For a long time know I’ve been espousing the importance of personal disclosure and vulnerability as a key leadership trait. I’ve thought, talked and written at length about the importance of showing up more “fully human” because that’s the kind of person people want to follow. Recently, I had the chance to experience first hand just how much this matters and it how it can ground us in our work relationships in ways otherwise not attainable.
A year, maybe a year-and-a-half ago, I shared with some colleagues a story that perfectly describes my style under stress. When I feel out of control, uncertain or unstable my tendency is to over-control. As you’ll see, I’m not just talking about micro-managing, I’m talking about getting intense about stuff, really small stuff, that just doesn’t merit the energy or attention. I’ve been doing this for a VERY long time and, thankfully, in the last few years I’ve started to notice the behavior and, as I hope those close to me will attest, started to change it.
But that’s getting ahead of things. A few years back on a Saturday morning my wife and I took the kids to a bagel shop for breakfast. My son, probably 6 or 7 at the time had smeared so much cream cheese on his bagel that there was no longer any bagel. I mean, this kid had piled it high. So, control freak and hyper-intense parent that I was (emphasis on past tense!) I promptly grabbed the bagel from him and began to deconstruct it. I quickly removed the most offensive glob – the mound in the middle that just isn’t done in polite society. But I didn’t stop there. I proceeded to take one of those plastic serrated knives and scrape this sucker clean. I mean, the only thing left on this bagel were the tracks of the knife through what may or may not have been a pile of cream cheese.
The look I got from my wife was one of utter disbelief. And, after a painful silence, we just started laughing. I’m talking big, hearty, slightly out of control laughter. What I had done was just so bad, so clearly over-the-top that all you could do was laugh. I don’t know what was going on with me then, why exactly I needed to exert so much control over bagel to cream cheese ratios. Most likely, I was still in the early stages of learning how to really see myself and feeling the need for control that that kind of examination fully engenders.
Well, as I said, in the spirit of transparency I told this story to a group of colleagues about 18 months ago as a way to describe my ongoing challenge with control needs. Just last week, one of these colleagues came to my office and expressed concern about how I was approaching an issue in our group. It was clear that she was feeling the weight of my control and to illustrate her point she somewhat tentatively reminder me of the bagel story. It was a beautiful moment. Her recollection of the anecdote was perfectly timed to coincide with what’s true for me right now.
As I’ve written about recently, I’m in the middle of a big transition right now. My boss retired, his replacement is in place and I’m trying to find my way through the sometimes muddy and unsettled waters that go with the change. Is it any wonder that I would respond by holding on a little too tightly, exerting just a little too much control? Of course not. And, if I had never shared the bagel story my colleague could never have helped me gain the perspective I need to move through this change more effectively. She brought back to me the thing I had given her, returning it to me so I could look at it with fresh eyes and new learning. What a gift.
The truth is, there’s a lot at stake right now. Lots of opportunity for me to ensure that in the absence of a hugely influential leader, the work of coaching and leadership development in my company continues to grow and thrive. What I’m really wondering is if I can be and become the hugely influential leader that I need to be to keep things going strong. Rationally, I believe so. Emotionally? Well, that’s probably why I start to hold on just a little too tight.
Frankly, I think it’s a good time to hold on a little tighter, to make sure what we’ve got going here isn’t all cream cheese and no bagel. The good news, freshly reminded as I have been, is that I’m equipped to watch for my tendency to reach for the plastic knife.
(Seriously, he had WAY TOO MUCH cream cheese on that thing!)