When it comes to leadership, “Yes” matters. It’s easy to say, “No.” “No,” you can’t do that. “No,” we don’t have enough money. “No,” we don’t do that around here. “No,” we tried that before and it didn’t work. “No,” we can’t afford to bring on more people. “No, no, no!” Such nay saying is an all too familiar refrain, especially in the face of economic and political uncertainty. Fear is the author of “No.” But leaders are the voice of “Yes.” Read on to add your voice to the chorus.
This week has been a week of sitting. Sitting Zen holds a venerable place in the Buddhist tradition. It means to sit calmly, noticing whatever thoughts, words, images, and feelings cross our minds without judging or getting involved with them. From this open posture, practitioners can experience insight into the nature of existence and thereby gain enlightenment.
There are many ways to sit Zen, the classic way being with folded legs and hands, and an erect but settled spine. My approach, this week, has been to sit with my almost 87-year-old mother as she recovers from a now twice-broken leg. It was a bad break that requires her to put no weight on the leg for perhaps as long as three months. Talk about challenging! It has been easy for her to get discouraged, to imagine the worst, and to struggle both physically and emotionally with her limited mobility.
Releasing such thoughts and exercising her muscles are not my mother’s strong suits. Fear is a powerful force, perhaps the most powerful force, and fear has been alive and well in room 400 at the rehab center over the past month. I got a strong sense of that even before I came to town, talking with my mother multiple times a day on the telephone. This week, while sitting in her room for hours at a time, I was able to sense that fear more fully.
“What if I never get better?” was the foundational fear. “What if I have to live this way for the rest of my life?” “What if I’m never going to be able to walk again?” “What if I am always going to remain so helpless and dependent on other people?” Such fears reflect the power of “No.” The doctor said “No” to weight bearing exercise, and that set off an understandable but unfortunate downward spiral.
As the days turned into weeks and the weeks turned into a month, the woman who had danced at her granddaughter’s wedding just two months earlier, on the top of a mountain in Costa Rica, became increasingly discouraged and depressed. “What’s the point of living if life is going to be like this?” It was a thought filled with attachment and despair. Then something happened that cracked open the door to life: someone finally said, “Yes.”
On Friday they took her first, post-operative x-ray. The downward spiral had her fearing the worst, but the body has wisdom that the mind does not know. The leg is healing. The x-ray evidenced no displacement and signs of bone growth. Although it’s still too early to put any weight on the leg, she now has reason to believe that this nightmare will have a happy ending. And that hope makes all the difference in the world.
Great leaders understand the power of “Yes.” They look for ways to say “Yes” at every opportunity. That may, in fact, be one way to describe what leadership is all about: creating an environment of “Yes.”
Unfortunately, most organizational environments reflect a culture of “No” rather than “Yes.” Fear is in the air. People are afraid to take initiative. They worry about the consequences of taking risks. “Failure is not an option!” is not only the title of a book, it is also the mantra of fear. When failure is not an option, creativity diminishes, learning declines, and innovation dies.
And that’s not a good way to be in this day and age. Fear does to organizations the same thing it does to the elderly: it constricts, tightens up, and squeezes out functionality. It interferes with the capacity to think, dream, experiment, venture out, and get things done. It blocks the realization of potential, both individual and collective.
Understanding this, great leaders strive to drain the fear out of their relationships with people. Instead of criticizing what people say and do, great leaders seek to understand, appreciate, and complement what people say or do. And that’s always possible, even when we don’t see eye to eye with people.
In Chicago, the people at Second City Communications refer to this as “Yes…And” communication. Instead of derailing people with “No…But” responses, great leaders:
- Actively Listen to the Ideas of Others (Listening to understand, not just to respond)
- Intentionally Affirm the Ideas of Others (Validating ideas, even when we disagree)
- Authentically Build on the Ideas of Others (Making a contribution that helps ideas grow)
Those three moves are harder than they look. The power of “Yes…And” doesn’t come easy. It takes conscious choice and consistent practice to embody those principles in our presence. To pay attention with an appreciative ear, rather than a critical ear, is an acquired talent. Anyone can learn to lead from “Yes…And,” but many people fail to make the effort.
That’s because it’s easier to find fault than to see value. The things we don’t like, the things to which we want to say “No…But,” tend to jump right out. When our child comes home with a report card containing four “good” grades and one “bad” grade, most parents are more likely to say “No” to the bad grade than to say “Yes” to the good grades. The same thing happens in the workplace. Those in charge are quick to focus on what’s wrong in order to fix what’s wrong.
As natural as that problem-solving instinct may be, research now indicates that there is a better way to change. Saying “No” to what’s wrong is not as effective as saying “Yes” to what’s right. Learning from success is a more certain path to excellence than learning from failure.
Case in point: in 1984 two groups of bowlers with comparable ability were invited to improve their bowling by watching themselves bowl on film. What they didn’t know was that the films were edited differently. One group only watched their successes (strikes and spares) while the other group only watched their failures (mistakes and misses).
The first group was then told: “figure out what you were doing right and do more of that.” The second group was told: “figure out what you were doing wrong and do less of that.” Both groups improved, the power of “Yes” proved to be far more impactful than the power of “No.” The first group had more self-efficacy and learned more from their success than the second group had or learned from their failures.
Many such experiments have since confirmed the power of learning from success. In every arena of life and work, the power of “Yes” matters. It makes the difference between fully realizing one’s potential and simply getting by with good enough results. It is the key to exceptional performance because it maximizes confidence and fills people with hope, energy, and momentum.
And here’s the real good news: we don’t have to wait for designated leaders to give us permission to take this stance. We don’t have to wait for the stars to align in order to live and work from the power of “Yes.” Each and every one of us can choose to do that right now. When we release our fears and engage our strengths we can find our voice and take on the risks of leadership. We can become the catalysts of change that the world is calling for now, whatever our title or job description.
Coaching Inquiries: What tends to be your default position in life and work, “Yes” or “No”? What would it take to say “Yes” more often? How could you look for strengths on a more consistent basis? What might you be able to learn from your own strengths? Who could help you see more of those for yourself?
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Editor’s Note: The LifeTrek Readers’ Forum contains selections from the comments and materials sent in each week by the readers of LifeTrek Provisions. They do not necessarily reflect the perspective of LifeTrek Coaching International. To submit your comment, use our Feedback Formor Email Bob.
May you be filled with goodness, peace, and joy.
Bob Tschannen-Moran, MCC, BCC
President, LifeTrek Coaching International, www.LifeTrekCoaching.com
CEO & Co-Founder, Center for School Transformation, www.SchoolTransformation.com
Immediate Past President, International Association of Coaching, www.CertifiedCoach.org
Author, Evocative Coaching: Transforming Schools One Conversation at a Time, Online Retailers
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