Unwrapping a mystery
Christine called to talk about Matthew.
Christine was a longtime client of mine. We had enjoyed working together. When we’d first met, the feedback about her was that she was too black and white.
She was non-defensive about the feedback. She knew that she valued order and no drama, and that those values could make her rigid sometimes. By the time the coaching ended, she’d gained flexibility. She felt expanded.
A year or two after our work, she’d left her old position and joined the leadership team at a smaller agency. We talked maybe once a year. She loved her new role and her fellow leaders – all of whom happened to be male.
Matthew was one of her direct reports.
“He’s good, Tom. Smart and fast with sharp instincts. But, boy, is he impatient. He doesn’t care about systems or procedures or the mechanics we’ve put in place. He doesn’t see why everything can’t get done right now! It seems so naïve for someone so smart.”
“How far along is this guy?”
“You mean how old?” she asked. “Early thirties.”
“Is this the millennial stereotype? ‘I’ve been here six months, where’s my promotion?’”
“There might be some of that, but I don’t think that’s it, no. It’s hard to put my finger on. He’s really a pleasure a lot of the time. But then sometimes there are like five things in a row he’s complaining about. Or people are complaining about him. But overall, people like him.”
“That’s surprising,” I said. “A lot of times when I hear about behavior like that, people are fed up.”
“No, people like Matthew. I like Matthew! But…” She paused. “You know what it is? When he gets upset, he gets snippy. Golly, I had better self-control in junior high school! When Matthew’s around, people raise their voices. I don’t like it, and I don’t think it’s necessary. I don’t like the drama and Matthew is the common denominator.”
Blowing his top
“Would it be fair to say he loses his temper sometimes?”
“For sure,” she said.
“And when he loses his temper, who is he losing his temper at?”
“It’s in meetings.”
“Really? Only in meetings? Not with people one-on-one?”
“Oh, I suppose it’s one-on-one, too. I meant it’s not private. People are around. People hear it. He’ll raise his voice no matter where he is or who he’s with.”
“Does he have direct reports?” I asked.
“Not really. Contractors, but he’s not really their supervisor.”
“Does he lose his temper at them?”
“Oh, no. If anything, he’s their champion.”
“So he’s only getting angry at people in authority?” I asked.
In a much slower, quieter tone, she said, “Is that possible?” She paused, then said with surprise, “That feels right.”
“Sounds like this is a new thought for you,” I said.
“It is! I never thought of Matthew’s drama as being aimed at us!”
“Us? You’re including yourself in this?”
She gave a verbal eye roll, saying, “You have no idea!”
“Can you tell me?” I asked.
Lambasting the boss
“Oh, lordy! You’re not going to believe this. And let me preface it by saying this is not my shining hour, either. But okay. Here’s the story.
“We had to let a contractor go because of two serious violations. This happens sometimes. We know how to handle this. Well, that contractor – a woman, by the way – had Matthew as an ally.
“When he found out we were letting her go, he barged into my office and started yelling at me. He was angry before he hit the doorway. He had no intention of asking a question, like maybe, ‘Hey, why is this happening?’ But, no, he came in fighting.
“Of course, I couldn’t have told him what was going on with this woman anyway, so every answer I gave him sounded like total bull crap to him. He got angrier and angrier. There was no stopping him until I raised my voice, too, which I did not like doing. As I say, not my shining hour.”
“And what was his argument exactly?”
“He was all incensed that we were being hypocritical and we couldn’t be trusted and we were all just profit mongers.”
“We? Who’s we?”
“We the leadership team. It was aimed at all of us.”
“All of you? As a block?”
“Can you believe it? Yelling at his boss! About something he really doesn’t know anything about! I could never have yelled at my boss like that. Could you?”
Discovering the thread
“Ha! Me? Hardly! But that’s not to say I had the healthiest relationship with authority. I think I was just as goofy as Matthew when it comes to authority. I was just goofy in the opposite direction.”
“You think Matthew’s goofy?” she laughed.
“I don’t know the guy, Christine, but you’re telling me a story of someone who has trouble with one particular population – people in authority. Around authority, this normally nice guy loses his temper. Around authority, he’s out of balance, not realistic. So, yes, that’s goofy!”
“That was an interesting thought,” she said.
“That thing you said. About one particular population? It made me think this is a kind of bias on Matthew’s part. He may not even know it. But, yes, this one population – authority – seems to make him angry. If he were reacting this way to women, or people of color, or Muslims, or whatever, I’d have noticed it and called him out on it. That would not be okay. But I didn’t even notice this.”
“Now it’s my turn to say that was an interesting thought!” I said.
She laughed. “What did I say!”
“The word bias. Thinking that this weirdness we all have about authority is a form of bias. That’s a really helpful way to think about it.”
“Weirdness?” she echoed.
“I think authority can trip us up because we all were little once. A lot of people had power over us. We learned ways to react to those people when they were fair to us and when they weren’t.
“Then we grow up,” I continued, “and we bring those same reactions with us into our education systems and into our early careers. We react to authority the way we always have. I bet money if we could roll the clock back on Matthew, he used to argue with his professors. Or argue in a store about a policy.”
“That is so not me. I don’t even send my food back in restaurants.”
“I’m with you! It took me a long, long time to stop seeing authority through my childhood filters. But, like I say, I was on the opposite side from Matthew.”
Fear and shame
“Matthew fights. I was fearful.”
“For years. Want a story?”
“Sure!” she said.
I said, “You know I used to be an actor in Hollywood, right?”
“Oh, that’s right. I’d forgotten that.”
“I was making a living. I was in the business. But I was a pretty small speck. Even so, one night, my wife and I were given tickets to the opening of a play at this big theatre. I’d worked at the theatre half a dozen times, so I was like family. It was a critics’ night, and they wanted a friendly house, so we got tickets.
“Well, we’re part of the crowd funneling into the theatre, and suddenly, behind us, coming through the crowd, comes this guy, Gordon. Now Gordon was not only the head of theatre, he had taken shows to Broadway. And he had won Tony Awards. In Los Angeles, he was the anointed king of the theatre world.
“So he’s being ushered through the crowd. People are saying hello. People are giving him hugs. And, the whole time, he’s moving forward. All very Hollywood celebrity arrival.
“My wife is standing behind me and asks, ‘Are you going to go say hello?’
“Now, you have to understand. I knew Gordon. He had cast me in a play he’d directed. That was intimate work. And I’d been in other shows there. He knew me.
“But what I said to my wife was, ‘Oh, he doesn’t want to talk to me.’”
I took a breath, let it out and said, “That was my relationship to authority in those days. I made myself small because authority scared me. But I hated being so scared. I think I’ve always remembered those words because I never wanted to feel that small again.”
Our relation to authority
“I’m thinking about my own relationship to authority,” she said.
“Yeah? How’s it look?” I asked.
“Not bad. I’m not great with doctors, to be honest with you. I don’t advocate for myself very well. But in general, I think I’m pretty balanced when it comes to authority. Especially now that I have more of it myself!”
“Nice when that happens, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” she said, “at some point, you look around and realize we’re all just folks. Some folks are nice, some aren’t. But no one has the secret crystal, no matter what their title. We’re all just doing our best and consider ourselves lucky when we wake up tomorrow.”
I laughed. “Too true!”
“What about you these days? Are you still fearful of authority?””
“Not much. Maybe it flickers a little every now and then, but it doesn’t get too bright.”
“Partly, listening to people in authority for almost thirty years. That has completely demystified authority for me.”
“Seeing how the sausage is made!” she tossed in.
“Exactly! That, and twenty years working with a really gifted therapist. She helped me shed a lot of my old reactions and beliefs.”
Christine and I decided to offer coaching to Matthew. He was eager to take it.
During the coaching, he and I talked about his relation to authority. We worked on unmasking a stand-in and taming his wild child. But most of all, I challenged Matthew to just notice that the pattern existed. Learning to notice the pattern, then to name it, were important steps on his journey to The Look & Sound of Leadership.