‘You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it think.’ (Mark Lawson, Twisted Idioms)
My mind, heart and soul have been turned upside down, inside out. I’ve had the privilege and, at times, intense discomfort of being mentored by a Chinese coach and Christian pastor. I half-jokingly call her Why, rather than her real name Wei, because of her courage and tenacity in pressing deeper, innocently, with the next question. My usual subconscious ways of getting myself off the hook have failed miserably. My beliefs, values and behaviour have all been thrown into question.
Wei’s natural orientation towards critical reflexivity means she examines her own attitudes and behaviour transparently – and reflects on them honestly first. She displays child-like curiosity with adult wisdom. She’s far more interested in following God authentically in her life and work than in preserving a superficial relationship or presenting a perfect front. To show real love is more important to her than to win an argument. Her spiritual maturity humbles and inspires me.
A person like this presents more than a skill. They demonstrate leadership-by-example. I became aware, over time, of situations in my own life and work that I could have handled very differently; of some of my own defensive routines that I didn’t even know I had. I discovered that I sometimes dig my heels in (something that will, no doubt, come as no surprise to people who know me) and that I can be, at times, more concerned with establishing ‘truth’ than building true relationship.
What I experienced here is, I believe, one of the great gifts of leadership, mentoring and coaching. It’s an encounter with a real person that can evoke and provoke fresh awareness and insight. A role model represents an invitation, not an expectation. She or he can inspire curiosity and a desire to think, learn and grow. When have you encountered transformational presence? How do you demonstrate it in your own leading, mentoring or coaching practice? I’d love to hear from you!
Anita asked during a coach training workshop this week if it’s appropriate to address emotion in coaching. After all, isn’t that stepping too far into a person’s personal space or risking a drift into therapy? Curious, I asked which dimension of the issue she was feeling most concerned about. Anita replied that she felt anxious about straying into what could feel like a counselling relationship. If she did, she said, she would feel both out of her depth and as if she had breached a professional boundary. I paused, then asked if it had felt inappropriate when I posed that question to her, or if she had felt compromised in how she answered it. She looked up, smiled and said, ‘No.’
Another coaching workshop and Brian, a colleague, was introducing reflecting back as a core skill. One participant looked increasingly frustrated and eventually blurted out, ‘You call this a skill but it’s like playing a game with someone, using techniques on them rather than holding a real and respectful conversation.’ Brian listened then responded calmly, ‘So, reflecting back feels to you like toying with someone, and that clashes with your value for authenticity.’ 'Yes – that’s it exactly!’ he replied with a burst of positive energy that took everyone in the room by surprise. After a brief moment, he and everyone else broke out in fits of laughter. ‘OK, now I get it.’
The principle here is that of modelling an idea, an approach, a method or a technique, rather than simply describing or explaining it. There’s something about experiencing that can feel profoundly and qualitatively different to understanding a concept purely intellectually. This insight lays at the heart of Gestalt coaching and experiential learning. It’s primarily about doing, not thinking, and seeing what emerges into awareness when we do it. I worked with a leadership team that agreed a set of and behaviours to govern its practice. It looked neat on flipchart paper but its potential for transformation didn’t emerge until they grasped the nettle and practised it.
What have been your best examples of learning by experience? How do you model this principle in your work with others?
The boy looks about 13, maybe 14, and is guiding cars into parking spaces. The sun is beating down and its steaming hot. Exhausted, he sits down against a wall for a break. This is in the Philippines last week. A poor woman from Samar, Jasmin, notices him out of the corner of her eye as she steps down off a jeepney – a mini-bus used for public transport. The boy looks weak and unwell. She walks across to him, speaks gently then reaches out and touches his face with her hand. His skin is burning with a fever.
Jasmin urges him to stay there and wait for her as she rushes quickly to find a shop where she can buy medicine, food and drink. Then she returns and says she will take him home, to the slum area where he lives. She reassures him that things will be OK, that she will give his family the equivalent of what he could earn in 2 weeks, along with the food, so that he could take a rest to recover. The boy looks up at this stranger, can’t speak…and just cries. She helps him into a jeepney and honours her promise.
I ask Jasmin why she has taken such a risk, to touch a person with clear signs of a fever when the Philippines is in the midst of a Covid-19 lockdown. She looks emotional now and says, quite simply, ‘I imagined how I would have felt if I was that teenager.’ She couldn’t bear to leave him alone, so very sick. She gave what little she had so that his family would not become destitute. I flash back to the parable of the good Samaritan. Jasmin loves Jesus and is willing to engage. I might well have just walked by.
‘They may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.’ (Maya Angelou)
It was a dire and inspiring experience, a hospital for children with severe disabilities in a desperately poor country under military occupation. Conditions were severe, the children were abandoned by their families and the staff were often afraid, suspecting the children were demon-possessed and, therefore, holding them disdainfully at arms’ length. A fellow volunteer, Ottmar Frank, took a starkly different stance. He was a humble follower of Jesus and I have rarely witnessed such compassion at work. I asked him what lay behind his quiet persistence and intense devotion. He said, ‘I want to love these children so much that, if one of them dies, they will know that at least one person will cry.’
Ottmar’s words and his astonishing way of being in the world still affect me deeply today; the profound impact of his presence, and how my own ‘professional’ support and care felt so cold by comparison. I remember the influence he had on others too – how, over time, some others started to emulate his prayer, patience, gentle touch and kindness – without Ottmar having said a word. It invites some important questions for leaders and people, culture and change professionals. If we are to be truly transformational in our work, how far do we role model authentic presence and humanity, seeing the value in every person and conveying through our every action and behaviour: ‘You matter’?
I have been gripped by The Legend of Bruce Lee (2008), a Chinese biographical drama on Netflix. As we see the extraordinary life of this iconic figure in history depicted on screen, I’ve been stimulated to reflect back on my own life too. In my teenage years, dabbling with martial arts, Bruce Lee stood out as the pinnacle, the expert that everyone admired and aspired to be like. His unique sparring technique bordered on the impossible; his philosophy was mysterious, yet strangely compelling. But, how did he get there? What can we learn as leaders, coaches and trainers from this amazing life?
The first thing that strikes me (if you will excuse the pun) is that Bruce’s gift to the world arose, initially, in response to being bullied by racist thugs. He was absolutely determined to stand up to them, and therein began his martial arts quest in earnest. Having defeated his nemesis, however, Bruce found grace when his hitherto arch-enemy apologised and sought reconciliation. How far do we, and those we work with, seek, discover and create gifts in the midst of adversity, rather than simply bemoan it? How far are we, and they, open to the transforming power of forgiveness?
The second is Bruce’s total single-mindedness in pursuit of his vision, passion and goal. He had a clear sense of purpose and justice in life, sometimes describing it in spiritual terms as a Divine force, and was unswervingly-unwilling to deviate from it. It meant that all other considerations had to be pushed to one side. He was willing and committed to do whatever it takes, and to persist in that until the end, never being satisfied with mediocrity. How far do we, and those we work with, tap into spiritual-existential vision and values and hold to them? Do we, and they, settle for compromise too easily?
The third is Bruce’s passion for philosophy-in-action. His new martial arts discipline wasn’t just about fighting style. It was deeply embedded in and influenced by his philosophical and psychological study, observation, reflection and experimentation. In this way, his philosophy was practical and his practice was philosophical. Each was grounded dialectically and ethically in the other. Bruce would continually invite challenge from peers and experts to test, stretch and refine. How far do we, and those we work with, engage proactively with studies, peer networks and critical reflective practice?
The fourth is Bruce’s open-handedness. Whereas most schools of martial arts at the time were purist and exclusive, Bruce sought actively to learn from others engaged in different forms and to share his learning too. This frequently brought ferocious and oft-violent conflict from people who felt envy or threatened by his values and approach, people who had a powerful vested interest in the status quo, yet this didn’t dissuade him from his path. He was more interested in a higher goal than self-interest; motivated more to learn, develop and enhance than to win per se. How far is that our spirit too?
The fifth is Bruce’s backdrop circle of family, friends and colleagues that supported his exceptional achievements. They stood by Bruce through thick and thin, learning from him, sharing his vision and using their gifts, talents and resources to enable him to realise his dazzling mission. As I watched this astonishing life-drama unfold on TV, I couldn’t help thinking of parallels with Jesus Christ and his disciples, of ancient philosophers and their students. It inspired and refreshed my ideas of leadership and teamwork. Who supports you and those you work with, enabling your, and their, success?
I can’t imagine how it must feel. To rush into darkness in the middle of the night, torrential rain pouring down, seconds later a flood of thick mud crashing through your home, in just moments destroying everything you own and have worked for. This happened to some close friends in the Philippines this week. A typhoon brought widespread and heart-breaking devastation. The poor have no insurance, no savings to fall back on and to recover. I hate that the poor are so vulnerable.
Yet what happened next astonished me even more. Having ensured her parents and children were safe, this Filipina girl hitched a ride into a nearby town, bought bags of warm bread and returned to distribute them to her stunned and shocked neighbours. She then returned to the town to cajole local officials into assembling an emergency response before, finally, setting off to search for a safe and dry room to rent. That was the start of an extraordinary week, entering this New Year 2019.
In the following days, she bought emergency supplies of rice, noodles and other essentials for people living in a nearby jungle village whose homes had been flooded too. They were cut off by a raging, swollen river without food or shelter. She adorned each package carefully in gift wrap so that hearts as well as bodies would be touched and warmed. She then navigated the river, trudged through sodden forest and rice fields and handed over the gifts to astonished, grateful families.
Wow. What a response: this instinct to look out towards others in crisis, to reach out rather than to shrink back, to open up rather than to close down. I reflected on how self-focused I could be, prioritising my own needs over those of my neighbours, paying attention to my own concerns first. I ask what motivates her and she responds simply yet profoundly, ‘It’s what Jesus would do.’ What’s your first instinct in a crisis? Does it evoke self-preservation or radical altruism? What do you do?
I think I saw an angel this week. I was walking into town the day after Christmas when I noticed a young man walking ahead of me, beer can in hand, dressed like a skinhead and looking decidedly rough. He stopped momentarily and stooped to the ground. I imagined he was going to drop his can at the roadside and I thought, cynically and silently, ‘Typical’. Instead, to my complete surprise, he picked up another empty can and continued walking. As we progressed, he picked up can after can, bottle after bottle, all discarded by revellers the night before. I was surprised, puzzled and intrigued.
As we entered the town, I found myself continuing to follow him. He came to a rubbish bin and carefully dropped the cans and bottles inside it. Now I was really amazed. Instinctively, I felt in my pocket and pulled out some coins. Walking across the road, I smiled, held out the cash towards him and said, ‘Here - buy yourself a drink. I was so impressed to see you doing that.’ Now he looked surprised, puzzled and intrigued. ‘You don’t need to do that,’ he said shyly, ‘I’m just trying to look after my neighbourhood.’ I noticed wet blood across his knuckles, as if from a fight. A real paradox.
He held out his hand and asked my name. I told him, asked his and he replied. We shook hands and parted ways. I felt nervous about the blood on my hands and, discretely, rushed off to find a place to wash. At the same time, I felt humbled, confused and inspired by this curious character. How quickly and easily I had judged him. How he was the one that had picked up litter, not I. How he did what was needed without seeking recognition or reward. How he modelled good citizenship without saying a word. I think I saw an angel this week. A true spirit of Christmas and a vision for a new year.
'We can be heroes.' (David Bowie)
I’ve known and worked alongside so many heroes that I can hardly begin to list them all. These aren’t famous celebrities, basking in wealth and media limelight. They’re ordinary people who have chosen to live extraordinary lives. I say chosen because they could all have done something different, something more ‘normal’, yet chose – and still choose – to take the road-less-travelled. It’s always a choice, even if it doesn’t always feel like a choice.
There’s Rudi. He’s a social worker in Germany who has committed his life and career to work relentlessly to prevent the social and political conditions that led to the rise of the Nazis. He looks on the rise of the AfD with alarm. And there’s Jasmin. She’s poor and lives among the poorest in the Philippines. She gives every spare peso and moment of her time – with scary degrees of self-sacrifice – to bring love and hope to the most vulnerable people.
Then there’s Sue. She was on the last plane out of Saigon to rescue mixed-race children at the end of the Vietnam war. The plane was riddled with bullets. She and the children lay terrified on the floor as the aircraft fled the runway. She rarely speaks about it now. And there’s Mike. He works with street gangs and drug addicts in the UK, putting his own welfare at risk because he sees potential in people where others only see broken, messed-up lives.
All of these people are ‘followers of Jesus’. They challenge and inspire me and serve as a continual reminder that every moment represents a decision, a choice to live a self-centred life or to serve a higher cause – whether that be God, humanity or nature-environment. I find it easy to get distracted, to slip into pragmatism, expediency, convenience or comfort. Yet I want to live a well-lived life. Who are your heroes and how do they inspire you?
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