You are what you eat. That’s what I read on social media anyway, particularly during vegan January (in the UK). We could propose alternatives: you are what you think; or, you become what you do. There’s an idea in psychology that we don’t really know who we are until we expose ourselves to different situations, or find ourselves in them, then observe what we think, feel and do. We may discover, with surprise, that we are quite different to how we had imagined ourselves to be.
Another idea is to think of an idea, an approach, and then act on it as if it were true. It’s as if I’m choosing in advance who I will be, how I will behave, how I will respond. So, for instance, if I’m facing a presentation where I lack confidence, I can stand up straight, tell myself I feel incredibly confident, create an image in my mind of being incredibly confident, then act that out, like a role play, until it becomes real and normal for me. It’s about breaking default patterns and creating new ones.
I’m reminded here of a biblical principle: ‘Be transformed by the renewing of your mind.’ I’m limited or changed by what I believe and act on, by faith, as possible – in this case, with God. Richard Bach in his philosophical allegory, Illusions: ‘Argue for your limitations, and they are yours.’ Henry Ford: ‘Whether you think you can or you can’t, you’re right.’ This isn’t positive psychology on steroids. It’s an acknowledgement of the profound relationship between thinking, experiencing and possibility.
A goal of leadership, OD, coaching and training is to tap into the power of imagination, to create and release potential by paying attention to what people think, believe, hypothesise, assume, notice (and not-notice), the deeply personal and cultural narratives they tell themselves and each other – and to experiment with exploration, disruption, dissonance and change. You can because you think you can: When have you adopted this idea? How did you do it? What difference did it make?
You may remember the poster. Seagulls in flight and simple words: ‘They can because they think they can’ (Virgil). It’s a great cognitive-behavioural insight. Faith is to act on what we believe as if it were true. How far are we held back by limitations in our thinking? How can we discover and release potential for what is truly possible?
‘Argue for your limitations, and they are yours.’ (Richard Bach)
Jonathan Livingstone Seagull blew my mind. I was 17 at the time, working in a tedious, meaningless job, just to earn enough money to buy my dream motorcycle. I remember a tradesman called Steve handed me the book. He had travelled the world and had a perspective and outlook that seemed to transcend what we were doing. I opened the pages and started to read. I immediately felt gripped, challenged and inspired. I could see myself, my life, hopes and aspirations in a totally different light. It ignited something deep within me. I felt breathless with excitement. It set my imagination ablaze.
Around that time, pop group Supertramp released, Logical Song: ‘When I was young, it seemed that life was so wonderful, a miracle, it was beautiful, magical. And all the birds in the trees, they'd be singing so happily, joyfully, playfully watching me. But then they sent me away to teach me how to be sensible, logical, responsible, practical. And then they showed me a world where I could be so dependable, clinical, intellectual, cynical…’ It was as if they were speaking my words, my voice. It resonated deeply with the profound existential restlessness I was now feeling. The lyrics went on:
‘There are times when all the world's asleep, the questions run too deep for such a simple man. Won't you please, please tell me what we've learned. I know it sounds absurd, please tell me who I am. Yet, watch what you say, they’ll be calling you a radical, a liberal, fanatical, criminal...’ These words rang out for me like a prophecy. I immersed myself in radical literature, in political activity and, in the midst of it, found Jesus. Now this was a truly explosive experience, catapulting me from Star Trek’s impulse to warp drive. It felt like my whole body and mind were filled with blazing light.
Family, friends and colleagues looked on, alarmed or bemused. I went into work, tore down demeaning pornographic material that covered the workshop walls, resigned from my job and studies, gave away my possessions and headed off to do full-time, voluntary, community development and human rights work instead. I was bursting with vision and energy and it completely changed the focus and trajectory of my life and relationships since. I’ve never looked back for a second. It taught me that so many limitations exist only in our minds. What limitations are you arguing for? Are they now yours?
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Tuesday night. A close friend in Asia discovers she is in terrible financial debt through no fault of her own. She has supported a near relative through her studies at considerable personal cost and the relative has let her down badly. I ask her to ask the bank how much she needs to clear the debt. Wednesday night. She tells me, UK equivalent, £1000. She says, ‘Let’s pray.’ I agree. Thursday night. A biker in the UK who I don’t know well calls me and asks if I can meet him at a biker/truck stop café on Sunday morning. I wonder if I have inadvertently done something to upset him. I agree to meet.
Sunday morning. He’s waiting at the table and I sit down, nervously. He asks, ‘That girl in Asia you once spoke about trusts Jesus, right?’ ‘Yes’, I reply. He slides an envelope across the table towards me. Now I am puzzled. He says, ‘Jesus told me to give her this – as soon as possible. Can you send it to her?’ Intrigued, I say, ‘Yes.’ He continues, sternly. ‘This is nothing to do with me. It’s between her and Jesus. I don’t want to hear about it again.’ I slide the envelope into my pocket, thank him and leave. At home, I open the sealed envelope. £1000 inside in crisp, new bank notes. I am speechless.
I don’t know about you, but this type of encounter, this kind of experience leaves me stunned and amazed. It has happened to me on quite a few occasions in my life and I’m convinced it lays beyond ordinary, rational explanation. I’m going to be brave here and to call it a miracle. It’s unpopular in contemporary secular culture to talk about God or the super-natural in the context of work and I’m not going to get all religious because that would be inappropriate and annoying. I am, instead, hoping to provoke an open spirit of curiosity. Have we thrown out the baby with the bath water?
I remember reading Holloway’s book, Spirituality & Social Work (2010) and Mathews’, Social Work and Spirituality (2009) which re-introduced questions of faith and spirituality into domains where such considerations had effectively and, I would argue, over-hastily been dismissed as irrelevant. Having reacted rightly against ‘religion’ in its worst, oppressive forms, I detect a fresh openness to consider Who or what may lay beyond the boundaries of empirical science; especially when working with people and cultures for whom life-giving faith and spiritual dimensions are fundamental.
As leader, coach, OD or trainer, what role, if any, do faith and spirituality play in your practice? How do you work effectively with people and cultures who consider them critical? Have you ever seen or experienced something that caused you to question everything you had believed was real and true?
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‘I was embarrassed to ask the king for a cavalry bodyguard to protect us from bandits on the road. We had just told the king, ‘Our God lovingly looks after all who seek him.’’ (Ezra 8:22)
I don’t often laugh when reading biblical texts but this honest, heartfelt confession did make me smile. The writer, a role model and leader, found himself in a daunting situation and the faith he had felt in more secure circumstances now felt pretty daunting too. It was a moment of decision and it feels so contemporary, so real. Would he be willing to put his feet where his mouth had been? I can so relate to that tension. Do I stick with my vision, my beliefs, my values, when things get tough – or do I shrink back, compromise, take the easier road? Am I willing to take genuine steps in faith?
In the UK, we have ‘zebra crossings’ on busy roads, intended to provide safe crossing points for pedestrians. If I stand at the edge of a crossing and see cars flying past at speed, I may well hesitate to step onto the crossing for fear of being injured or killed. In fact, for visitors to the UK, choosing not to step onto the crossing will look and feel like a rational decision. Yet here’s the rub: until I take that first step, that step of faith, the cars are not obliged to stop. It’s only when I do so that the traffic will come to a halt, as if by magic. Change is what happens as we move forward.
So back to Ezra – and to us. Faith is acting on what we believe, as if it were true. I can imagine that daunted feeling, that heart-racing moment, that deep-breaths experience before taking…that…step. It could be an unnerving time, a risk-taking venture, a profound exercise in trust; whether in God, our intuition, research, resources, training – or all of the above. It could also be a thrilling, life-giving adventure, taking us to the edges of what we had dared to imagine possible or hope for. As leader, coach, OD or trainer, how do you enable people to take scary steps? How do you do it too?
‘Of all the things that sustain a leader over time, love is the most lasting.’ (Kouzes & Posner)
I honestly believed I was following Jesus until I took my first step into the Philippines. I had become a Christian some years earlier and, as such, had tried to centre my life on the Christ of the gospels. I say ‘tried’ because it has been a rocky ride so far. Highs, lows and everything in between. I swing from burning inspiration to faltering faith, from close to God to straying widely off the path. I always struggle with church-as-institution and with my own stumbling discipleship. Then I encounter a poor Filipina, a girl who grew up on a remote jungle mountainside, whose life transforms everything.
She is wild, crazy, passionate, funny and compassionate. Much like Jesus – whom she loves – she both inspires and terrifies me: inspires me by what’s possible; terrifies me by what it may call from me. Her life models her own radical mandate: ‘Whatever status or power you have, use it for those who are vulnerable; whatever money you have, use it for the poor; whatever strength you have, use it for the weak; whatever hope you have, use it to bring hope to those who live without hope. Speak up for justice and truth – whatever the cost. Pray.’ She lives it literally – and that scares me.
Where I see issues, she sees people. While I’m still thinking about it, she’s out there doing it. Her self-sacrificial lifestyle looks and feels profoundly reckless and unnerving. It unsettles me. It alarms me. It evokes a spiritual-existential crisis. It shakes everything in me to the core. Yet it also kindles fresh glimmers of light. I see amazing hope on the faces of people whose lives she touches. I see the ordinary-extraordinary miracles that God performs through her every day and it strengthens my own faith. She evokes a yearning in me to see and love Jesus and the poor more deeply: whatever.
I was reminded recently of one of my sister’s ex-boyfriends in our teenage years. The lad was called Tom and, one day, he decided proudly to have his name tattooed on his neck. When he got home, however, he was dismayed to look in the mirror and read ‘moT’. ‘I can’t believe they spelt my name wrong!’, he exclaimed in near despair. My mother looked on in near despair too. How could her daughter be going out with this guy?? My sister laughed but poor Tom just looked puzzled.
I can hear so many satirical expressions immediately coming to mind: ‘Not the sharpest knife in the drawer; A few sandwiches short of a picnic; Proof that evolution can go in reverse’, etc. It’s as if we’re a lot brighter than Tom, less prone to such stupid mistakes. Tom misinterpreted what he saw but we see and understand things more clearly. Perception is reality and Tom needed a reality check. We’re not that easily tricked or confused. We’re not like Tom. We see things as they are.
That is, until we read books like David McRaney’s ‘You Are Not So Smart’ (2012). With a wide range of disarmingly simple-yet-profound examples, McRaney describes a whole host of ways in which we unknowingly and convincingly delude ourselves, pretty much every day. Alex Boese concludes on the back cover: ‘Fascinating! You’ll never trust your brain again.’ It’s as if the assumptions we hold about what is real and true about ourselves, the world, life and relationships need to be held…lightly.
Yet this poses some serious existential, ethical and practical challenges. Who or what are we to trust if we’re not sure what’s real or true? Who or what are we to take a stance on if we’re not sure if the ground we’re standing on is sound? Faith, doubt and belief come face-to-face with diverse related fields, e.g. social constructionism and Gestalt. This is rich territory for deep coaching, leadership and OD. So, tell me - what are your experiences of working with certainty and uncertainty, ambiguity and trust?
I haven’t always been good at doing the sensible thing. Take, for instance, the time when I left my job and studies in industry after 5 years of hard work, 3 months before my finals. I had recently become a Christian and believed Jesus was leading me into a new volunteer role in community development instead. My family and friends thought I had gone crazy. What on earth was I thinking of? They urged me to do the sensible thing, not to be so reckless with my life. I could understand what they were saying. Nevertheless, I resigned and never looked back. Not even for a moment.
That was one of the best decisions of my life. It changed the course of everything for me. I also wasn’t sensible, apparently, when I decided to give all my possessions away, to live out of a rucksack in an attempt to identify with the world’s poorest people. I wasn’t sensible when I worked in some unstable and dangerous places in the world in my work with charities, human rights and NGOs. I wasn’t sensible when I applied to do a master’s degree when I didn’t have any of the pre-requisite qualifications. I prayed, negotiated, worked hard and completed it with a distinction grade.
I wasn’t sensible when, more recently, I crashed my bike on a charity ride and snapped my knee sideways, leaving me seriously debilitated. I was told to be mindful, to accept my new reality and not to fight against it. I refused and I dragged myself forward step by painful step. I can now walk. I have managed to cycle and swim further than I had ever done before. I have learned that ‘sensible’ is a construct, a preference, a cultural outlook, a state of mind, a stance in the world. It appears self-evident, rational, reasonable and safe. Yet how far are we willing to take a risk - a leap of faith?
Two years ago, I came off a mountain bike – badly(!) - during a UK Sport Relief charity ride. I demonstrated perfectly how not to fall, how not to land and, as a consequence, snapped my left leg sideways at the knee and ruptured two ligaments. During the next twelve months of leg splints, crutches and intensive physiotherapy, specialists told me I would never be able to walk up and down stairs again, never be able to swim again, never be able to ride off road again.
It was a shocking, painful and numbing experience. I kept playing over in my mind what had happened, what I could have done differently, what this could all mean for my life, how it could impact on my family and work. I felt angry with myself for making such a simple, stupid mistake, frustrated that I could no longer do activities I loved. And I realised I faced a choice. I could give in to the experience, accept my ‘fate’, or take what action I could to re-shape the future.
Two years on, after months of (at times) agonising physio, dragging myself up stairs by hand rails etc, I managed to reach the top of a mountain without leg splints. Two years on, having learned to use a pull buoy float and hand paddles, I managed to swim 80 lengths with arms only. Two years on, with leg braced and lots of deep breaths, I managed to complete a 22 mile off road bike challenge. It has shed revealing light onto my attitude to risk. A reminder to hold onto hope.
I thank God, family, friends, colleagues, professionals, neighbours - and even total strangers - who have supported me. It has influenced my thinking as a leader, coach and OD practitioner: how to support, challenge and increase the resource-fullness of people, teams and organisations. It has strengthened my conviction that we and others are often capable of far more than we know or believe. It has reinforced my faith that God stands with us in the midst of trials.
I write, therefore I think. I guess you could call that Descartes for Introverts. A journal editor contacted me this week to invite me to draft an article. The guidelines propose having a clear idea of content and structure from the outset. I get the point, I see the logic, but I’m aware I don’t write like that. I don’t think I even think like that. Often I don’t know what I think, what I want to say, until I start to write. This means that, for me, writing is an exciting adventure of exploration, discovery and promise. It’s as if each word, each sentence, opens the way for what could emerge, what could surprise, what will reveal itself, next.
I sometimes experience a similar phenomenon when I lead, teach, coach, facilitate. In the past, I would prepare…and prepare…so that I would be, well… – prepared. Now I notice I’m more interested in preparing myself. How to be present, curious, open to the person, open to the group, open to God, open to the moment: noticing what is preoccupying my thoughts, how I am feeling emotionally and physically, what is holding my attention, what I’m not noticing, what stories I’m telling myself. It's about learning to risk just one step forward with awareness, intention and belief in what could unfold, what will become, next.
This attitude, this stance, is invitational by nature. It reaches out to inquire, share, collaborate and co-create. It’s so different to a defensive, defended posture, trying to hold the ‘other’ or the future at bay to protect and preserve. It’s a willingness to be vulnerable, not-know, let go of control, move out and trust. It’s not easy to sustain this state if work and relationships feel pressured and stressed. It's easy to fall back. Yet it can be a place of great fruitfulness, alive and life-giving. It can be a sacred space where love thrives and where hope is truly transformational. It calls for a leap of faith. Just one step. Next.
How would you describe your coaching style? What questions would you bring to a client situation?
In my experience, it depends on a whole range of factors including the client, the relationship, the situation and what beliefs and expertise I, as coach, may hold. It also depends on what frame of reference or approach I and the client believe could be most beneficial. Some coaches are committed to a specific theory, philosophy or approach. Others are more fluid or eclectic.
Take, for instance, a leader in a Christian organisation struggling with issues in her team. The coach could help the leader explore and address the situation drawing on any number of perspectives or methods. Although not mutually exclusive, each has its own focus and emphasis. The content and boundaries will reflect what the client and coach believe may be significant:
Appreciative/solutions-focused: e.g. ‘What would an ideal team look and feel like for you?’, ‘When has this team been at its best?’, ‘What made the greatest positive difference at the time?’, ‘What opportunity does this situation represent?’, ‘On a scale of 1-10, how well is this team meeting your and other team members’ expectations?’, ‘What would it take to move it up a notch?’
Psychodynamic/cognitive-behavioural: e.g. ‘What picture comes to mind when you imagine the team?’, ‘What might a detached observer notice about the team?’, ‘How does this struggle feel for you?’, ‘When have you felt like that in the past?’, ‘What do you do when you feel that way?’, ‘What could your own behaviour be evoking in the team?’, ‘What could you do differently?’
Gestalt/systemic: e.g. ‘What is holding your attention in this situation?’ ‘What are you not noticing?’, ‘What are you inferring from people’s behaviour in the team?’, ‘What underlying needs are team members trying to fulfil by behaving this way?’, ‘What is this team situation telling you about wider issues in the organization?’, ‘What resources could you draw on to support you?’
Spiritual/existential: e.g. ‘How is this situation affecting your sense of calling as a leader?’, ‘What has God taught you in the past that could help you deal with this situation?’, ‘What resonances do you see between your leadership struggle and that experienced by people in the Bible?’, ‘What ways of dealing with this would feel most congruent with your beliefs and values?’
An important principle I’ve learned is to explore options and to contract with the client. ‘These are some of the ways in which we could approach this issue. What might work best for you?’ This enables the client to retain appropriate choice and control whilst, at the same time, introduces possibilities, opportunities and potential new experiences that could prove transformational.
Nick is a psychological coach, trainer and OD consultant with over 20,000 followers on LinkedIn. How can I help you? Get in touch! firstname.lastname@example.org