I have a complicated relationship with leadership development books and leadership conferences.
I read half a dozen leadership books and attend a handful of leadership development conferences each year. I’m passionate about lifelong learning, personal reflection, and the power of stories and fresh thinking to challenge my status quo. However, I find myself thinking, “This is pretty obvious stuff. Why am I spending all this time and money learning about things I already know I need to be doing?”
“How did we get here?” I thought to myself as my wife and I sat in silence, furious at each other on our anniversary get-away. In 23 years of marriage, we had never once had a fight about money. Then, out of nowhere, we found ourselves at odds over how much we were willing to pay for our daughter’s college tuition. I was so pissed that I stormed out of our Cincinnati Airbnb, and started walking north in the cool night air to clear my head.
I returned later that evening in the same state of mind as when I left. Kim and I went to bed angry, facing opposite directions.
I’ve been investing a lot of time and energy on personal growth. It’s hard work. It’s revealed some tough, ugly truths. One of those truths is that I don’t like to spend a lot of time thinking and planning. I like to get stuff done. Thinking and planning feels like a waste of time. The problem is that I struggle with developing long-term strategies. Because I don’t make the time to reflect, I run the risk of focusing on the wrong things. I’m starting to see this character trait, both in myself and in some of the leaders I come in contact with.
It was one of many Saturday errands. My teenage girls and I pulled into the Goodwill donation line behind a couple in their late 50s who were making half a dozen trips between their van and the doors with what looked like the leftovers from an estate sale. Impatient, I climbed out of my car to carry my bags to the door just as I saw the man in front of me lift an Underwood #5 typewriter out of his van to give away. A gasp of excitement and panic filled my car as my typewriter-obsessed daughters squealed, “Mom, ASK HIM FOR THAT TYPEWRITER!”
Though I am impatient, I am not usually quick to speak. This is both a blessing and a curse. There was a split second of opportunity before this rare treasure was lost to us.
Matthias Schlitte is a German professional arm-wrestler. He was born with a genetic bone disorder that made his right arm naturally larger than his left. His training objective is to build as much strength and muscle mass as possible in his larger arm, but keep the rest of his body (including his left arm) relatively trim, so he can compete in a lighter weight class. In the gym, he develops his right arm twelve hours a week.
All humans are on a journey of maturation. We continue to grow throughout our lives, hopefully until the day we die. I’ve found that these journeys are not linear. Much like Matthias, we develop asymmetrically.
Behavioral changes don’t just happen by accident. They require internal transformations first.
You see, there are subtle ways we sabotage the changes we want to make. If we don’t remove those internal blockers, we’ll never achieve lasting outcomes.
I intimately learned this lesson last year. My family accomplished a milestone goal. We became one of the 20% of Americans who are debt free. My entire approach to this goal was different than my usual run-of-the-mill – goals. This goal required that I show up differently and clearly address my blockers.
By nature, I’d prefer to completely avoid conflict. To me it feels like walking with other people through a minefield, either by force or by choice. In some ways, it is. Navigating conflict requires courage and is profoundly vulnerable.
We know that avoiding conflict at work makes us sick, damages creativity and diminishes productivity and morale. One study by CPP, Inc. found that 1 in 4 employees reported illness or taking sick days due to workplace conflict. More than one-third said that conflict resulted in someone leaving the company, either through firing or quitting. The losses and costs add up quickly.
As I reflect on my life, I find that the greatest growth has come from challenges that had me paralyzed at the time: believing I needed 34 hours in each day as a plebe at the Naval Academy, failing to stand up to a bully in the Marine Corps, trying to stay motivated and effective when I lost interest in my corporate job, learning to sell services to prospective clients, and understanding the depth of my arrogance and lack of curiosity as a coach and consultant.
I was a decent basketball player as a kid. I went to the Taylor University Basketball Camp two summers in a row, and I learned a lot. I’m right-handed, and I’ve always found it easy to drive to the basket to the right. But defenders would always frustrate me by poaching over to their left, shutting down my driving lane. When I learned to dribble left-handed, it opened up a lot of possibilities for me on the court.
Because of my personality, there are other behaviors that also come naturally to me.
Last weekend I was blessed to have the opportunity to go to a 3-day workshop about a personality/spiritual formation tool I’ve been interested in for about 6 months. The little psychologist in me was geeking out as I drove there on day 1. I’ve already been using this with a few clients and couldn’t wait to learn more. While definitely helpful for my clients, what I discovered profoundly changed me.
It gave me a new lens to see my life through. I have much greater clarity on WHY I do some of the things I do. It shone light on a lot of my darker places. While those are hard to concede, there’s also peace in the truth that comes from acknowledging them.