Leaders, Coaching… and Verbs

Whether you lead a corporation, a production line… or a softball team or a church or family: Ever asked yourself, after a particularly wrong-headed decision, “What was I thinking?”
Me too. We learn more from struggles than from Great Moments. I have a suggestion for you — but first a little background; please bear with me.
In writing, verbs drive; other parts of speech take a back seat. At heart writing is thinking, so verbs drive some of your thinking, too.
“Words can’t express…” is a familiar phrase, and certainly helps convey grief and similarly strong emotions.
Far, far more often, words have astonishing power, especially in a language as rich as English. Problems arise not from words’ weakness, but from the sheer force of their impact.
We take that for granted sometimes, partly because our lives, our thoughts, are so immersed in words.
So here’s a simple distinction that can help you as a leader, by helping you coach more purposefully.
And yes, it’s about verbs! Specifically, “have” vs. “be.”
Think of have as get; think of be as give.
If you’re too focused on what you can get from those you coach, you may be missing opportunities to give — and what you could give may be pivotal.
You may be wondering why this little essay is sinking into touch-feely irrelevance — those of you still reading, that is. Please hang in there for a few more lines…
So which do you prefer when you’re coached — a coach who seems to care mainly about himself/herself, or a coach clearly focused on what you need and on helping you get it?
In more than three decades in and around staff leadership, it became more than clear to me: Focusing on what I could give often led to the best results, especially long-term.
Focusing more on what I wanted for myself just didn’t work that well. Trust suffered — again, especially long-term — and there is no real coaching without trust.
To check this out, I suggest an easy self-test:
On blank paper or screen, put two headers: Have, and Be. Divide them with a line down the page.
For up to half a day, after each conversation or call or meeting — and ideally, while coaching someone — put a check mark in the column that better fits the way you behaved. Don’t worry about heavy analysis, just go with your gut.
Then total both columns. Sit back and ask yourself what they might mean.
While it’s true that “have” can refer to a legitimate goal or purpose, sometimes you may find your approach was, at best, only self-centered.
As for “be,” whether it refers to resources, good listening or corrective feedback, did you mean it? Did you actually provide what was needed?
Years ago someone I admired so much that I considered him a second father was eulogized as “a man for others.” He was exactly that… and the eulogist’s praise can figure in your self-examination.
What kind of a leader are you? Do you coach mainly for others, building a strong work relationship as you go? Or are you mainly “in it to win it” — just for yourself?
Sure, there’s always at least some of both. But the little exercise above can help you take stock. Depending on what you find, it can help you keep your ego in check. Here’s what it comes down to:
Years ago, a gifted facilitator spent nearly two hours, straight, doing little more than listening to an angry group. The occasion was a workshop follow-up meeting.
About a month before, this group had been thoroughly trained in interpersonal skills, delivered by one of the best consulting firms in the country.
But back at this group’s headquarters, in a toxic culture, most had been pilloried — for actually trying listen and otherwise use what they had learned. One was asked, “You been to charm school?”
When the follow-up session began they jumped all over the facilitator, angrily describing how the skills don’t work and the workshop was a waste of time.
The facilitator just listened. Now and then he summed up what they said.
After the two hours the pace finally slowed, the volume dropped, the complaints tailed off… and still the facilitator just listened, now and then still summing up what he’d heard without defending or commenting at all.
Finally the room went silent.
The facilitator still didn’t argue or defend or try to contradict. All he had to say, quietly — for that was his temperament — was one thing.
He surveyed the group and said, “Well, there is another question you can ask, if you want. (Pause). It’s just, ‘what kind of person do you want to be?’ ”
He asked that more than 20 years ago. It remains one of my own best learning moments.
As you consider “have” versus “be,” I recommend asking his question about that choice, too.

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1 comment
  1. Teresa Himebaugh said:

    People have to know you care before they will listen to what you know. Trust is critical in a coaching relationship for both parties. I am in to help you win it! This is the attitude I try to maintain when coaching. This way everyone wins, the coachee, the coach and the organization.

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