Twenty years ago I went to a leadership development program called LeaderLab at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, North Carolina. We spent a week in Greensboro, then worked on our leadership action plan back at the office for about three months, then reconvened in Greensboro for a week to revisit and revise our action plans, went back to work on our revised plans for about two and a half months, then back to Greensboro for a final week together. During the periods between the sessions in Greensboro, I worked with an executive coach named Martha Tilyard, who, though I didn’t realize it at the time, helped me learn one of life’s most important lessons.
Like all of the LeaderLab participants, I kept a Learning Journal, where I recorded my daily thoughts on whatever it was that I was trying to accomplish as a leader. I recorded careful reflections along with idle thoughts and passing fancies. I even wrote down what I remembered of some dreams I was having at the time – real nighttime dreams, not daydreams, though I did some daydreaming, too. Every two weeks I would dutifully photocopy the pages from my Learning Journal from the past fourteen days and fax them to Martha. Then we’d have a phone call for an hour or so to discuss what I had written and what I was thinking.
Martha was a skilled counselor, as were all of the coaches assigned to LeaderLab participants, and after only one or two sessions she focused on a pattern she had observed in the way I described what I was doing and, more importantly, the words I used to describe why I did things. More often than not, I wrote about all of the things that I “needed to” do, so Martha asked me why I “needed to” do things. Who was giving me all of those instructions about what I needed to do? As we discussed the situation, it became evident that I was listening to my own special, internal martinet. I was taking orders from a self-created boss, and that boss preyed on a somewhat misplaced sense of duty.
Martha helped me understand that everything I did, I did because I made a choice to do it. I could rationalize the choice away, and try to avoid responsibility for my choice, by turning the situation into one where “I needed to,” as if I really didn’t have a choice in the matter. But I was only fooling myself, and hurting myself in the process.
Rather than worrying about a diagnosis of the disquieting source of my sense that I “needed to” do things, Martha chose, instead, to suggest that I make a caricature of the internal voice telling me that I had to. I called it Little Mom [probably because my Mom was always reminding me of all the things I needed to do]. I imagined that Little Mom sat on my left shoulder and whispered into my ear, telling me, “You need to do this; you need to do that!”
I couldn’t allow Little Mom to do her dirty work without something to counterbalance his effort. So, I imagined another voice, who sat on my right shoulder and whispered in my ear that that I could choose to do what I wanted to do, and that it was absolutely okay to make those choices, as long as I was willing to live with the consequences. I never gave the other voice a name, but, like Jiminy Cricket in the movie “Pinnochio,” where he whispered in Pinocchio’s ears telling him to do the right thing, while Honest John, Gideon and Lampwick were egging Pinocchio on to do something bad, that other voice was my constant reminder that I didn’t “need to, ” but it was OK to choose to do things.
That was a long time ago. After a few years, choosing to choose became a habit, and Little Mom and the other voice were retired. I had taken to heart the lesson Martha taught me: When I freely choose to do something, rather than doing it because I have a duty to perform, I am liberated and empowered.
Sorry it took me so long to get around to it, but thanks, Martha, for the great lesson.