One of the core adages in any coaching or advisory work is simply that “no one will take your advice if they don’t think you understand their experience.” The same is true as a leader—especially in a world where coaching and leadership are increasingly similar skills. Much advice and guidance are offered without a deep or direct personal experience of the issues at hand. When this happens, the coaching and advice you offer might be intellectually accurate, but it won’t have the same power as a lived experience authentically shared.
One of the things I have noticed in my 30 years as a coach and consultant is that it’s easier to be an outside expert helping people with a problem than it is to be the person struggling with one. As a result, I get to be my most mature, grounded and balanced self in my work.
Often, people will ascribe certain qualities to me such as strength, balance, clarity and calm. It’s easy to be put on a pedestal in these kinds of situations and, all too often, we accept being put on a pedestal rather than exhibit authenticity and vulnerability. Perhaps we fear that without that “elevation,” we will lose credibility. Many of us are often happy to portray ourselves as more evolved. The truth is, I am not more enlightened than any of the leaders I support. I am just more in touch with my weaknesses and failures and have spent more time studying them.
A coaching client recently asked me if I have the same anxieties, self-doubt or complicated internal dialogues that cause internal stress as he does. He was very surprised when I said, “Yes! Absolutely! I still have those issues all the time.” The only difference is that I come back to the center more quickly because I’ve built a lifetime of practices around managing my anxiety and internal dialogues. I put enormous energy into making sure I’m regulated in my interactions so that my internal world doesn’t spill out and create all manner of unintended consequences.
I am not always successful in this. There are times, especially in my home life, when I show up in ways I’m not proud of. Even at work, my anxiety and impatience leak through and I suffer consequences from that. I’m human, too, and even though I have been working on myself for years, I am still flawed. When I emphatically confess that I have the same anxieties, self-doubt and complicated internal dialogues as any other human, I notice my clients trust me more, not less. By showing up as similar—not better or different—I can truly connect with my clients. And this truth also extends to leadership.
Like my clients, I know what it’s like to suffer, have self-doubt and have anxiety in complex situations. Therefore, my coaching comes out of an honest relationship with those internal dynamics. The tools and practices I bring to my clients are based on my own suffering, not on something I have read in a book or heard about anecdotally. That is what distinguishes my craft. I haven’t mastered anything; I am still struggling. The art of coaching and leadership starts with courage and the ability to honestly own and acknowledge your weaknesses without caveat.
Most important in all of this, however, is the knowledge that we are all struggling. No one has it down. It is very easy to ascribe essential qualities to other human beings based on projection. Sometimes we think someone is free from suffering if they are wealthy and successful enough, or that they don’t suffer from self-doubt if they’re strong and attractive. This is not the case, and I also know this from lived experience.
I have coached presidential candidates, billionaires, VC-backed entrepreneurs and CEOs of public companies. I’ve learned that, above all else, the human experience is shared, and we are all humans with wounds and fears just trying to do our best. And in that, we all suffer. The fundamental question is whether we’re addressing our suffering consciously, collaboratively and with real attention. Without that, the suffering continues no matter the circumstance. As coaches and leaders, we must strive to bring our whole selves to our craft every day. That doesn’t just include our strengths, but also our weaknesses.
The Buddha is often quoted as saying “Life is suffering,” but this is a common misinterpretation. The literal words of the Buddha are that “Life is disappointment.” When we admit that we are disappointed with ourselves and invite others into that truth, we can see our weaknesses and failures for what they are: beautiful truths and lessons to learn and grow from. At the end of the day, being a great coach or leader is simply about helping people connect deeply to their faults and discover the wisdom that is revealed through that exploration. And that process only works if you have walked that path.Back to TriumIQ