A Tribute to My Teacher

PBLIn the spring of 2013, Amazon suggested that I read The Mindful Coach by Doug Silsbee. I did–on a 15 hour plane ride to Hong Kong. I was so excited by what I read that the first thing I did upon arriving in my hotel room was to go online and find out if Doug taught in person. He did. And, the program he ran, Presence-Based Coaching, sounded wonderful.

Doug’s work combined many of the things I was already exploring (mindfulness, neuroscience. adult development) with other domains I’d never heard of (somatic work, polarity management, and more ) in a way that was both fresh and familiar. I would be able to deepen areas I wanted to work on and gain new ways of putting it all together.

So began five years of study–in person at a beautiful retreat center near Asheville, North Carolina and through a variety of online courses. Throughout that time, Doug kept building, adding, growing and expanding his understanding of leadership, coaching, our place as humans on this planet. He was generous enough to include us in his journey. And I was fortunate enough to be his student.

The most important distinctions and insights that I’ve gained in recent years came from my work with Doug, and his partner Bebe Hansen. (Bebe has recently taken the reins at Presence-Based Coaching–meaning that the work is in great hands.) Doug introduced me to polarity thinking, which is central to my work as a coach, facilitator and human being on this fragile planet. When, on the last day of one of our retreats, Doug offered up the polarity of humility AND confidence to replace the dichotomy of confidence OR arrogance, I felt a shift and sense of possibility in that moment. Doug is one of those coaches who, with just a few words or an incisive question, delivered with compassion and humility, helps you see what was previously invisible.

Doug’s newest book, Presence-Based Leadership:Complexity Practices for Clarity, Resilience, and Results That Matter, was published in March. The book builds on Doug’s interest and exploration of complexity. The essential idea is that complexity –which is more and more a part of our reality–requires work with our bodies, hearts and minds, together, to be more fully present. Developing our capacity for presence, writes Doug is “possibly the most fundamental life and leadership competency.” Doug describes presence as the “conscious, intentional awareness that connects our deepest heartfelt essence to the furthest reaches of societal contribution.”

Unlike Doug’s previous books, which were written for coaches, this one is written for all leaders–which, in Doug’s definition, is all of us. The book is simultaneously practical and profound. It’s built around a model for cultivating presence, which he calls the nine-panes model, and supported by a myriad of accessible practices. Each pane is a window into a part of how we see and experience reality and, as with all elegantly systemic models, the panes are interdependent. They operate together, as a system. Being aware of them and working on them individually can influence how they operate together.

A few months before the book was published, Doug was diagnosed with a rare cancer. I wanted to believe that he would beat it. Doug was a healthy person–rugged, strong, balanced. Instead, Doug, perhaps sooner than the rest of us, recognized that this was not going to be “beaten”–it was going to be lived. And, he embraced it as the ultimate “complexity challenge.” For eight months now, Doug has been on this journey. He has been generous and courageous enough to share it with his community, including his students. He and his wife have authored a blog that has invited us into this journey. Even as Doug is consciously letting go of his professional identify, he remains a teacher. He embraces that role with wonder and humility. Just a couple of weeks ago, in reflecting on his choice to document his dying process, he wrote:

“I really don’t know how to do this, this dying thing. I’m (drum roll….. yes,  the rumors are true!) a first-timer. Any actual knowledge I might profess about dying hasn’t yet been fully earned. So, it’s not expertise that I am offering.

Rather, it’s my lived experience, day by day, as it unfolds. Is it not true, at the end of the day, that our fullest selves and our lived stories are what we have to offer anyway?

Almost certainly, I will only get to die once. Not that I would wish cancer on anybody. More like, if I’m here, I might as well explore the unique perspective on living that is revealed by dying.

Doug’s curiosity, his willing to share his own experiences, his ability to bring humor (and reveal when he’s in deep pain,) has had an extraordinary effect–it’s the first time in my life that death, itself, has seemed just a bit less scary. That is an amazing gift. I know, because I’ve talked to many of his students (and read the beautiful comments on his posts,) that it’s shared by many of us. It is a testament to the truest power of vulnerability. Doug has embraced dying as a space for practice and decided to share what he’s been learning along the way.

If you don’t know Doug, read his books, listen to podcast interviews of with Amiel Handelsman. They were recorded as the book was being published and as he was coming to terms with his new reality. If you do know him, then I’m sure you and I are having many of the same feelings and sensations. It’s wonderful to have a teacher and hard to lose one. I’m grateful that Doug is guiding us in the journey.

Update: Doug passed away on July 30. May his memory be a blessing.

Strong Opinions, Lightly Held

People TalkingWhat’s the key to turning a difficult conversation into a productive one? Years ago I studied with the people at Action Design–exploring this exact question. How do you have a productive conversation based on honesty, trust and transparency? How can you transform difficult conversations into opportunities for learning and understanding? The phrase “strong opinions, lightly held,” is a reminder for me of how to enter into a conversation that is difficult–or how to respond when a conversation becomes challenging.

“Strong opinions, lightly held” connects to one of the most powerful and practical distinctions I’ve ever learned–between advocacy and inquiry. Advocacy is about speaking up and inquiry is about asking questions–seeking to understand. Inquiry is about curiosity, listening and asking. While the benefits of inquiry are probably the subject of much of the leadership development work you’ve done–perhaps because it’s not all easy be an expert “inquirer”–advocacy is also important. Having a voice, expressing a view and being able to effectively express ideas is critical to effective leadership.

Expressing your view (strong opinions) while knowing that your view is just one view–and being willing to open your view up to inquiry by others (lightly held)–is one of the keys to productive, powerful conversations–and leadership. It’s one of the primary ways that difficult can become productive–and positive. Advocacy and inquiry are a polarity–both are critical, it’s not an either/or. Our work is to leverage the positive aspects of each–to speak up and also be willing to ask, to listen and also be willing to let go.

Living into “strong opinions, lightly held” is the work of a lifetime–a journey, not a destination. In recent years there’s been a host of research about our brains that demonstrates–over and over–that we are wired to crave certainty–to want to believe that we know, that we are right. (See On Being Certain by Robert Burton.) That need for certainty creates in us a false sense of knowing that blinds us to the fact that we might just be wrong. The need for certainty–and its corollary–the need to be right, ultimately get in our way, doing a disservice to the people around us, and preventing our organizations from thriving. It is part of why advocacy, rooted in a sense of knowing, can come so much more easily than inquiry. Inquiry requires that we be comfortable with not being certain that we are right, with being willing to hold open the possibility that we are the ones missing something.

It’s a hard thing to shift. We can begin by noticing when we’re holding a view tightly, when we are not asking questions or have ceased to be curious. We can notice when we are not allowing questions to be asked or making space for others to speak up. We can listen to ourselves when we say (or think) “we know” and check to see if it is really true. We can try on the language of “I believe” vs. “I know” and see what happens.

As we notice and as we make small shifts, we can work to become leaders who are clear rather than leaders who are certain, leaders for whom “strong opinions, lightly held” is an aspiration–one we are always moving towards. We can practice in every conversation. 

Updated, June, 2018.

 

 

 

Fall Reading

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In case you’re wondering where my newer posts are, I’m continuing to write for Actionable Conversations. It’s awesome to have a real, live editor and get feedback on what I write–and know that by the time you read my posts, they are better thought out, better written, and better formatted than what I could do on my own. Appreciating the power of partnership!

Here’s are brief descriptions and links to my last few posts:

Most recently, I wrote about distractions in a post called Taming the Distraction Habit, This is a very personal one–and also–I hope, one that will hit home for many of you. How do we stay focused even when there is so very much (especially in our digital lives) to distract us?

In my post on vertical development, I distinguish between developing our capacity as human beings and our leadership skills. This piece draws on adult development theory as a framework for understanding the trajectory of our growth throughout our lives.

After reading Mastering Civility by Christine Porath, I reached out to the author and wrote about our conversation in a post titled In the Face of Incivility: Thrive. Rarely have I written about something more relevant to our current political reality–which I think has spread into our lives in ways that we all need to pay attention to.

I wrote a couple posts that were focused on what leaders can learn from neuroscience I summarize ten years of reading and thinking about this topic in a post called Your Brain at Work: Managing Change by Managing Your Brain. I conclude that our brains are uniquely unsuited to the lives we lead–and that there is something we can do about it. I also draw on neuroscience research in a post on creating insights–and how we can create environments that are better suited for generating insight and innovation.

Last, but not least, here’s a link to my Actionable Books summary of my favorite book of this year, 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership. If you’re looking to dig into something that will help you to grow and expand your leadership, this is on my (very) short list.