On October 5, 2010, I graduated from the 2010 version of the Society for Information Management’s (SIM) Regional Leadership Forum (RLF).
I was a member of the New York City version of the Regional Leadership Forum. There were about 40 other people who work in Information Technology. SIM describes the RLF program:
RLF uses an experiential learning environment introducing participants to new concepts while enhancing interpersonal skills and creating a sense of mission.
The RLF curriculum offers participants an open exchange on leadership approaches and practices. The RLF sessions are dedicated to the interactive learning environment to develop participants’ leadership, team-building, creative thinking, listening skills, global business skills, and knowledge of business ethics.
It is fair to say that I will never be the same person after this year particularly because I have stopped living in denial. RLF was the catalyst that drew together seemingly disparate threads in my life – recovery, healing, spirituality, faith, reason, emotion, sorrow, pain, love and happiness.
One of the RLF sessions included an exercise in Action Learning. I volunteered to be the person who presented a challenge from my work environment and was then encouraged through a one-way question-and-answer session to consider my behavior.
It worked well for me because the group of people asking questions could not make recommendations or suggestions. However, after being bombarded with so many questions about a truly difficult situation, it was clear to me that I was not thinking clearly about the situation and the appropriate course of action.
Upon further reflection, I realized something important about myself – that it is difficult for me to be honest when I am faced with situations that cause me anxiety or fear. In short, I am challenged to admit to myself that I am in denial about something important.
I understand now that I have been in denial about many things and in this state I have refused to acknowledge the difficult problems of my life and face them head on. This is the first gift of RLF for me.
Conventional wisdom about denial is that it is both necessary and undesirable. Denial is considered necessary to protect someone from clearly understanding a situation because the reality may be too painful to experience. Denial is also undesirable because it blocks our ability think . When I am in denial, I am unable to think clearly.
I am now clear about who I am and what I want for certain parts of my life. I no longer feel controlled by my fears and I can overcome them and act with courage. For me this was a breakthrough because despite my outward confidence, I have lived many parts of my life in fear. I made many (wrong) decisions based on fear and while in a state of denial.
I do not believe that I will never be in denial about some painful reality of my life, but I am willing to dig deeply into my mind and heart to understand the source of it.
I am learning that although I still have fears, I am able to understand that they exist. I can also slow down and think clearly about my fears. Why am I feeling this way? Is it real or reasonable? What action, if any, should I take?
The breaking down of my denial and fears started in the first session of RLF when we reviewed Carl Hammerschlag’s book The Theft of the Spirit. In this book, Dr. Hammerschlag reveals how he learned to be a healer, instead of simply a doctor.
I was exposed to several important lessons in spiritual recovery from The Theft of the Spirit. Most important to me is that my mental state – my thoughts, fears, anxieties, pleasures – can lead to the theft of my spirit. Hammerschlag advises that no one can take my spirit. Unfortunately, I gave mine away, slowly and insidiously, over much of my lifetime. Luckily, I can get it back.
The third most important lesson I learned from RLF is the gift of feedback. One of our facilitators, Michael Carleton described feedback as a wrapped gift. Like any gift, I can study its exterior, wonder what is inside, shake it, open it, throw it away, even re-gift it.
During RLF, we wrote many feedback cards. Whenever someone in the forum led a discussion or gave a presentation the other forum members were obliged to write feedback on a 3×5 inch note card and deliver it. The feedback could be signed or not. It could be radically honest or trite. It could be useful or not.
At the end of each of the 6 two-day sessions, we wrote the most important feedback cards for our smaller teams (we sat in teams of 4-6 people). On one side of the card, we were to finish the following sentence: I am excited to follow (RLF forum member) as a leader because (fill in the blank). On the other side of the card, we were to finish the opposite: I am reluctant to follow (RLF forum member) as a leader because (fill in the blank).
As I read the December POV newsletter (by Patrick Lencioni), I was struck by a similar exercise employed by a highly successful high school football team. From the newsletter:
There is a well-known high school football team where I live that is ranked near the top of national polls every year. They play the best teams in the country, teams with bigger and more highly touted players, and beat them regularly. The secret to their success, more than any game strategy or weight-lifting regimen, comes down to the coach’s philosophy about commitment and teamwork and the buy-in he gets from his players. That philosophy manifests itself in a variety of simple actions which speak to how the players treat one another on and off the field. For example, players pair up every week and exchange 3×5 cards with hand-written commitments around training and personal improvement, and then take responsibility for disciplining one another when those commitments aren’t met
The gift of feedback has been profound for me personally. One of my character defects is that I like to be right. This has made it hard for me to listen to constructive feedback and not take it personally.
After these many exercises in the gift of feedback, I am able to de-personalize feedback. I can actually listen to it and not necessarily become immediately defensive. After practice, I can see when my ego is getting in the way of my life – when I refuse to listen to the truth as expressed to me in the gift of feedback.
I have reflected on the gift of feedback for the past 9 months. In addition to the literal gift of receiving (hopefully open and honest) feedback, I think the other sense of the gift of feedback for me is that I have a choice when I receive the feedback.
Too often when a well-intentioned parent or other authority figure in my life has given me constructive criticism, I would respond with one of two reactions – both based on fear. Often, I would reject the criticism because I was not prepared to deal with the impact or because I heard an indictment on my character, instead of the feedback. My other reaction was astonishment – as in I better change my ways – because this person who I respect told me something important.
I now understand that I have a choice when someone gives me feedback. I can take my time and consider it. Is it true? Is it meaningful? Is it in context to me within my life? Was it delivered with a pure intention or with ulterior motives? Do I need to ask for clarification? Should I apologize? Should I simply nod my head and say, “Thank you for the feedback.” All interesting questions to consider.