While there are examples of many famous people from Kentucky, recently I had the opportunity to read about a Kentuckian, who, while not documented in traditional history books, lived a life of tremendous impact. That impact was rooted in courage. And, much like the figures of history, he lived an authentic life that revealed that courage. This KHSAA article celebrates high school and college basketball coach Guy Strong’s life and accomplishments. Former athletes reflect on how he shaped their lives. But what most stood out to me is best expressed in this quote: “I never burned bridges. I’ve never been anywhere I couldn’t go back to…And I always worked like I had my resignation in my back pocket.” From my perspective and experience, that reveals a tremendous sense of self, true courage and an authentic life.
Courage and Authenticity
I wonder how much courage and authenticity the rest of us consistently demonstrate? Let’s reflect on the last sentence of the quote: “…I always worked like I had my resignation in my back pocket.” I can admit that I have not always done that. Have you? And, what does that really mean?
Those who know Guy and his exploits will tell you he is a gentleman. He is kind and genuine, yet equally tough, direct and determined, which made him a great coach and developer of people. It occurs to me that we can all strive to achieve balance. We can be direct and speak our minds as if we have a resignation in our back pocket, but do so in a way that preserves and values relationships and reveals a sincere desire to make people or situations better.
When I reflect on missed opportunities to live like Guy, it is usually in the context of my relationship with to those above me in an organization. When we think about the imbalance of power between leader and direct report, I bet that many, if not all of us, can recall times when wish we had said or done something differently. And, let’s not assume these have to be major ethical issues, but could often entail responding and sharing our feelings about a situation, rather than just keeping them inside.
How can we be the person who speaks up? From my viewpoint there are two roles, and each has a responsibility.
The Leader’s Responsibility
The first element that must exist for people to be willing to share is an environment of trust and openness. Given the imbalance of power noted before, there is a natural tendency for most of us not to speak up or share what we may be truly feeling. So, as leaders, we must simply ask for thoughts and feelings on topics. We must do our best to leave no stone unturned.
Having worked in large corporations, I’ve experienced an unfortunate cultural reality that tends to dampen–or outright crush–openness and authenticity. My experience taught me that I was to show up “polished and buttoned up.” I got the sense that sharing feelings was viewed as a weakness. Feelings often have no place in the larger corporations–in spite of HR’s various and valiant attempts at being cultural champions. The same is often true in small companies, especially those where the leadership views people as simply part of the system of production.
Demonstrating empathy, asking about feelings and sharing how we “feel” about a situation is not a weakness. As leaders, if we state our perspective in the context of both thoughts and feelings, by “going first,” we set a tone that reveals our authenticity and invites others to do the same.
The Direct Report’s Responsibility
Whether the leader creates the environment or not, there are times when we need to share and press an issue with our leaders. In the famous words of Bob Dylan, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody…”. That means that on any given day we are the followers in situations, and if we are in true service to that leader and to the relationship, the authenticity of that relationship will often depend on our willingness to be honest and open with our thoughts and feelings. If you feel you cannot be, then you may want to evaluate if it’s worth staying in that situation. Mr. Strong’s commitment to approaching his relationships with his superiors as if he had his resignation letter in his back pocket is a courageous sense of self-worth. The opportunity to demonstrate your sense self-worth, may often exist in those moments where you take the risk of sharing your feelings about a situation.
In my experience, sharing feelings can be a powerful approach that helps avoid the potential for confrontation. Conversely, when we feel something inside and react openly in disagreement, this often elicits an equal and opposing reaction from others. The context requires the practice of emotional intelligence. According to the MHS EQi model one of the roots of emotional intelligence is self-awareness. Inside self-awareness lies self-regard, which they define as “respecting oneself; confidence.” While there are many components to developing and practicing emotional intelligence, there is a reason that this is the first concept that the MHS model puts forth. If any of us lacks the confidence to care for our feelings and then express them appropriately, we may be less effective in our relationships. If we then apply that to “leading up,” it takes courage and confidence to be open. My encouragement for all of us is to evaluate when and where opportunities may present themselves to influence our leaders by sharing our thoughts and feelings.
Gentlemen like Guy Strong can serve as role models for our lives. Though I have never met Mr. Strong personally, I am betting he can relate to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s famous poem, “Lives of great men all remind us, we can make our lives sublime, and departing, leave behind us, footprints on the sands of time.”
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