Do you ever hear an authoritative, inner voice warning you not to do something? Richard Rohr, a well-known expert on men, calls this interior voice our ‘loyal soldier’ whose job is to help us become productive, obedient citizens by reinforcing the rules and obligations we’re taught as kids.
My loyal soldier gave me my identity as a young man, telling me to be strong in the face of adversity and finish my homework before watching Hockey Night in Canada. He assured me of success if I was honest and worked hard. He provoked guilt if I broke the rules. He told me to be strong when my mother died.
But my loyal soldier was bound to fail me later in life. His black and white, blinkered thinking was unable to comprehend the complexities of running a consulting firm during the global financial crisis. With falling sales, outdated products and too many people, I needed new ideas. But my loyal soldier could only chant, ‘Don’t give up. Be strong.’
Instead of leading a transformation, I defended myself from criticism. After two futile years of slog, I was made redundant and the office closed. In the ensuing weeks, something inside me collapsed, like a death. I’d invested everything in that business and was unprepared for failure. With my career gone, so was my identity.
I could not work this out for myself and sought out a mentor to talk it through.
He began with Richard Rohr’s story from post-war Japan, where wise community leaders welcomed home their traumatised soldiers with a special ceremony. The men were thanked for their sacrifice and told fighting was now unnecessary. Each could ‘discharge his loyal soldier’ and become a warrior for peace and reconstruction.
‘Is it time to discharge your loyal soldier?’ he asked. ‘Another “you” is waiting to emerge. Perhaps now the second half of life can begin.’
My heart sank because I knew nothing else. Thus began months of often painful reflection with my mentor. Yet eventually I was able to thank my loyal soldier and ceremonially discharge him. Slowly my drive for career success diminished. I’ve moved to the side-lines and begun journeying alongside other men, some going through similar experiences. I’ve enjoyed basking in their successes.
Do you struggle to let go of fixed ways of thinking and habits that no longer work? Perhaps you too have a loyal soldier who needs to be honoured for his service and then discharged.
 Falling Upward: A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life by Richard Rohr (London: SPCK Publishing, 2012).
How to stop comparing yourself to others and live your own life
CLICK HERE TO WATCH THE VIDEO
Recently I was invited to a twenty-year reunion of former investment banking colleagues in London. I’d been out of that business for two decades. The organiser had been a junior on our team at the time, but his on-line biography revealed a meteoric rise since. My imagination conjured up wealthy over-achievers bragging about their high-flying careers and country houses.
I almost pressed ‘Delete’ but went to discuss it with my mentor.
‘I know I chose a different path,’ I said, ‘but I feel like a failure with these guys.’
‘Who is judging your life?’ he asked.
I felt I was my harshest critic.
‘No, it’s your Panel of Judges,’ he replied. ‘Imagine there’s a group of people in your head assessing you all the time. Every so often they hold up their scores, like judges at a figure-skating competition. Except they're not assessing your skating, They're judging your life.’
This resonated. I’d always striven to put on a good look to others. But who?
Firstly, there was my long-dead father whose approval I still sought. There were also some ludicrously successful men I knew in my twenties, including an aristocrat who became a best-selling author, a top investment banker and a famous journalist.
‘You’ve always tried to impress these people,’ continued my mentor, ‘except you haven’t seen them for thirty years or more. They never think about you.’
This was great mentoring.
I decided to attend the reunion but had a wobble when I compared the hotels where some people stayed to my university dormitory. And I cringed as I compared my dated suit to everyone’s chic casual attire. Yet those doubts evaporated when I was warmly greeted by former colleagues. No one bragged. A number shared about surviving illnesses and tragedy. Some thanked me for having been a compassionate leader. Our former boss acknowledged my contribution. Everyone left feeling good about themselves. For many, those years had been the best of their careers. Walking back to the dorm in the early hours, I felt deeply known and appreciated.
As a mentor, I’ve started talk to others about the Panel of Judges. A very successful friend calls it his Board of Directors.
‘My deceased mother is still the chairperson! There’s also a lady from twenty years ago who told me I was so talented I’d be on the cover of a magazine. Ever since I’ve worried about living up to that!’
Then he added something we could all learn from: ‘Maybe I can let them go.’
As a young man Russell’s mentors were his cool cousins and flat-mates. Really, they were just clueless ‘Lost Boys’ like him.
Later he realised there were heroes, good role models and mentors out there who’d help him, “…become the person I want to be in spite of the inner and outer obstacles I face.”
Russell’s recent book is a love letter to them all, full of hilarious stories of self-induced catastrophe as he blunders through life.
He acknowledges he’s still a work in progress, trying to stay open to learn and change.
It wasn’t until Russell was a celebrity drug addict that he sought out his first mentor, a recovered addict called Chip, who oozed credibility simply by practising what he preached. Russell was encouraged to talk about feelings he’d been keeping inside like fear, anger and vulnerability. Instead of judgement and solutions, Chip shared his own personal stories and experience with humour and compassion.
You may think you have nothing in common with Russell, but let’s face it, we all have our addictions: work, screens, sport, food, fitness, sex, gambling, games, alcohol, cigs, pot, porn. And all of us have important things we need to talk about but aren’t.
This positive experience left Russell open for others to speak into his life.
For example, after yet another failed relationship, his acupuncturist asked, “What does it mean then, all this meditation, this programme, this faith in God, if as soon as there is a problem in your life you turn to sex?”
The next mentor was Jimmy, a spiritual man who avoided giving easy answers and was able to be both detached and compassionate at the same time.
He recommended another mentor called Bruce to help Russell understand the source of unhelpful repeating patterns dogging his life.
Then a silent martial arts instructor helped Russell accept the humiliation of losing.
Later a counsellor called Manya guided him and his new wife through the first difficult years of marriage.
Russell eventually became a mentor to others, his desire to give back greater than fear of his own imperfections. He’s learned to put those to one side and be the man these guys need him to be.
The book’s honesty, affection and humour won me over. Ultimately, it’s a powerful call to action.
I learned two things:
We can all help men who are suffering. All it takes is courage and asking five simple questions.
Click here to watch the video.
Many men don’t know how to respond when a friend, colleague or even a family member is going through a hard time.
Some recent examples:
These examples reveal a massive disconnect in our society. Suffering men want someone to talk to about:
But other men are not making themselves available to listen. I’ve asked many guys to tell me what’s in the way:
‘I don’t have the time for a long conversation, so I avoid it.’
‘I have no idea what to say.’
‘He should talk to his wife.’
‘I don’t want to disturb him or make him unhappy.’
‘I’m not very good around people crying.’
‘What if he loses it? I wouldn’t know what to do.’
All this is said with a good measure of guilt and resignation. The result is untold numbers of men suffer in silence.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Dr David Servan-Schreiber, a world-renowned psychiatrist specialising in anxiety and depression, writes in his book Healing Without Freud or Prozac, ‘Because relationships have the power to regulate our emotional brains, this translates directly into protection from anxiety and depression – in fact into well-being.’
I recently saw this with my own eyes.
A man with a serious illness recently admitted he’d never spoken with anyone about his concerns for the future. Yet after twenty minutes of dialogue with another man in our mentor group, he was almost smiling with relief, having simply worked a few things out inside a safe ‘listening’ space.
Almost anyone can learn how to be listen in these situations. It only requires courage and some skills.
Dr Servan-Schreiber describes an excellent fifteen-minute process originally designed for time pressed GPs trying to help people experiencing tragedy, depression or anxiety. Any man could use this tool to engage with a friend or colleague.
The process is to BATHE the other man’s heart. If that sounds a bit too touchy-feely don’t worry. It only requires listening and asking questions (although you are allowed to hug him if you want):
B is for BACKGROUND – To connect with a man you need to find out what’s causing him to suffer. Ask, ‘What happened?’ Listen for at least two minutes without any interruption.
A is for AFFECT – Men often stuff down what they’re feeling and need an opening to connect with their emotions. It might seem stilted but ask, ‘How does that make you feel?’.
T is for TROUBLE – It might seem counter-intuitive, risky or even cruel, but the best way to help the other guy avoid drowning in emotion is to ask, ‘What troubles you the most right now?’ or 'What's the most important thing in all you've said?' It helps him find the core issue, which often is not obvious.
H is for HANDLING – Once the man has identified the most important thing you can encourage him to think about solutions by asking, ‘And what would help you handle this now?’ This questions implies he has everything he needs to resolve the situation. You need to trust he can do it.
E is for EMPATHY– Men feel alone when they suffer. They’ll know you care if you empathise by nodding a lot, holding his gaze and saying, ‘That must be hard for you.’ Or ‘I felt sad as you told me your story.’ Or ‘I’m sorry this happened to you.’
In summary, by simply following this process in the recommended order you as a mentor enable another man to take ownership of his situation and come up with practical strategies to make things even just a little bit better.
Of course, you don’t need to squeeze this conversation into fifteen minutes. Take an hour if you can. And then see him a number of times in ensuing months.
According to Dr Servan-Schreiber a listener demonstrating care and empathy is good for him too, creating feelings of connection and confidence.
Please let me know how you go if you try this process. Click here for the contact form.
Click here for more resources on mentoring.
"We evolved to need and depend on each other. It’s part of our biology."
It was 5:35 am, pitch dark, 6 degrees and cloudless. The road was very wet. Still eight guys were waiting to start the Thursday bike ride.
The whole way we were sprayed by vehicles beside us and the bikes in front. Soaked, dirty and cold we pulled in 45 kms later at our favourite café, ready for a coffee and pastry.
In the middle of the usual post ride banter, someone asked, “What time is the funeral?”
I asked, “Whose funeral?” and was told of the tragedy fallen on a cyclist from another group: his son had recently taken his own life.
“That young guy ticked all the boxes,” someone said. “An ‘A’ student at uni, a beautiful girlfriend and a large social circle. He suffered from anxiety but was under the care of good professionals… Not good enough I guess.”
I was devastated. He was the fourth young man connected to my immediate circle of friends who’d died by his own hand in the past six months.
Apparently eight hundred people attended his funeral. He was truly loved and is truly missed.
By chance, later in the day I listened to an interview with Hugh Mackay, Australia’s most eminent social researcher, talking about the ‘epidemic of anxiety and mental illness in the Western world.’ He says the evidence is overwhelming humans are hard wired to live in community. We evolved to need and depend on each other. It’s part of our biology.
“We only find ourselves in the faces of others,” says Hugh.
Yet these days we don’t live that way, led to believe ideal humans are strong and independent.
The result is a fragmenting society: more marital breakups, one parent families, people living alone, shift work, FIFO work, job changes and house moves. Many of us don’t know our neighbours so don’t rely on or trust them. Our faith in institutions and leaders has diminished. On-line ‘communities’ are a pale imitation of coffee with a real person. We retreat into ever disintegrating nuclear families, or on our own, doing life independently.
How are young men affected? Many don’t experience family or community behind them simply because those people are often not there.
‘Does anyone believe in me?’ they wonder. ‘Does anyone, other than my mum, really care?’
I went through this experience in my late twenties. It makes you anxious and stressed. Your body pumps too much adrenaline and cortisol. You get exhausted and don’t think straight. You have lots of friends but don’t talk to anyone for fear of looking weak (and you know they don’t know anything anyway). You party to dull the anxiety. You react impulsively to events and make poor decisions. You care little about other people.
What is the solution? Hugh Mackay says we must learn compassion, real compassion, which involves reaching out to people and making a sustained effort to know them.
This is so important for young men!
They need interaction with a man who has come alongside in support. Someone with the skills and courage to engage with difficult topics like: ‘Who am I?’ and ‘Why am I here?’.
I am calling for all mature men to reach out to a young man in your life and offer what you have: a willingness to believe in him, an ability to listen and ask questions, and your years of experience.
Many of us will find this uncomfortable because we don’t think of ourselves as ‘mentors’. It’s too formal a word, perhaps. Or we’re afraid of being rejected or not knowing what to do or say.
But all this can be overcome. Look at the resources on Men’s Business for guidance. Join a mentor community.
The prize is raising up a magnificent generation of men who will help rebuild our social fabric.
Hugh Mackay – Australia Re-Imagined, Podcast: http://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/bigideas/reimagining-australia/10003652
Hugh Mackay – Australia Re-Imagined, Book: https://www.booktopia.com.au/australia-reimagined-hugh-mackay/prod9781743534823.html
Recently I had a coffee with a young friend who runs a not-for-profit organisation.
Normally he is one of the most positive people I know, which is why I so enjoy being with him. He makes me laugh. I’m inspired by his commitment to reconcile communities which historically have not understood each other. And he makes me wish I’d focused more as a young man on making a difference instead of money.
But that day my friend was really down. One of his organisation’s most important funders had just communicated they would not be renewing their grant. The implications were serious going forward regarding staffing and programmes.
He took full responsibility for what happened, which is a powerful thing to do when things don’t go to plan.
But then he started blaming himself for everything that had gone wrong. He felt he should have seen this problem coming. I really felt for the guy.
It was very familiar to me. I’m hard on myself when I’ve done something wrong. I default into ‘shoulda, woulda, coulda’ mode, incessantly mulling over things I believe in retrospect I should have / could have / would have done differently to prevent the disaster from happening. I play every possible alternative scenario through my head as if I could have known the outcome in advance and changed it.
Our culture seems to require a ritual self-flagellation when one has done something wrong. People want to see remorse, a necessary performance of penance displaying how really, truly sorry you are.
You then declare, ‘This will never happen again’ and hope someone believes you.
After you’ve spent enough time in the dog house, you sense the gods and those you’ve upset are finally appeased. You can then move on.
I’ve raked myself over the coals this way many times. It’s always sincere. But is it really being responsible? And does it lead to useful change? No!
The problem with ‘what’s wrong’ thinking is staying stuck there. It’s past based and mostly about protecting my ego. Feeling guilty and stupid does not encourage reflection, learning and adaptation.
Carl Jung, the great psychoanalyst, realised both the ubiquity and damage caused by self-condemnation among modern humans. Once one discovers the worst enemy is oneself, what then? Unless one believes God forgives, or can forgive oneself, “…we…condemn and rage against ourselves. We hide it from the world and refuse to admit ever having met this least among the lowly in ourselves.”
But if one truly wants to be responsible, learn and improve, what else can one do?
A few years ago, one of my best clients announced he was not going ahead with a multi-million-dollar consulting engagement. I’d been counting on it and was shocked. How could I have got it so wrong?
Everyone was upset with me – my boss, my colleagues and my client. I was flogging myself hard, wishing the earth would swallow me up.
Then a wise friend made a mind-altering suggestion.
“Why don’t you stop making yourself wrong?” he asked. “It’s not leading you anywhere productive.”
“I have to take responsibility,” I replied defiantly, wedded to the binary thinking of right / wrong, blame and shame. “The buck stops with me.”
“If you really want to be responsible,” he sniffed. “Ask yourself, ‘what’s missing?’”
It took a while but eventually the power of the question seeped into my brain. ‘What’s missing?’ gave me space to stop and inquire. There was no blame in the question, just curiosity.
Very quickly I realised I’d been trying to do too much on my own. I wasn’t using the expertise of smart people in the firm. Serving clients really suffered.
This simple insight helped me tremendously. I handed some responsibilities over to others and collaborated more with our experts. I prepared well for client meetings and workshops, which reduced my stress and made them happy. It was a virtuous circle.
When I recently told my young friend this insight over coffee he could see ‘what’s wrong?’ led only to self-condemnation. He was actually not to blame for anything. There was no way of foreseeing the funder’s negative decision. All that mattered now was an effective response.
What was missing was to keep sharing the vision with as many people as possible. He still had money in the bank and many leads to follow up. His burden lifted a little.
As mentors we can lift the curse of self-condemnation and help people think creatively. The technique is very simple. If someone is blaming themselves for a mistake, make the distinction between ‘something is wrong (with me)’ to ‘something is missing’. Share from your own experience of blaming yourself. Ask them how each statement makes them feel. For most it is a huge revelation. You’ll see them lighten up and gladly let go of making themselves wrong.
By asking ‘what is missing?’, you will encourage them to reflect without blame, shame or guilt, work out how to clean up the mess, and determine appropriate actions to move things forward.
Have a look at the website http://www.mensbusiness.net for more resources on being a better mentor.
I recently went away for a weekend together with twenty guys. There was no booze, drugs, porn, hookers, gambling, betting, fine dining, big games to watch, films or entertainment of any kind. The phone reception was terrible. We slept in bunks and had to listen to each other snore.
All we did was hang around the campfire, talk and listen. But it was a profound experience. In the words of my friend Malcolm:
What made it so great for me were the stories. One guy told us how he survived eleven years in a refugee camp. Another man shared his sorrow watching his parents get old. Another told us he'd stayed too long in the wrong job, wasting years at something he didn’t enjoy. Others shared how they felt about long term unemployment, debilitating illness, bereavement, depression, divorce, boredom and bullying at work. It was real and authentic, with nothing held back.
We grappled with the concerns men ponder privately but rarely ever vocalise, like:
• ‘Why do I feel disappointed with life?’
• ‘What is the dark side I am trying to hide from others?’
• ‘Where have I become divided against myself?’
As the poet Rainer Maria Rilke said, finding answers was not the point of the weekend,
The stories were generous and vulnerable. They became an anchor, assuring us we weren’t not crazy. They provided a bridge to hope, wherever that is and whenever (if ever) we get there.
One would think a group of men from the same community would slide easily into these conversations, but we didn’t. Some of us have known each other for over a decade but not exchanged more than ten words. A nodding acquaintance over coffee or a bike ride is an insufficient basis for men to feel comfortable opening up.
Silence helped dispel the initial awkwardness: on arrival after dusk, we were asked to walk without speaking for half an hour along a starlit road, wondering why we’d come. But on our return to camp you couldn’t shut us up.
We discovered how much we need friends. Real friends who will listen without interruption as we reveal our fears, pain, hopes and dreams. And without judgement as we admit to immaturity, selfishness, cruelty or thoughtlessness. And who’ll be generous and vulnerable enough to share their own stories.
We realised how we all find it difficult to maintain meaningful male friendships. You can be surrounded by wife, kids, colleagues and neighbours and still be lonely.
As journalist Billy Baker reports, when life revolves around work, getting to and from work, daddy time, chores and ferrying the kids around the easiest thing to drop is male friendship.
Dr Roger Patulny of the University of Wollongong says,
It’s made more difficult because our entire society is trending towards greater isolation:
• Fly-in Fly-Out rotations are hard on those who work away from home up to six weeks at a time, often eleven to twelve hours per day, seven days a week. The unspoken rule on site is to keep your problems to yourself. People don’t see their families or friends for weeks on end, and have no involvement in the local community.
• Workplaces where everyone wears a white collar aren't much Better. It can be hard to have meaningful friendships at work.
• A quarter of households now are people living on their own, up from eight percent in the 1950s.
• Then there’s isolation of working from home, shift work and all the time we spend in front of screens.
Loneliness can have serious health consequences, on a par with smoking and obesity for older men.
What do we do about it?
• Admit it to yourself when you are lonely
The problem when you are lonely is you don’t know it because you’re not talking to anyone. You just feel like crap, your confidence is low and the last thing you’re going to do is reach out.
• Remind yourself it won’t last forever
Male loneliness for most of us occurs at specific times of life caused by specific things. Retirement, divorce, illness and redundancy are incredibly isolating. Try and identify what’s happened in life to push you into a shell.
• Tell another guy you’re lonely and ask him out for a coffee or a beer.
If he gets all weird and embarrassed on you he’s the wrong person. Give the poor guy a break and ask someone else.
• Try to learn something from the experience
These times of loneliness and isolation can always teach us something. Where are you suffering in life? What do you need to change? What do you need to stop or start doing?
There are no easy answers but understanding yourself is a good start. We’re going to be putting some useful Learning Tools on our Resources page very soon to help men find out how to help themselves through loneliness.
If you want to find out more about our men’s activities or learn how to host a men’s weekend, please get in touch
When we first met more than fifteen years ago, my friend Pierre was enjoying life at the top of one of Europe’s largest law firms. For years, he’d been the global managing partner. His clients included important families and some of the world’s largest multinationals.
He then moved to London to take over the firm’s booming mergers and acquisitions practice. Pierre and his wife lived in a gracious apartment beside Royal Albert Hall with views over Hyde Park, enjoying all London had to offer. In his profession, it could not get any better.
But in 2005 the dream came to an end. Pierre was asked to move back to the Netherlands.
This was definitely not part of the plan. He and his wife loved cosmopolitan London, and had been planning eventually to retire to the US to be near their three children.
From a career point of view, he’d reached a dead end. Pierre was being pushed aside to make way for younger blood.
He agreed to return home and face the supposedly inevitable decline of a senior lawyer thought to be past his prime. To his credit, he was ‘committed to not being grumpy’ and decided to go out on a high note.
At the time, I was supporting Pierre as his coach. I thought the best way for him to prepare for an uncertain future was to get clear about his strengths. Neither of us realised how much this would change the direction of his career.
“Before I left London,” he said at the time. “We worked quite a bit on my strengths. Just doing the questionnaire was fun in itself*. It laid them out for me on paper. That was important. Then I was able to see I could live from my strengths. I didn’t do anything differently. But I was more comfortable doing the things I had to do, in my own way.
“For example, I used to be very transactional, totally focused on getting the job done. When I learned have all these strengths in relationship building, I began to put more attention on my co-workers. Not surprisingly when I became more relational I got so much more done! I started conversations. I became a better lawyer.
“In particular, I saw an opportunity to get closer to younger lawyers. I always knew I had a talent for mentoring people. It came naturally but only when I identified it as a strength did I begin to use it. Being more conscious of what I’m good at allowed me to be that way more consciously.
“It was important to concentrate on these strengths at that point in my career. I ’institutionalised’ them in myself.”
When I caught up with Pierre again, almost ten years later, he recalled the importance of this transition period.
“Looking back, I can honestly say I returned to the Netherlands wholeheartedly,” he said. “I began coaching younger professionals. I became the father of my juniors. The firm did not recognise the value of what I was doing initially but I did it anyway. The young people started challenging me too. I grew a lot in the process.
“Over time people recognised this was valuable. We developed a proper, firm wide, mentoring programme. Now there are around two hundred young lawyers taking part. Each one has a senior person looking after them. It is institutionalised.”
I was really proud of Pierre. Without any initial support, he’d created a wonderful legacy for future young lawyers coming through the system.
Instead of fading away as expected, he is now working out of the firm’s New York office. He and wife are delighted to be nearer their children. He told me about the results of his support for young people at work.
“It’s the first time any of them have seen their strengths laid out in a systematic way. They are amazed. It’s wonderful because it’s not about anyone’s weaknesses, only encouragement.
“I believe this generation, the Millennials, don’t want it to be all about business. They need more attention, someone to talk to. I used to get it from my partner in the car on our way to a meeting but now it must be systematic.
“Many need encouragement to go for a partner position, or be directed away if that’s not right for them. I’m able to be sincere with them in a way I never could before because we’re talking about an individual’s strengths.
“To be honest many of the young men don’t know who they are. They think everything must be perfect because this is the law! They can become very insincere as a result, pretending everything is fine. In reality they are all worried.
“Unfortunately, there aren’t enough female partners for the young women to look up to. But that gives them a lot of focus. The young women lawyers feel a sense of responsibility to be role models for those who come after.
“Recently I experienced one of my most satisfying moments at a dinner. An associate came up to me and said, ‘You always took the time to speak to your children when they called you. I will remember that when I have a family.’
“Identifying my values and being challenged on them was also important. The values were not new, but by framing them and putting them on the wall, my values became my constitution. Being a good lawyer I comply with them. In the dead of the night I could look at them and think, ‘Wow they’re not bad.’ My wife thinks they reflect who I am.
“I am now focused more than ever on living my strengths. This can be done in an arrogant way, but I just keep saying to myself that’s how I want to work.”
*Gallups Strengths Access
Disclaimer: I receive no payment from Gallup for recommending their strengths inventory. I just think it’s so good everyone would benefit!
My friend Joe is different from your typical mining executive. Like his colleagues, he is dedicated to keeping the plant working 24/7. But Joe is equally curious about the inner workings of human beings, starting with himself.
“A few years ago I went on a personal development journey to get a deeper understanding of who I am and what makes me tick. I wanted to be a more authentic ‘me’ unbridled by either real or perceived organisational or social barriers. I was fortunate to have a coach*, who as a first step encouraged me to get a better understanding of my strengths**.
“There are thirty-four strengths in total. We are all unique so for each person some are more dominant than others.
“This way of thinking is very different to the typical organisational approach which is largely to ignore strengths and focus almost entirely on weaknesses.
“I was sceptical when I first saw my print out. I read the descriptions of some of my top strengths and thought, ‘That isn’t me.’ For example, number two on my list is ‘Includer’, described as someone who spontaneously notices people’s good qualities, is accepting and inclusive of others and helps them fit in.
“I needed to validate them. I asked myself, ‘Are they true?’ and ‘Do they resonate?’
“I notice people’s good qualities some of the time, but definitely not all the time! So does that make me an Includer, or not?’
“Then my coach suggested I think about them as talents, which require a regular and constant investment of time, skill and knowledge from me to develop into strengths where my performance is consistent at a high level.”
What Joe was saying resonated for me. I am very good at thinking strategically and learning new things, and possess a strong drive to achieve results. But I don’t operate in these modes 100 per cent of the time. Hence, I find it helpful to think of strategy, achieving and learning as talents worth developing into strengths. I’m sure it will be a life-long project!
I then asked Joe which talents or strengths were top of his list.
“The surprise was four of my top six all have to do with relating to people. It took me a while to accept I have this softer side but gradually I realised it’s true.”
Joe’s relationship building talents draw him to work with others to achieve a common goal, talk to people about their hopes and dreams, share what he knows with others and exchange ideas. He enjoys having deep, speculative conversations with interesting people and developing others, helping them figure out what they need to progress. He is a curious person, fascinated by the mysteries of life. He believes in the fundamental connectedness of the world.
“I also realised the way I get things done is primarily through solving problems. This means I seek to understand the facts to figure out what’s wrong in a situation and then work with others to resolve it. I appreciate the rewards of successfully resolving difficult issues together.
“I always think about the future. I need to be inspired about what is coming or life feels dead. I can go through hard times now if I’m looking forward to better times ahead.
“Lastly, everything I do must be consistent with my core beliefs. Unless I stay true to my purpose in life and my values I lose direction.
“That had me explore the question: what is my purpose in life? I realised I am here to make a positive and lasting contribution to the people and the environments around me. I am willing to go to great lengths to improve people’s lives, helping them resolve problems affecting their quality of life.
“In terms of values, what is important to me is being the kind of person who respects others and does what he says. My priorities are family, community, environment and well-being.”
Joe sent me a four-page document bringing together his purpose (why he is here), values (what is important and how he makes decisions) and his talents and strengths (how he is going to get there).
“I’m really glad I did this work. I’m moving on from my job soon so it’s important to go after opportunities that play to what I’m good at.”
Joe has worked for big corporations most of his career earning a predictable salary with good benefits. But he is not worried about the uncertain future.
“Being futuristic has me be interested in what might lie ahead. I enjoy thinking about it and how to get there.”
He is not too concerned with who is next employer is going to be or how much he is going to get paid. Instead he is focusing on the big picture given by his talents, strengths, purpose and values.
“I’m really not sure what the specifics are. I want to work where friendships and team work are encouraged. I want to be around people interested in developing themselves and the organisation is interested in its people.
“I’ll seek roles that fit my values and organisations defining their purpose by their contribution to society. I need to work for a vision I can believe in.”
* Deborah Protter of The Values Partnership
** The best strengths inventory I know of is the Gallup Strengths tool. Millions of people have used it:
Disclaimer: I receive no payments or benefits of any kind from Gallup for recommending their products. I just want everyone to discover their strengths!
I asked Greg, a good friend who has built up a thriving business, is a wonderful dad and husband and a contributor to his community, to tell me the story how he got to where he is today.
“It certainly wasn’t school,” he said. “I was one of those dumb kids. The teachers told me so. And my class mates. Everyone.
“The truth was I had no academic ability,” he continued matter-of-factly. “I’d read something but try as I might I couldn’t get it. I never had the answer. They kept telling me I was dumb and I believed them.”
My heart sank at the thought of it.
“I was also small, weak and totally un-sporty,” he said. “My ego was broken.
“I cared what people thought of me and wanted to compensate for my failures. Fortunately, I was good at communicating and made friends easily. I deliberately set out to get in with the smart, sporty, popular people. Especially the big, cool guys. They protected me.”
“How did you become the person you are today?” I asked again.
“It’s only the past ten years I’ve thought about that. How did I become me? I didn’t used to think I was unique or special. Everyone seemed the same.
“Now at fifty I’m discovering all about myself. Strengths Access* put it in a box for me and wrapped it up.
“It’s helped me identify the combination of strengths and talents unique to me. For example, I already knew I am good at relating to others but now I realise I have this ability to understand someone’s thought process. They feel comfortable with me because I get inside them. It is a gift few people have.
“I’m also good at motivating people, building relationships and aligning teams. Only a small percentage of the population can do what I do. Now I know I am special. I feel more whole as a person.
“It’s also allowed me to accept my weaknesses. I’m now ok with my academic history. Being ‘dumb’ doesn’t matter anymore.”
I leaned back in wonder. Here is an accomplished man who for most of his life thought he was rubbish. But that was just a story, fabricated more than forty years ago by people in authority telling him a lot of crap about himself. Unfortunately, he believed it.
I think many of us, including me, have had similar experiences.
This story helped Greg survive in some ways but soon became limiting. Anything positive he did, like creating friendships, he dismissed as a mere tactic to escape the burden of being ‘dumb’.
By discovering his natural strengths and talents, however, he has been given an entirely new story about himself. He realises he is an effective communicator. He has the gift of winning others over. He can lead teams of people. Ultimately Greg knows who he is and what gives him joy in life. He is at peace about the past and can now concentrate on making his unique contribution to the world.
“I’m very clear what I will and will not do. It’s a small thing but I used to write job descriptions for people we wanted to hire. I thought that was what the boss supposed to do. I am the one paying the money so I should be clear who I want to hire, right? But I’m no good at that sort of thing. It’s bad for me, bad for the business and bad for the people we’re interviewing. It wastes so much of my time doing something I’m no good at. I’ve given someone else the job.
“I also hate cold calling. I found a great guy in the Philippines who sounds completely American. He is bright as anything. He makes initial contact with potential clients, finds out if there is any interest and if so, I’m handed a warm lead! I end up closing a lot more business than before.
“Now I’m spending most of my time with clients. They’re the ones paying the big money for our people. I need to understand what their needs are and get my organisation to deliver. Everyone wins.”
Watch for more articles about people developing their strengths. Please get in touch to talk about strengths based mentoring.
*The best strengths inventory I know of is the Gallup Strengths Access. Millions of people have used it: https://www.gallupstrengthscenter.com/Purchase/en-US/Index
Disclaimer: I receive no payments or benefits of any kind from Gallup for recommending their products. I want everyone to discover their strengths!