Working On Yourself - Pleasant In Its Unpleasantness?

16 Apr 2015. Robert E. Kaplan

Offered the opportunity to work on himself, his first brush with intensive leadership development, Larry Wheeler* told his wife, “I need this like a hole in the head.”

In our first meeting, he recounted a job move that sent him into a tailspin. He had expected a promotion. Instead his boss, who generally looked after him, put him in a lateral role, meant to be developmental, that didn’t play to Larry’s strengths. “Here I was thinking I was going to expand my control and influence, and now this,” he told me.  “I went into a funk,” he confessed, so much so that he kept his struggle from his wife, his confidant otherwise. Taking an interest, I asked clarifying questions. He was revolted. “I don't like the questions you’re asking. It’s like pulling a scab off a wound.”

Our second meeting also left a bad taste in his mouth. Recalling it a year later, he said: “I remember the very first meeting you and I had—I told you things off the cuff and then by the time of our next meeting I sort of forgot what I told you and you brought up those things again. That was a wake-up call. I said to myself, ‘He’s not going away, we're going to dig back into it.’”

Fast forward to our final meeting a year later. Preparing to say good-bye, Larry had this to say about working on himself with me: “Thanks, Bob—it’s been pleasant in its unpleasantness.”

Pleasant in its unpleasantness—what a nifty way to put it, the mixed experience of operating on your form to make it better. No matter how mentally tough you are, it’s painful to grub around in your failings and failures and to discover that at the root lie hang-ups, hot buttons, and totally off-base beliefs. At the same time you can be proud of yourself for not letting the pain keep you from facing ugly realities and doing something about it. How rewarding. In undergoing the operation, it helps too to have a partner—a certain sort of “doctor”—go through it with you, someone who won’t let you off the hook and yet cares about you and wants you to succeed.

“Were there other unpleasant bits?,” I asked.

I kept after him to meet his commitments, he told me. “For a year I couldn’t get away from you. If I didn't do what I told you I’d do, it was like letting Dad down.”

“And you exploded myths,” he added. It was more like letting air out of a balloon.

It’s true. I had the temerity to question an article of faith central to his world view as a devout Christian: “I’m not the most important part of the equation. It’s not about me. It’s about my wife, my family and my God.” Well and good, but he was overweight and out of shape. He knew he should get regular exercise but it never made the cut.

“How are you supposed to lead a life of service to God and other people if you don’t take care of yourself,” I asked? “That was another one of the unpleasant things,” he said. “You made me see I wasn’t serving myself, that I was neglecting the physical me, which is part of the equation in serving others.” 

I poked holes, so to speak, in another firmly held view. “My blue-collar thing—you figured out that was a shtick. That’s one of the unpleasant things: I have no excuse for this rationalization. It holds me back when it doesn’t need to.” In our first meeting he had announced, “I’m a blue-collar guy in a white-collar world. I drink Bud and they drink Chardonnay.”

The whole self-analytical process made him uncomfortable. “It’s hard to talk about myself.” And not just the unflattering aspects. Larry said the praise also made him uncomfortable, as it does many people. “I don’t want to be arrogant, I don’t want to be egotistical.”

“Okay, what were the pleasant parts?,” I asked, not knowing what to expect.

In fact, he did enjoy certain aspect of the experience itself.

Back to the beginning: despite his griping, he felt honored to be picked, handpicked by the CEO, to participate.

He was gratified by his coworkers’ high regard for him. As he put it, “I’m a bigger, more well-oiled cog in the machine than I thought.” It also came as a relief: “I guess I’m not the schlep I thought I was.”

In his unease there were things I did, he told me, that helped to put him at ease.  For example: “As I did my soul-searching, you got personal as well—told me stories about your mother and your wife.”

But most of all he felt good about the outcomes. “The most pleasant thing,” he said, “was the change in how I behave—which other people see, the people I work with and my wife.”

He improved on executive presence. He dressed better, and he cut back on swearing, which he had previously done freely and gleefully. “That has to stop,” I told him. Initially, he resisted. He didn’t want that taken away, a liberty tied to his identity. “It’s how I was brought up,” he explained. “I told my wife yesterday, when my dad came home and kissed my mother he actually told her in front of us kids, I f___in’ love you.”

He stopped treating his people roughly—eased up on “blunt honesty” when they didn’t meet his high expectations. “I like things to go well. But it had gotten to the point where people were afraid to give me bad news. I now say, ‘Yeah, it's not great, you screwed up, but we’ll figure it out.’”

To make those changes in behavior he had had to fight off a sense that he was betraying his blue-collar identity.  He put it this way: “I still have my shtick but I know it’s a shtick. But I still like to say I don’t know what fork to use."

There is one change he didn’t make: “No, I didn’t lose those 20 pounds.”

His final word in our final meeting: “One other pleasantness: we finished.… Just kidding."

* Fictitious name

 This post is the first in a series, Encounters With Leaders Encountering Themselves.