The One Conversation That Will Change Everything

oneYou want to get better at having more challenging and courageous conversations. What you’re doing now isn’t working so you’re looking for a better way, a way to hold a real conversation that actually leads to meaningful change. Like most people you’ve done your research and found that there’s no shortage of books to help you out:

Crucial Conversations, The Art of Conversation, Fierce Conversations, How to Talk to Anyone, You Just Don’t Understand!, That’s Not What I Meant!, are just a few.

And you’ve discovered that with rare exceptions, these approaches are externally rather than internally focused. They teach tips, strategies and approaches for how to engage and influence someone else during a moment of truth and make it productive, or at least better than last time.

While there is no doubt that some of these methods can work, they typically amount to no more than a shortcut around the much more significant and important conversation that needs to take place. That is the conversation within your self.

A more courageous conversation begins when we say “yes” to the invitation to examine the elements of our own individuality.

Instead of, “I will learn and employ this technique to get this person to respond in this way” (which is ultimately, if unintentionally a manipulative approach) what if a more personal and courageous set of questions was asked? Questions like,

  • What am I doing to contribute to this situation?
  • What responsibility do I have for what’s going on?
  • What are my values and how are they feeling threatened or compromised right now?
  • How confident do I feel about my work, position, authority or impact? How might I be acting out against some insecurity?
  • What am I doing – what strengths am I using – when I’m at my best? Am I at my best right now?
  • What stories do I tell about what should be happening? About what others think of me? About how I’ve been treated?
  • How am I getting in my own way?
  • Who’s help do I need?
  • What am I afraid of? What’s really at stake?

This is just a start but it could be a powerful one. It’s certainly a challenging one. And what if you got yourself up for the challenge and began this conversation in earnest? What if you decided to firmly and totally believe – even against present evidence to the contrary – that your progress in holding a deepening conversation with yourself would become a fertile seed bed for the growth of more substantive interactions with all of your significant others?

There aren’t too many people who are willing to take this level of responsibility. There aren’t too many who are willing to adopt the attitudes of vulnerability, transparency, ownership and service that are required. But leaders are willing to do so, which is why authentic leadership is actually quite a rare thing.

What you’re doing now isn’t working so you’ve started looking for a better way, a way to hold a real conversation that actually leads to meaningful change. Stop looking outside of your self and start looking within.

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

The Story of Now

“You do not need to know precisely what is happening or exactly where it is all going. What you need is to recognize the possibilities and the challenges offered by the present moment and to embrace them with courage, faith and hope.”

— Thomas Merton —

The Story of Now is the story of what we do with our learning and how we continue to develop it. It is the story of turning insight into action, of turning our internal awareness toward our external reality. In other words, it is the story of how we change.

My daughter attends a school that is primarily made up of Hispanic students. Yesterday they were concerned about the election. Today, many are scared that they will be forced to “return” to a country they have never visited. This is not unique to her school or our community. This is our new national reality and it doesn’t much feel like the “land of the free and the home of the brave.”

Today, I am thinking of our great country as a small child who has crawled into its mother’s lap seeking reassurance that bad things won’t happen. That mother, like all mothers do, lies to her child. She says, “everything will be ok” and “nothing bad is going to happen.” She delays the child’s experience of reality because she knows that the child needs reassurance right now, in this moment. Sixty million Americans crawled onto mom’s lap yesterday because they preferred to be seduced by the lie of simplistic reassurance rather than challenged to wrestle with the complexity of truth.

The truth is that the America of the 1950’s – homogenous and predictable – no longer exists. It hasn’t for some time. That change has been hard for lots and lots of people, in real ways that I have no intention of denigrating or belittling. Globalization is real. The world is smaller and more connected than ever before. Jobs have been lost. The definition of marriage has changed. The make-up of our citizenry has changed. Racism (and so many other “-isms”) remains pervasive. A black man was elected president…twice! And, sadly our government has proven itself to be an ineffective monolith of self-serving behavior. In the face of all of that, with the option of choosing either a deeply flawed woman who was prepared for the job or a detestable narcissist who is grotesquely unqualified, well…60 million people spit in the face of common decency, picked up their ball and walked home.

It’s an immature, shallow response to a new level of complexity. The greatest nation on earth just announced that it is not prepared for change. The “right” guy came along at the right time to fan the flames of uncertainty and send half of the electorate to act on the regressed belief that machismo, polarization and isolation are not only viable but preferable responses. This is stark evidence that when imagination is lacking human beings do the simplest thing they can think of, even when it’s horribly wrong.

We have to, perhaps now we will, reconcile ourselves to the depth of our country’s division. We need leaders who are equipped for that and we need them at all levels of public and private service. In part, that “equipment” is the ability to tell three distinctly and inextricably linked stories: one of personal understanding, one of deep connection, and one of continuous learning. That last one? That’s the Story of Now.

An honest and ongoing self-examination reveals us to ourselves and creates the opportunity to do something with and about what we discover. That experience creates openness to others and the ability to enter into and build relationships of powerful empathy and mutual reliance. With that foundation in place it becomes possible to wrestle – productively, positively, imaginatively – with the realities of complexity and change.

Know yourself. Commit to others. Learn together to create change. That’s the recipe mature adults – mature leaders – follow to navigate toward and meet the challenges of our shared existence. Yes, there are many days we long for mother’s lap and her false promises of security. But we don’t succumb to that temptation because we have earned the ability and made the commitment to stand on our own two feet, holding each other up when the going is difficult. We have earned the ability to see simplistic lies, false promises, fear mongering and hatred for exactly what they are.

The changing face of our country and the interconnectedness of our world will only continue, regardless of what happens these next few years. More acceptance is coming. More openness is coming. More structural dependency is coming. More integrated, holistic and systemic thinking is coming. And it will be created, sustained and led by people who understand how to speak the stories of understanding, connection and learning.

The Story of Now is happening…now. If ever there was a time to write your part, this is it.

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

The Tap

taxiA man in a taxi wanted to speak to the driver so he leaned forward and tapped him on the shoulder. The driver screamed, jumped up in the air and yanked the wheel over. The car jumped the curb, demolished a lamppost and came to a stop inches from a shop window.

The startled passenger said, “I didn’t mean to frighten you, I just wanted to ask you something.”

The taxi driver says “It’s not your fault, sir. It’s my first day as a cab driver…I’ve been driving a hearse for the past 25 years.”

Since I first heard this story a few months ago I’ve been using it to open every talk I’ve given and every workshop I’ve led. And I’m going to keep it up. It’s one of those jokes that have been around for a while, I’m sure. But it never fails to get a big laugh and it has proven to be a great way to open up one of the most challenging conversations we can have: how well equipped are we for the realities of change?

I have great affection for this taxi driver. I imagine him as a guy who woke up one day and realized after years of loyal service that he was no longer fulfilled by his work, no longer able to find in it what he needed to stimulate his imagination and ignite his sense of possibility.

I imagine that, in a very real way, he decided it was time to rejoin the living.

I imagine him enthusiastically sorting out all of the details of his new employment, anticipating the variety of people he would meet, the places he would go and the experiences he would witness. I don’t imagine him considering for even a moment just how big a shock to the system it would be to have a passenger lean forward and tap him on the shoulder.

A single tap on the shoulder forced him to let go of the past and wake up to the here and now in an immediate, uncomfortable and essential way.

I think about my decision to move to Chicago after college, the excitement of my first job dissipating in the hazy asphalt of interstate 80 as the realization that I was all alone settled into the seat beside me. Tap.

I think about moving to northern California as a young married couple in search of something new, something romantic, something that would jumpstart my professional life, only to my find that my lack of direction, a sharp lack of knowing who or what I was to become, was in full supply there, too. Tap.

I think about reconciling myself to the loss of a friendship that I believed would stand the test of time. Tap.

I think about the audience of six people I almost wrote off as a waste of my time only to have one of them turn into my biggest client of the year. Tap.

The more I consider these experiences – these reunions of expectation and reality – the deeper my conviction grows that the way to anticipate them, to welcome them and to work with them is to stay in an open and honest conversation with myself.

That conversation must include a combination of high expectation – the belief in possibility – and high regard for the universal truth that as soon as we pull away from the curb we become a bold invitation to the shaping hand of reality.

Drive on. Stay alert.

The tap is coming.

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world, especially the parts where he doesn’t handle it very well.

You do not have to be good.


Image credit: Kelly Warren – Wild Spirit Resources, LLC

I tacked this poem onto my bulletin board a few days ago. It’s been staring at me ever since, trying to help me understand, to see in a new way. This seems like a good day to explicate it as best I can. First, here’s the whole thing.

“Wild Geese” by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

In my reading of the poem it has three acts: permission, perspective, and invitation.


You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.

There are a couple of lines in this poem that stop me in my tracks, starting with the very first. If all I could have is that first line I’d be more than satisfied. I needed to hear it a long time ago. I wish I had known and believed it  long before now. It’s a mantra, a meditation. It’s also the beginning of permission to simply let go of all of the “shoulds” and comparisons and the pervasive perfectionism  that prevents creative expression.

The permission in these opening lines simply says, “It’s ok to get off of your knees, once and for all, to let go of shame and guilt and ‘not enough’ and walk on timid but strengthening legs to that which is calling you forward.” It reminds me of the heart-wrenching scene in “Good Will Hunting” when Sean (Robin Williams) says to Will, “It’s not your fault.” “It’s not your fault.” “It’s not your fault.”

And just as that permission begins to settle in, I hear the poet’s invitation to unburden myself of my despair AND to be present to the despair of another. My pain is no greater than yours. Yours is no greater than mine. We are all hurting. And we must all get up and continue walking. And we must help each other do it. It’s the only way.


Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.

The world goes on. I am small. It is vast. I am important, but not nearly so much as I think. I want to be special, to be heard and understood as I’m sure I never will be. Won’t you give me more time? More attention? More care and concern? Why have you moved on? Why must we change the conversation?

Eventually, as my voice gets smaller, drowned by the gorgeous volume of a world in motion, I have to reconcile myself to the hard truth – hard, hard truth – that it doesn’t exist just for me. It is not a backdrop, an elaborate setting for my experience. It simply exists. As do I. And by existing as it does, it reminds me to keep returning to myself to learn what I must learn. And to never stop because there is no end to that discovery.


Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

If only I am willing to refuse my loneliness – that subtle device by which I convince myself that no one else will quite understand – it is all there for the taking. Gifts too beautiful to take in at a glance. I am here. You are here. The world is here, made to be free in.

On stronger legs now I stride into the world, persistent in my self-reflection, consistent in my regard for you, ready to learn all I must if I am to live into the possibility I can see just above the horizon.

That faraway place, always right here.

DAVID BERRY is the author of “A More Daring Life: Finding Voice at the Crossroads of Change” and the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world.

Costco, the DMV and What I Learned From Paying Attention to One Thing

IMG_3407I like to do things quickly. To find the best way from A to B and to cover that ground as fast as I can. I like to be in control, to be uninterrupted when I’m right and to execute my plan as I see fit.

These qualities have served me well in my professional life. They allow me to meet and exceed high expectations and to enjoy the satisfaction of “delivering the goods.”

They have also gotten me into some trouble. My need for speed and control has, as you can no doubt imagine, been tested and dismissed in the real world of other people with both similar and different preferences for how they want to operate.

These inevitable confrontations leave me irritated, frustrated, annoyed and upset. Think of it as an always simmering, low level and perpetual version of “road rage.” I have allowed the disruption of my needs to ruin more days and more experiences than I care to admit. Far too many.


Until one day, realizing that the price of meeting these needs was getting too high, I decided to do something about it. Among other influences I was moved to action by David Foster Wallace’s now famous commencement address, “This is Water.” In it, he invites us to a radical empathy. He invites us to imagine the possibility, however implausible, that the person in front of us in line with too much stuff and a whiny kid has had a far worse day than we have; that the person who cuts us off in traffic is actually rushing a sick friend to the hospital; or that the person who seems oblivious to our existence is actually lost in thought about their dying mother.

He invites us to wake up to the brutal, obvious truth that the people around us are not bit players in the drama that is our life but are ACTUAL people leading ACTUAL lives of their own. He invites us to a new kind of awareness.

Moved and humbled, I started to pay attention in a new way and I started to make some progress. This year, in particular, I made it a focus to slow down, to let go of control and to let myself be swept along now and then in the current and the speed of those around me, going with the flow instead of trying to direct or divert it.

It is perfect then, that on this last day of the year, a year in which I really have strived to do better, I should find myself at both the DMV and Costco, two institutions who both by design and execution make my fantasy of speed and control look absurd. On any day, the DMV is a torture chamber. On New Year’s Eve, it was a cakewalk compared to the consumptive disaster that is Costco. Needless to say, I was tested to the max. And it was the realization that I was being tested, in the ultimate way, that helped me resolve to not only survive but to thrive in my navigation through the darkness of bureaucracy and the vastness of consumerism. I “thank you-ed” and “excuse me-ed” the hell out of those places. I let people go first, I got out of the way, I wished people “Happy New Year” and I decided to see my parking space as an opportunity for exercise instead of as the death march it could easily have been. In other worlds, I saw the experience for what it was, the reality of many, many people trying to satisfy their needs, rather than as a conspiracy to make sure that mine could not be met.

I did this because I decided to pay attention to it. That’s all.

So here, in another of what will surely be a maelstrom of articles about resolutions and planning, goal setting and change, I invite you to consider one thing. Pick something and focus on it. Think about it every day and see how it creeps into your consciousness, carves out a little space and gives you a stepladder to more awareness and new action.

For my money, that one thing should come from on of three areas:

  1. Self-Understanding. My “needs” awareness was driven by wanting to know why I was so damn frustrated all the time. Digging into that helped me see what was in the way and gave me a chance to do something about it.
  2. Connection and Relationships. For sure, there is someone in your life right now who needs more attention, better communication, more love, regard, respect, trust or empathy. Maybe they just need a little more of your time. Moving towards that space, being the one who is willing to go first, is what leaders do.
  3. Continuous Learning and Exploration. You, your team, your organization and community will only keep growing through continuous learning. The speed and pressure of change has made that so.

Do not choose three things. Do not choose two. Please trust me on this, PLEASE! Choose one thing and get started.

Perhaps, on New Year’s Eve next year you will be standing in line at the DMV, privileged to chuckle to yourself that after 364.5 days it was worth it to pay attention, after all.

DAVID BERRY is the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world, especially the parts where he doesn’t handle it very well. If you enjoyed this post someone else might, too. Please pass it along.

Productive Disruption

I’m rereading one of my favorite books right now: Gordon MacKenzie’s, Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace. As Mackenzie describes it:

Orbiting is responsible creativity: vigorously exploring and operating beyond the Hairball of the corporate mind set, beyond “accepted models, patterns, or standards” – all the while remaining connected to the spirit of the corporate mission.

 To find orbit around a corporate Hairball is to find a place of balance where you benefit from the physical, intellectual and philosophical resources of the organization without becoming entombed in the bureaucracy of the organization.

 Orbiting is nothing short of a manifesto for how to save our organizations from themselves by inspiring individuals to “counteract the pull of Corporate Gravity.” It is a call for the productive disruption of the status quo.

When I led the leadership development initiatives for TaylorMade Golf Company the centerpiece of our program was professional coaching. We established and trained a cadre of internal coaches to support the continuing development – the continuous learning – of the company’s leadership team.

Our focus was on offering highly personalized leadership development in the context of the system in which we were all operating but in such a way that we – coaches and clients alike – could learn to orbit the status quo of the TaylorMade hairball and productively challenge it from falling too much in love with it’s past successes.

We rationalized that through powerful coaching relationships our leaders would discover the ways in which they were stuck in the hairball and devise strategies for how to escape it. We wanted to help them confront the tendency to fit in when what the organization most needed was a leadership group also capable of effectively standing out.

The organization was winning in the marketplace. It had devised a formula that overwhelmed the industry and was able to replicate it through some impressive consistency and a better than average portion of good luck. And as the whispers in the hallways began to increase it was increasingly evident that fewer and fewer people believed it would last. The hairball grew bigger, making it more and more obvious – and less and less likely – that we needed to rally ourselves to some new thinking to counteract the inevitable decline of a once vaunted approach.

Coaching existed to help unlock all of that nascent thinking. But the organization – despite many outward expressions to the contrary – was neither ready nor willing to cultivate it into future capability. As a result, coaching became less about supporting leaders in getting out of the hairball and into productive orbit and more about helping leaders deal with the realities of the hairball as well as they could. It served a useful purpose but not the one it was designed to serve and certainly not the one necessary to ensure it’s future viability.

At a minimum this is a cautionary tale. Organizational leaders need to open their eyes to the limiting realities of the status quo and make sure that the efforts they make to counteract it are born out of an authentic commitment to change rather than the false pretense of feel-good initiatives.

At a maximum we need leaders who will wake up to the truth that the world is changing faster than ever and that desperate attempts to hang onto the past will only exacerbate the pain of the present. We need leaders who believe and proclaim, once and for all, that their very existence is predicated on their personal responsibility to preserve, protect and defend the productive disruption necessary for real and responsible change.

DAVID BERRY is the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world, especially the parts where he doesn’t handle it very well. If you enjoyed this post someone else might, too. Please pass it along.

First, Turn the Soil

Soil HealthEveryone wants to talk about harvesting. A few want to talk about planting. Even fewer want to talk about preparing the soil.

I came across an article yesterday called What Amazing Bosses Do Differently. Like so many books and articles out there right now it says all the right things. None of it is new. Here’s the last paragraph:

The common denominator is attentiveness. Pay close attention to your employees as individuals. Take that extra bit of time to build their confidence and articulate a vision; to provide constant, ongoing, high quality feedback; and to listen to their ideas. And ensure that your own messages are consistent.  Is it hard work? Yes. But it’s worth it.

Attentiveness? Check. Vision? Check. Feedback? Check. Consistency? Check.

Hard work? Check. Just not the right kind.

Do we really think another researched-based study that comes to the same conclusion as the last one is going to get our leaders to change their behaviors? That will only happen when organizations realize they don’t get to have it both ways.

Telling our leaders what they already know without getting them ready to apply it is a recipe for cynicism. It promises to deepen the resistance to change that is fed by corporate pronouncements about “employee engagement” that fail to come with any substantive cultural change to support them. Our leaders continue to default to fear-based, controlling behaviors for two reasons:

  1. It’s what their organizations are compensating them to do.
  2. It’s the easiest way to ensure performance in the short term.

The best way to appreciate the danger of the reality we’ve created – yes, we are all complicit – is to go back to the farm.

If you’ve worked on a farm of any size or even carefully tended a garden you know that planting and harvesting can be good, hard work. You also know that those activities are nothing compared to what it takes to properly prepare the soil. Turning just a few spades of dirt, especially in compacted and root-bound soil, is enough to remind you what physical labor really is. And it is our willingness to stick with it – to turn it, amend it and smooth it out – that makes the difference in the quality of what it will produce.

One of the first principles of planting crops of any kind – assuming you want to avoid chemically “enhancing” the soil – is that from one year to the next you rotate them into different sections of the field. (This applies to small garden planters as well.) Since different varieties absorb different nutrients from the soil this prevents any one crop from taking more than it’s share.

The corporate bias, in a thoroughly unimaginative response to the speed of complexity and change, is to simply take all it can while it can. This failure to tend their own soil makes them slaves to the present instead of caretakers of the future. In the same way that crop yields diminish in depleted soil so too do organizational results wither from the lack of attention to the first principles of long term growth.


Defining “Hard Work” 

What we need to talk about – what so few want to talk about – is the kind of “hard work” that our organizations and our leaders must engage in if we are to see real change. In my experience, a person who is both willing and able to do the “hard work” of practicing great leadership behaviors does so because first – first – they have tended their own soil.

Organizations must create the conditions where this is not only possible but also expected. To be a “leader” must come with clearly articulated, high expectations of self-knowledge that precedes behavioral training. Advancement to leadership positions must be contingent upon an individual’s ability to display a detailed understanding of their values, strengths, aspirations and limitations. They must be able to define themselves both at their best and at their worst, demonstrating an awareness of the conditions in which they thrive and those most likely to send them off the rails.

My bias would be to send a prospective leader to therapy or counseling for a year before he or she took the role. Since I live in the real world I will relinquish that fantasy in favor of developmental initiatives that allow for a deep understanding of each individual’s “soil composition” and just what is needed to amend it for them to grow – and support others growth – as well as they can. These programs already exist. We just need organizations to have the courage to put them into play.

We must also stop confusing positional competence with leadership capability. It’s a shortcut, knowingly taken far too often, that utterly fails to serve men and women who would otherwise thrive with the influence of a qualified leader. Organizations will further impoverish themselves if they continue to teach new skills to people who have not addressed their own compacted and root-bound soil.

The articles about “brilliant bosses” and the lists of “best leadership behaviors” are sure to keep coming. They will be dressed up differently but made of the same stuff. We need to do better than this.

We need to collectively reject the temptation to plant in poor soil, the bias for short term thinking that limits the quality and quantity of our yield.

We need to get our hands in the dirt, face up to the reality of what we find there and make it ready to support the growth for which those we lead are so hungrily waiting.

DAVID BERRY is the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world, especially the parts where he doesn’t handle it very well. If you enjoyed this post someone else might, too. Please pass it along.

How to Build Capability Before You Need It 

In Seth Godin’s blog today he writes:

“Often, organizations don’t realize that they’re falling down the abyss until extraordinary efforts are required to make a difference. But it’s always easier to fix it today than it will be tomorrow.”

Last year I wrote about this by sharing 10 recommendations for how to build capability before you need it. If ever there was “evergreen” subject matter, this is it.

Thanks for joining me on a trip into the archives!

Lead well.

Source: How to Build Capability Before You Need It | RULE13 Learning

To do better you’re going to have to try

“Self-knowledge is no guarantee of happiness but it is on the side of happiness and can supply the courage to fight for it.” – Simone de Beauvoir

One of the hardest things any of us will ever do is admit that we might be partly or even completely responsible for whatever is going on that frustrates the hell out of us.

My favorite coaching question of all-time is this: what would happen if you took complete responsibility – 100% of it – for what’s going on right now? Not once when I’ve asked this question has my client been willing to answer right away. Most often they try to avoid answering at all by changing the subject. Sometimes they just scoff at me insinuating, and sometimes flat-out saying, that I’m being ridiculous. I understand. I don’t want to answer it either.

For as long as I can remember I’ve struggled to authentically connect with people I’m meeting for the first time, especially in new group settings. I am not shy. It’s not that kind of discomfort. I do this thing where I protect myself from being known in an authentic way by putting up a facade of competence, especially if I perceive that I don’t quite measure up with the others in the room. It’s an old pattern of showing up with an air of sufficiency or qualification that I must have thought would make me seem special in the eyes of others. Of course, I would always find fault with “those people” for not “getting me” or connecting with me as I struggled to make sense of why I never felt like things clicked for me as easily as they did for others. I’ll give you two examples.

Years ago I attended training to become a facilitator for a collegiate leadership academy.  My brother-in-law lived in the town where the event was held, and we had dinner together the night before. I had too much to drink and was hung over the next morning. It was not an “incapacitated” hung over, but a “tired, cobwebby, please speak just a bit more quietly” hung over. At the beginning of the training we, of course, did introductions but the leader used an unconventional method for doing so. She presented us with a big box of hats and asked us to select and  wear one that represented something about us. Our introductions would be facilitated by sharing those stories.

I chose a jester’s cap and proceeded to explain that as the youngest of six kids I  developed an active and engaging sense of humor from a very early age. Now, please imagine this being explained to you by a guy who is nursing both a cup of coffee and a headache while sporting a jaunty “cap and bells.” In no way did my demeanor match my story. Words and pictures were glaringly misaligned.

It wasn’t altogether surprising, then, that during my feedback session at the end of the training the leader said that the person she had gotten to know barely matched the one she met on that first morning. We had, in fact, developed a great connection during the event and she expressed confusion at experiencing two distinctly different versions of the same guy. I was embarrassed by the feedback. I didn’t like being called out since I was sure I had done such a good job of faking it.

I wonder what would have happened if I had been straight with the group and simply said, “On most days this hat would be a great way to describe me but since I’m hung over right now you’re just going to have to take my word for it. Thanks for your patience as I ease into the day.” I’m pretty sure they would have  given me a wide berth of understanding born of personal experience. I couldn’t speak the truth for fear of being judged, of being seen as unworthy.

A few summers ago I attended a professional conference at a nearby university about the dynamics of human relationships. Instead of just talking about it theoretically for three days the conference design was both practical and experiential. We were sorted into  small groups and directed to simply observe what happened as we engaged with one another in these sessions. During our second meeting, one of the group members began to describe his past experience as the victim of bullying and how that had shaped his interactions with new people, especially men, in his adult life. The vulnerability of his expression was genuine and he proceeded to go around the group, person by person, describing how he felt in relationship with each of us. He was proceeding in these descriptions when he abruptly turned to me and said: “And you! I don’t even feel like I can talk to you. You are obviously a CEO or a Ph.D. or something and I don’t even know what I would say to somebody like that.”

I was stunned. And flattered. At the moment, I flushed with pride that someone would see me that way. That I had real gravitas. So much so that someone felt like they couldn’t even talk to me. At the time, I could only see it as an accomplishment.

That evening, on the drive home, reality set in. I had so successfully constructed the façade of uber-competence that I became precisely the person I do not want to be, a dis-invitation to connection and relationship. That I initially saw it as an accomplishment flooded me with shame.

What he didn’t know was that I was blindly playing the part I knew how to play. In that university environment, all of my insecurity had surged forward. He didn’t know that I was about to take on an adjunct faculty position there and that I wasn’t sure I was up for it. He didn’t know how inadequate I felt for my lack of a Ph.D. and that I could only reconcile that by acting like I had one. In his impressive vulnerability, he gave me exactly the recognition I wanted and, by doing so, shattered my facade.

I didn’t like it when I discovered this pattern. I’m sure I denied it for a long time because I knew there were going to be some significant implications if I decided to address it. It would mean I would have to stop seeing others as the problem. It would mean I would have to let go of being charming and smart and having it all together and begin to trust that I could just show up as me and that  would be ok. And it would be awhile before I would be anywhere near ready for that.

But it did happen. The veneer finally cracked, the facade was broken. And that’s as much about the sincere commitment of many thoughtful people to help me get honest with myself as it was about my decision to finally confront what I had constructed. I still have to work hard to stay out of the old pattern. I can rebuild that facade in no time. Some days the best I can do is close the gap just a little bit between the fiction I think I need to be and the person I most want to be. Before every new event or engagement, I give myself a healthy pep-talk, a reminder that people are more interested in what I am than in what I am not.

The simple truth is this: if you want it to change – if you want to do better –  you’re going to have to try.

DAVID BERRY is the founder of RULE13 Learning. He speaks and writes about the complexity of leading in a changing world, especially the parts where he doesn’t handle it very well. If you enjoyed this post someone else might, too. Please pass it along.