vocation

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.

iStock-518589470.jpg

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.

Leader: Spend Time Here as You Grow

"Who are you really, wanderer?” - William Stafford Reading more poetry lately has taught me that poets, gifted with this unique communication style, ask really penetrating questions. Stafford, an Oregon Poet Laureate, sends a penetrating question to us all in this quote: Wanderer, who are you? Really, who are you? This question begs a leader to self-examine, which is work that so many leaders just don’t want to spend the time to do.

Outer Life

So much of leadership development work is focused on the outer life these days, including things like goals to accomplish, skills to develop, or problems to be solved. The objective of this kind of work often seems to be gaining credibility and marketability.

We try to define who we are by what we do.

This includes the goals we have set, the objective measures we strive to meet, the problems we are able to solve. What item do I need to check off my list to give me that feeling of accomplishment and show others what I have done? How can I continue to justify my existence and the work I've been doing?

Now, those of you who read this column on any regular basis know that I am not opposed to outer work: development of skills and talents, the 'doing' part of who we are, the observable economy of leadership, the accomplishment of tasks, the progression of the agenda.

All of this kind of work is very important. I don’t want to minimize that.

I do not argue against improving on one's outer life, but want to point out that to focus only on this part of development is shallow and does not engage the entire person. My point is to challenge the leader to become more intentional about developing their inner life.

My motivation for this post comes from my own research on the subject of wisdom that I did a few years ago. I surveyed 185 executive coaches and asked them to validate 10 different parts of a wisdom model. They were to think about their work as an executive coach and were then asked if they thought the development of things like knowledge, experience, community, and courage were areas they would work to develop wisdom in organizational leaders. For most of the 10 aspects of wisdom we tested, roughly 70% of those surveyed said they did work to develop that attribute...except one.

Spirituality.

Of the executive coaches I surveyed, 70% said that if the situation presented itself, they WOULD NOT work with a leader to develop this component of wisdom.

Stop and think about that for a moment: executive coaches who get paid to develop leaders said that if some topic of spirituality presented itself, they would turn themselves away from helping develop the leader in that area.

Spiritual inner work is so needed by leaders at all levels in organizations.

Why is Wisdom Spiritual?

When our 3 kids were in grade school, every morning as they were going out the door my wife would say to them, "remember who you belong to!"

On the surface, this quote could have many meanings. But for those of you who actually know my wife and have spent any time with her, those words could only have one meaning: "Hey, kids! Do not forget you are children of the King."

And those of you who know my wife also know she was not referencing me in her royal reminder to the kids of their position in life. She was telling the kids as they went out into the world that they are children of God.

In Stafford's poem he writes:

"Who are you really, wanderer?" and the answer you have to give no matter how dark and cold the world around you is: "Maybe I'm a king."

While to my knowledge my wife never met William Stafford, they are in some ways united souls declaring that each of us is indeed royal. We are all kings and queens.

So, wanderer, if you are a king, then you have the inner work of wisdom to do.

Inner Work of Wisdom: Developing the Spirituality of the Leader

I spent about an hour researching what workplace spirituality even means. Turns out there is a quite immense body of literature on the subject.

Generally, spirituality is seen as being comprised of two components. The first is a search for a connection with some transcendent force in the universe, and often that there is a being or force that most religious dogmas call God who calls the human soul back to himself after the death of the physical body.

The second is that humans have a spirit. This spirit of man is involved in finding meaning and purpose in life. This means that as human beings, one of the royal quests we are on is to grow into our full potential.

Considering these very broad thoughts, we then turn to the question of how to develop the spirituality of a leader. Are there important components to spirituality that affect us as leaders? If so, then we need to work on our spiritual inner life to be more effective and authentic at this thing we call leadership. Here are four items I pulled from the literature that may resonate with you on your inner life and spirituality:

Worldview

This constructs a leader's thoughts and feelings. It is what the leader believes in regards to the most important things in life. Worldview recognizes that our speech is one thing, but our actions may be something entirely different, and often more important. For example, a devout Christian may talk about love on a Sunday morning but then act like the devil the other 6 days in the week. This will cause outside observers like Gandhi to make claims like, “I like their Christ, but not their Christian.”

For leaders, a worldview is more than just thoughts or a collection of ideas. A worldview is encapsulated in the vision set forth by the leader, one that has been simmering for years of learning and experience. This vision is not based on the scientific method or model, instead, the worldview of the leader answers questions about spirituality, the world, life paradox’s, human nature, social relationships, relationship to self. It is the very essence and core of who the leader is, and ultimately it is what the leader is constantly trying to reconcile actions with. For most it is so subtle we don’t even recognize it is there, but it is consciously calling our actions to align with it.

Leader-Follower Relationship

While humans live in social communities of about 150 individuals, we have deep and abiding relationships with very few members of our tribe. Doctors Steve Stein and Howard Book, in their book EQ Edge, define interpersonal relationships as those that are mutually satisfying for both parties. If a relationship is going to meet the needs of both individuals, a connection must be established beyond the physical realm. It is easy to recognize that when we connect with the closest relationships in our community there is, what is often described as, a spiritual connection. We have a deeper, almost transcendent connection with some close friends that includes a level of understanding between both parties that we can form with no other creatures on this earth.

Community

Dr. Vern Ludden, in his groundbreaking research on wisdom in organizational leadership, claims that most religions and cultures recognize that wisdom is not developed individually, but in community with others. Dr. Mathew Lieberman, in his book Social, gives physiologic support for the importance of community by comparing the size of the human's brain to the size of other animals' brains. Most animals on earth have a brain just large enough to support the body it is confined with. Not so with humans; they have a brain 10 times larger than needed. Current thought is that this extra capacity, found primarily in the neocortex, is for humans to manage the complexity of the diverse relationships that exist in the communities we are a part of.

Acknowledging Imperfection

Some call this humanity. Who among us doesn’t realize that we all make mistakes? And yet who among us gives that benefit of the doubt to others? I, for one, am quick to want others to say "Don't worry, no one is perfect," when I do wrong, but you best hope you are not the person who cuts me off in traffic or tries to get into the 10-items-or-less checkout line with an extra jar of peanut butter. The spirituality of the leader needs to move beyond humanity and into exploring humility. As a leader, do you actually have the ability to humble yourself? Can you raise the status of others highly enough that they can be seen instead of you? What does it take for you to admit that you might be leading your team in the wrong direction? How easy is it for you to ask and listen instead of command and control?

Homework: Do any of the four elements above strike a nerve with you? Which one would you say you need to spend time reflecting on to grow your own leadership ability?