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How to Use Child's Play to Find Giftedness in Your Leadership

No matter what reason we were hired to coach, one topic that most of us in executive coaching will hear clients bring up is vocation.

As clients go through some of the deep work that coaching often entails, they start to question the choices they have made that landed them in their current careers. When I ask leaders how they came to be in their current job I often hear things like:

  • It was my next logical step for promotion.
  • My boss thought it would be good for me to get experience in this area.
  • There was an opening, I interviewed, and here I am!
  • I always had an interest in ____________. (fill in the blank…science, math, the arts, dance, music)

Because my role as a coach is to help people explore the choices they have made and the choices they see in front of them, I rarely offer advice about what clients should do. I am asked all the time, "If you were me, what would you do?" Most of the time I say, “I am not you. I have not had your experiences. I don’t have your skills. I don’t have your unique giftedness. So I can’t tell you what to do."

About a month ago that exact scenario happened.  ”Scott, if you were me, what would you do?" was the question posed. I did my little duck-and-weave maneuver described above and helped the client think through options they saw in front of them, as well as presented some other options that may not have naturally occurred in the conversation, and all was well. This is how it usually goes. Then, the session ends and the client goes on to make decisions and from time to time they keep me posted along the way.

As I finished my time with that client, I spent some time reflecting. This is something I do a lot after a coaching session. I like to think about things like:

  • What kind of energy did the client show up with?
  • What words did they use?
  • Where did the conversation lead?
  • What issues were brought to the surface?
  • Did we get closer to achieving whatever goal has been set?
  • What was my energy?
  • What words, stories, analogies did I use?
  • If I was the client, would I have valued the time I spent with me?

While in this reflective mood I remembered the client asking what I would do if faced with their vocational choice. I thought a lot about what I said and the words I chose...and then the thought hit me: I wonder if the client understood what I meant by pointing out their unique giftedness? I am sure he understood that I meant that he had unique experiences and skills, but unique giftedness is a term many may be unfamiliar with. In fact, it is a term I use often and even I wasn’t sure I knew exactly what I meant!

So I did what comes naturally to me, I started studying.

Unique Giftedness

As it turns out, the idea behind unique giftedness has been explored in some detail over the last decade or more by career counselors and those interested in vocation. Its genesis and thesis are derived from what is known as depth psychology. Clinical psychologists use depth psychology to explore the unconscious mind. By paying attention to things like dreams, slips-of-the-tongue, sarcastic humor, spontaneous humor, and meaningful coincidences, clinical psychologists are able to chart an exploration of the unconscious mind.

Depth psychologists probe areas of the mind looking to help their patients unlock the unconscious or discover things that have been trampled over and subdued from the past. While most people thinking about vocation don’t need to explore any repressed memories, career counselors have starting using some depth psychology techniques to help those they work with explore their giftedness. It turns out that as we progress through life some of us may find ourselves in a job or career that has us scratching our heads wondering, “how in the world did I get here?"

Using this vocational depth psychology approach, people are encouraged to explore career, not from their credentials, their job title, or any organizational function they are attached to, but instead explore vocation by asking the question “What are my leading gifts and abilities?”

While there are several techniques I found for uncovering answers to this question, the one I found most intriguing is called The Childhood Autobiography. It is a simple exercise where you write your own biography of what it was like for you growing up as a kid. Then you search for things within your autobiography that point to what you really loved as a child. These first loves and interests are the sparks for your unique giftedness.

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Childhood Autobiography

I was really fascinated by this idea of childhood autobiography and how it could link me to unique giftedness, so I thought I would give it a try.

Here are the questions I used to help me write mine, and here is a link to my childhood autobiography if you are interested. (it's only a page or so, but I did find it very informative in exploring my unique giftedness.

  • What are the earliest memories you have from your childhood?
  • How did you spend your time as a kid?
  • What kinds of things brought you pleasure?
  • Are there things you tried to avoid?
  • What kind of people did you really enjoy being around?
  • What kind of people annoyed you?

My next step was to read through my childhood autobiography to see if I could pick up any unique giftedness.

Any you know what… I did!

I found out that my vocation really isn’t about skills, talents, or even intellect.  My big discovery was that it does not matter what vocation I choose if I am able to have fun and be curious. I could be happy and find fulfillment in many vocations.

Homework

Why not create your own Childhood Autobiography? You can use my questions above to explore this for yourself. If you do learn anything fun in this process, drop me a line. I would love to hear about any impact this little exercise had on you.

When Negative Self-Talk Creeps In

A good friend of mine (and an avid reader and commenter on this blog,) Ken, submitted my name as a speaker for an organization he is affiliated with. He emailed me asking if I would consider giving a talk and facilitating a dialogue on the value of emotional intelligence (EI). I am always humbled when anyone thinks that I might have something valuable to say when it comes to EI. It is one of my favorite subjects to talk about, and I often use the EQi 2.0 in training programs I do and with almost every coaching client I work with does a self-assessment that shows them what their leadership habits may appear like to others.

Now, here is what you need to know about Ken. His job is to serve as a hospice chaplain in Polk County Florida. His request was for me to come and speak to a group of his peers and his boss on the subject of how EI can be of value to a hospital chaplain.

Gulp! I have to admit, the email produced mixed feelings in me. Like I said above, I was humbled for sure, but scared out of my pants as well. Hospice chaplains...really?! While I might know something about EI, my immediate “knee-jerk” reaction was, I don’t know anything about hospice chaplains!

Then the negative self-talk started to creep in:

  • You’re no expert in hospice care.
  • What do you know about how to fit EI into their world?
  • You have never even studied EI in this context, what if there is no data?
  • Your not a very good public speaker.
  • Maybe you should call him up and back out.

Now, am I the only one this happens too? When you are hit with a complex, tension-filled situation what do you do? Do you immediately become filled with fear, anxiety, and self-doubt? How do you stop the negative self-talk from creeping in and taking over your thinking?

Here is a quick and easy method that I use when this happens to me: I use an acronym I call "STOP." It is a four step method that helps me turn my negative thinking into a more positive and constructive use of my time and energy.

STOP

Stop: Do something to interrupt the cycle of negative thinking.

Take a deep breath: Breathing relaxes your tension, releases dopamine, and calms you down to think more clearly.

Other focused: Exercise empathy and become curious about what it is like to be in the other person's shoes.

Purpose a question: Asking questions can have a calming effect and bring you more into a zone of safety than one of fear.

Here is how the model helped me get rid of the negative thinking and increase my confidence in this situation:

When I first noticed the negative thinking creeping into my mind with the thought, you’re no expert in hospice, I should have taken the time to put this model into effect. Unfortunately, even though I teach this stuff, I got all the way down to, maybe you should call him and back out before I put this into practice.

Stop: Psychologists call this pattern interrupt. I noticed the negative thinking and I did something physical to draw attention away from the negative thought. In this case, I was sitting down when I read the email. When I finally noticed the negativity, I stood up. I concentrated on doing something different. Distract yourself away from the source of negativity.

Take a deep breath: When I stood up, I took several yoga style breaths. Focused on bringing my belly button to my spine. I actually could feel myself starting to calm down. This is often when I will also say a prayer, asking God for wisdom as I navigate these treacherous negative waters. I distracted myself from the negativity for a moment. That is the goal with this step.

Other Focused: I tried to take the thoughts off of myself and my shortcomings. I put my thoughts onto Ken and his team instead. I began to think, what might they need from a model like emotional intelligence? What value could it bring them? Notice the questions starting to form when I start to turn my thinking from self-referential to other-focused.

Purpose a question: I crafted an email back to Ken asking him, what are some common situations that hospital chaplains find themselves in where they need more EI? What had other speakers done that the chaplains found valuable? How had he used EI in his work as a hospice chaplain?

I noticed, then, that my fear and anxiety were dissipating into curiosity. I was moving from a lack of self-consciousness into a state of confidence by focusing on the value I could bring to this group of dedicated servants.

Self-Actualization and Optimism

According to authors Steven J. Stein and Howard E. Book, EI always exists in balance. This is pretty easy to see when we think about a leader who is very self-confident but lacks any empathy or interpersonal ability. We often put a label on a leader who has this balance of qualities as being someone who is arrogant at best, and a real narcissist on the more clinical side of the psychology

In my case, I am usually a fairly self-perceptive person. This means that in part, I get a lot of meaning and purpose out of my life and the work I do. This is a real strength for me.

Most of the time I am optimistic, which means I have a positive outlook on the future and am fairly resilient in the face of setbacks. However, this ability can come into question, especially when fear or anxiety enter the stage. My optimism can turn into a negative downward spiral of self-critical thinking.

What I need when I am faced with these fears and anxieties is to balance my self-actualization and my waning level of optimism.

The STOP model helps me to put the brakes on the negative thinking, so I can use all the meaning and purpose I get in my life to teach and coach emotional intelligence, regaining my level of optimism.

I am happy to report that Ken and I have a call scheduled to talk through what value EI can bring to the hospice chaplains and the talk is scheduled for mid-April.

Homework: Where do fear and anxiety creep into your leadership? Can you anticipate when these events occur? When you feel your thoughts going negative, try using the STOP model to see if it can bring you back into emotional balance.

Is This Leadership Question on Your Mind?

It happens every year. Around the second week in January, just when I am recovering from my holiday vacation, my lovely wife of 32 years will ask me a very pointed question. It is a question that comes from her desire to know me and connect more deeply with me. Her question is:

“Scott, what is your word for the year?”

The answer gives her peace about where I am in life. I do not see it as a nagging question. Her intention is not meanness, nor is it meant to put me on the spot, although, it is direct. Her intention is to to get me to focus. To be honest, I like the question, it is deeply reflective of where I am at the moment, and what I am thinking about our future.

If you read this column with any regularity, you know I like to talk and write on a number of leadership-oriented topics. I am interested in many things. I love sports, reading,  running and walking, and sitting around. I like sushi and steak (hamburgers are my favorite!) I listen to smooth jazz and “that Old Time Rock and Roll.” I love God, and people who screw up all the time. I guess you could say I am a classic Jack of all Trades, Master of None. I tend to bounce around a lot.

That said, it is totally fair that my wife wants to focus my attention. She deserves to know a single avenue I am going to go down in any given year. What am I going to concentrate on? What can she ask me about from time to time to see how I am doing?

In years past I have had words like:

Family Vacation Perform Read Persevere Wisdom

Last year my word was commit. I had a lot of business opportunities, and I really needed to focus on the next step to take in growing my business. The biggest need I had to meet as a leader was to commit to something and stick with the plan. I am the kind of guy who has an idea for a new book about twice a day, but who gets bored easily so that the book I thought about writing in the morning doesn’t seem nearly as interesting as the book I thought about writing in the afternoon.

2016 was a year I needed to commit to something and see it through to the end.

Powerful Leadership Question:

Why is having a Word For The Year such a powerful concept?

Perhaps the idea is best summed up by something I read recently about presidential inauguration speeches. After analyzing all the inauguration speeches given by the 44 U.S. presidents, researchers found an inverse correlation between the length of the speech given and the historical success of the president. In simple terms, the shorter the inaugural speech, the better the president. For example, Washington’s second speech came in at just 135 words. Jefferson, Jackson, Teddy Roosevelt, and Woodrow Wilson all are credited with short speeches. After a quick Google search, I found that the longest speech belongs to William Henry Harrison who spoke for 1 hour and 45 minutes using over 9,000 words. He also delivered the address in a snowstorm, came down with pneumonia, and died a week later.

Brevity Has its Benefits

A Word of the Year can be a pin-pointed theme for your year. These attributes are what I look for when I am choosing my Word of the Year.

  • Focused. This word keeps me grounded and centered. Since I have such an ability to stray off topic and chase rabbits down trails, The Word For the Year gives me a central point to return to often.
  • Measurable. I can easily set goals around my word of the year. This allows me to be intentional and look for examples of how I am displaying my commitment in my life.
  • Simple. Since it is only one word, I do not get distracted by complicated plot twists. It is easy for me to remember what I am trying to focus on in that given year.
  • Memorable. While I am not completely losing my mind (some on my staff might disagree with this,) I find that it is easier and more efficient to search my mind for one word I want to remember than for some phrase or quip.
  • Communicable. My word of the year is easy for me to communicate to others. The message is much less likely to get lost in translation if I keep my thoughts to one word.

My Word for 2017

This year the focus of my leadership life is contentment.

What is the first thing that comes to mind when you hear this word? Lazy? Complacent? Comfortable? Peaceful?

For some, this word probably sends shivers up your spine. You may be saying something like, “interesting word for a guy who runs his own business!”

However, when I was researching this word I started with its definition. Contentment is defined as a state of happiness and satisfaction. This does not mean that I stop trying, it does not mean I won't try my very best. In our company, we have adopted a verse from the Bible that says, “Whatever you do, work at it as for the Lord and not for men.” It reminds us that we need to have an attitude that reflects the work we do, which has an element of spirituality to it.

So, in no way does the word contentment mean complacent, or indifferent, or even comfortable!

What it does mean to me is that at the end of the day, when I finish the work I set out to do, or even if I don't get everything done that I hope to….I will be content. When I really want to meet with someone for an hour, but who only has 15 minutes instead, I will be content with the time I get. If I put a bid in on a project I really want to do and I don’t get the work, I will be content.

My real goal here is to put my very best effort in, knowing that I can be happy knowing I did my best. I don’t think contentment excludes self-examining where I could do better, nor does it mean accepting mediocrity. That is not my best. I will NOT be content if I do something without giving it my all.

The reason I chose contentment as my word of the year is to remind me that if I have done a good job, finished the race, and done the best I could with the talent and effort I have, then I should be content.

Homework:

What is your word of the year? Have you ever thought through something like this? What kind of focus would this bring to your leadership life if you committed yourself to defining your year by one thing? Comment with your word and definition below so that we can connect throughout the year about how our words of the year are shaping us in 2017!