Again.
Meanwhile, nothing was getting done. Rather than making phone calls or writing articles, I was slowly being taken over by this pathetic, useless troll and getting more frustrated with it and myself every moment. Why could I not kick it to the curb and get on with the work I love?
What do you need?
That’s when my coach asked me, “what do you need right now, Lisa?” Turns out my needs and the troll’s are in complete opposition. I need the energy I get from working with clients who need my help. The troll needs to worry and weep.
So I invited the troll to curl up on the couch. I gave it a blanket, a box of tissues and handed it the remote control. I patted its head, left a glass of water, went downstairs, and got to work.
It’s still there, engrossed in television shows about natural disasters and vacations gone wrong. And I’m here, talking to people who need what I have to offer. I’m calling this a win-win.
Bring your troll out into the sunlight
What troll is pestering you? Next time you hear a nagging, negative voice in the back of your head, don’t just bat it away. Acknowledge it. Call it out for what it is. Bring it out into the light. Trolls thrive in the dark – don’t let it keep living there.
Investigate. Is it speaking the truth? Or repeating old, false information that no longer serves you? Investigate it in whatever way is useful to you: journal about it, meditate, go for a walk, talk to your partner, or schedule a consultation with me and work it through during a coaching session.
Use your investigation to determine what this troll is doing here. Are its purposes in line with yours? Then find a way to meet your needs. Maybe the troll needs a vacation – send it on one. Maybe it needs to be called out as the rotten liar it is – do it. Maybe you both need a rest. You’re the only one who knows. And you’ll only find out when you and your troll get out into the sunshine.
I'm interested in what keeps us engaged in our work, the world, and each other.