Life Lessons: Love, Leadership, and Let-Self-Change

workaroundI‘ve been learning a lot in the past couple of weeks. This learning has all come from conversations, not from reading or research. And to my surprise, none of these conversations has been face-to-face or even voice-to-voice. From these conversations, all with good friends, I have learned three important lessons.

One of these lessons I will write about in a separate post. It is all about love and friendship and openness and generosity. The other two are easier to explain, by simply relating the conversations from which they emerged:

Self-Managers Do Not Need Leaders

In a follow-up conversation to my podcast with Jon Husband, in which I stated categorically that “we don’t need leaders”, Jon asked me whether, since I am a senior executive myself, was I not a leader? I replied:

Not a leader. I am a ‘thought leader’ but the word ‘leader’ in that context has a completely different sense. I lead people to new ideas. I don’t tell them what to do with them, or what to do at all, or how to do anything. I listen and offer ideas when I’m asked for them, but even then it’s really as a sounding board and story-teller, not as someone telling people what they should do. I’m somewhere, as Jeremy Heigh and I have discussed, between a facilitator and a coach. Definitely not a leader. Had more than enough of them.


In response to this, Jon took me to task for defining ‘leader’ too narrowly. There is much more to leadership (a word, by the way, that has no equivalent word in most languages — I’d speculate because they have no need for one; it means literally ‘the ability to go first’), Jon said, than “telling people what to do”. I replied:

Telling them, showing them, fighting their battles for them, ‘managing’ them, advising them what they did right/wrong, making decisions for them, assessing their ‘performance’, changing their work processes/rewards/environment/organization, setting goals for them, being ‘responsible’ for them, ‘directing’ them, defining their role — all of this stuff is what ‘leaders’ spend virtually all their time doing. It’s all paternalistic, and I refuse to do any of it.
My self-set role is to provoke them with new ideas, to listen to them, to relay what others I’ve listened to have told me, to tell them true stories from my own experience, to suggest workarounds when they’re stumped, to do stuff myself that they might find interesting or inspirational, and, when I must (because I’m paid for it) to help them remove obstacles.

This is not leadership even in the broadest sense of ‘leading by example’ because I don’t expect them to ‘follow’. It’s also not ‘liberal’ leadership in the Lakoff ‘nurturing parent’ sense — if I was responsible for a bunch of young apprentices I might play a nurturing role, but our organization doesn’t hire anyone green. So I expect them not to need ‘parenting’ and to be able to self-manage. Self-managers don’t need leaders.

I think Jon and I agreed to disagree on this, but perhaps that’s because I have more faith than most people in the ability of the majority to learn to self-manage. Wild creatures learn the five steps of self-management through a combination of intuition, play and experimentation. We are so indoctrinated with Learned Helplessness it is perhaps harder for us, but my experience has been that when you give people the chance they pick it up pretty quickly.

You Can’t Change People; You Can Only Help Them to Let-Self-Change, and Then Only By Touching Them Personally

My podcast #3, featuring Rob Paterson, will be going up here later this week. I’ve recently been conversing with Rob about how change happens. Rob has an ambitious proposal to help make the people of Prince Edward Island more resilient to some of the crises we see hitting us all in the decades ahead. It begins with radical reform of the education system (more about this in the podcast). The change management process he proposes to bring this about (based on Alan Deutschman’s work) is as follows:

  • THE FIRST KEY TO CHANGE: Relate: You form a new, emotional relationship with a person or community that inspires and sustains hope. If you face a situation that a reasonable person would consider “hopeless,” you need the influence of seemingly “unreasonable” people to restore your hope–to make you believe that you can change and expect that you will change. This is an act of persuasion–really, it’s “selling.” The leader or community has to sell you on yourself and make you believe you have the ability to change. They have to sell you on themselves as your partners, mentors, role models, or sources of new
    knowledge. And they have to sell you on the specific methods or strategies that they employ.
  • THE SECOND KEY TO CHANGE: Repeat: The new relationship helps you learn, practice, and master the new habits and skills that you’ll need. It takes a lot of repetition over time before new patterns of behavior become automatic and seem natural–until you act the new way without even thinking about it. It helps tremendously to have a good teacher, coach, or mentor to give you guidance, encouragement, and direction along the way. Change doesn’t involve just “selling”; it requires “training.”
  • THE THIRD KEY TO CHANGE: Reframe: The new relationship helps you learn new ways of thinking about your situation and your life. Ultimately, you look at the world in a way that would have been so foreign to you that it wouldn’t have made any sense before you changed.

Rob’s proposal is bold (it is based heavily on early child development that involves parents learning how to create a high-trust, authoritative but not authoritarian relationship with their youngsters). It is impassioned, sensible, supported by extensive research, and well-articulated. If anything can work, it will. But I confess I’m dubious. Although I used to be an enthusiast of the leading ‘change management’ approaches, experience suggests to me that they don’t work. They can achieve significant temporary change (which I guess is OK in business, where the short term is all most people care about), but it never seems to be sustainable. There is far too much ‘drag’ from existing mindsets, processes and institutions (i.e. our present culture) to achieve anything lasting.

The best we can do, I think, is help people we meet personally find viable workarounds that work for them, one on one. If we can get a few parents to spend more and better time with their small children, and improve their nutrition, that will be an important accomplishment. It is caring, attention and patience that is required, not persuasion. If you give them time — and only if you give them time — people are open to better ways of doing things. This requires a huge and sustained investment of one-on-one work, and a lot of patience, and improvisation from the teachers, mentors and social workers to adapt their approach to the needs and learning styles of each child and his or her parents. It’s a mammoth task.

People are only up for a mammoth task when they absolutely have no other choice. We do what we must, when we must. For that reason, I fear, it is likely to be a great idea that gets only limited implementation. As I keep saying, things are the way they are for a reason. I suspect in his heart Rob knows the reasons the situation in PEI is especially serious and well-entrenched. I hope I’m wrong, and his program gets adopted and works brilliantly. But if I’m right, I hope Rob won’t get discouraged. It is a great plan.

I’ve recently reset my own goals and intentions; they’re now much more personal, singular, modest, inspirational more than aspirational. Stories, not plans. Demonstration not persuasion. Being generous, not ambitious. We only change the people we touch, personally, intensely, generously, unambitiously. We change them by helping them, patiently, to let-themselves-change

And we only have that much patience with people we love. That means we have to learn to love more people, more openly, more generously, no small Let-Self-Change challenge in itself, before we will be ready for the task Rob compellingly argues must begin immediately. I wish we were allup for it, but I just don’t see it.

Category: Let-Self-Change
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5 Responses to Life Lessons: Love, Leadership, and Let-Self-Change

  1. Meryn Stol says:

    I really like Rob’s views on changing people. You (and him?) should definitely read Influencer, a new book by the same authors of Crucial Conversations and Crucial Confrontations. It’s also backed by solid research.

  2. cheryl Johnson says:

    RE:Self-Managers Do Not Need Leaders. This business of thought leader sounds to me like the latest play on words. This is the same stuff we see in the capitalist arena. People coming up with new names to describe the same old thing. How does calling yourself a thought leader, make you a thought leader. To me it’s like every company now labeling their product as green even though that product hasn’t changed. It’s all about marketing.

  3. Marty Avery says:

    You formula for letting self change is the same formula for great leaders. A great leader is someone who creates an environment in which everyone is at his/her most effective. This is as true in self-managed folks as those managed by other(s). Thanks Meryn for Crucial tips. Fierce Conversations is worth a quick read too.

  4. ….And we only have that much patience with people we love. That means we have to learn to love more people, more openly, more generously, no small Let-Self-Change challenge in itself, before we will be ready for the task Rob compellingly argues must begin immediately. I wish we were all up for it, but I just don’t see it….

  5. Jon Husband says:

    I think Jon and I agreed to disagree on this, but perhaps that’s because I have more faith than most people in the ability of the majority to learn to self-manage.I am not sure we disagreed. I think you may have left out the last part of our back-and-forth where I said that many people have yet to go through the unlearning process you call Let-Self-Change, wherein dissatisfaction and frustration often help people begin to “unlearn” what has been baked into them through schooling, first jobs, the pressures of building a home, a family and a career and paying for it all (which often or usually means that they have to “obey” the system for a while), and so on. I think lots of people get into (or are helped into it by events) unlearning in the second halves of their lives .. we often don’t have enough context and ironically carry a surfeit of self-confidence in the first half such that we play the game for a while until we begin to see through it … which is then when we start to drop the need for being led.

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