Leadership, Theory, and Being

The professional networking site LinkedIn has a thread going for “the best advice I ever got” and hundreds of people have responded to it. All the entries I’ve read are sincere, heartfelt, and above all they illustrate the adage “everything I need to know I learned in Kindergarten.” All the advice cited was familiar – anyone reading it would have heard this advice numerous times in their career. It also misses the point.

Years ago I was a young psychotherapist studying Family Systems Therapy. As part of that study I attended a conference at which a prominent therapist – one of the giants of the field – had taken on an unusual challenge: He had offered to do a demonstration in front of a conference session – to work with a family he’d never met, knew almost nothing about, and to sweeten the pot he requested that it be a family with whom a therapist was stuck – the therapy had reached an impasse. In other words, he took on what was probably a most difficult situation, and the difficulty was compounded by the fact that he would do this demonstration in front of an audience of about 400 therapists.

Dr. M. worked with the family for about 90 minutes and achieved truly remarkable results – insights, breakthroughs, emotional opening up – the psychotherapist’s trifecta. He then thanked the family and dismissed them and opened up a Q and A session with the audience. If anything, Dr. M was even more brilliant in the Q and A than he’d been in the therapy session. Every question elicited an answer that was concise, insightful, and powerful in the potential it held for the therapists in the audience to learn. All in all a bravura performance.

After the workshop there was a reception and here again Dr. M was more than generous in making himself available for questions and discussion. Toward the end when most people had left, I approached him and complimented him on his work that day and particularly in how he answered questions. He was grateful and modest and, in a moment of candor, said that there was just one thing that bothered him about the answers he gave: “not a word of it was true” he said. Pressed for an explanation of this astonishing remark, he said that none of what he said in response to the questions was present for him during the therapy session – he was just there, doing and saying what occurred to him to do and say. In the Q and A and the reception, he explained what he had done, but, he pointed out, explaining something after the fact is different from doing it in the moment.

That confusion – between the description or explanation of high performance and high performance itself can be crippling to managers and leaders aiming to create a High-Performance Organization (HPO). Don’t get me wrong – if all those therapists went out and did what Dr. M described himself as doing, they would produce some good results, but none of them would produce the brilliance that Dr. M displayed. The difference is that their behavior would be sourced from the explanations while his came from his being present in the moment with all of his knowledge and tools operating in the background.

The great jazz saxophonist Charlie (Bird) Parker was once asked how he played so brilliantly. His reply: “First you learn your instrument, then you forget all that shit and just wail.” Dr. M was a master of his instrument – himself and all of his learning, training, and experience. He trusted that all that would be available (“ready to hand in Martin Heidegger’s terms). To work from the descriptions and explanations, they would have to be “present at hand” or, said another way the listeners to Dr. M would have to be thinking about what to do.

To apply this thinking to leadership, the best leaders are not consciously applying theory but at the same time are drawing upon everything they know, have learned, and have experienced. Most importantly, they are being leaders, not becoming leaders, and in being leaders everything they know and every experience they have had is available to them.

More on being leaders in coming blog posts.

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