While I was in the Navy and working my way through various levels of leadership, I’d often hear the phrase, “we have to learn how to have the hard conversations if we want to become better leaders.” I remember seeing heads nod around the room and feeling a general sense of our shared importance as everyone seemed to know what that meant. Heck, I thought I knew what it meant. In reality, we often just went through the motions and “checked the box.” Say the words – check. Look concerned – check. Tell each other we are good leaders – check. Avoid actual emotional involvement due to the inability to face the reality that hard conversations require time and a level of vulnerability not generally accepted in these types of organizations – check.
In light of some emotionally hard weeks recently, I realized that I definitely did not know what “having hard conversations” meant. In my past, having hard conversations wasn’t actually necessary. The second stuff got emotionally tough or a little too touchy/feely, I’d leave for training, deployment, or just find a way to be really busy. Want to talk about what’s really going on with life? “Sorry, NOPE, I’ve got to leave for a different country tomorrow. ” Looking to make a meaningful, authentic connection, “Oohh, let’s talk about that when I get back.” But, once I’d get back, it was amazing how most of what was wrong had either been fixed by someone else or just compartmentalized into some other aspect of my life that didn’t need to be examined.
We’ll loop back to my arm-chair psychologist stuff in a bit. First, let me use a metaphor to get at what I am trying to say.
Squatting is simple. Snatching is a little bit more complicated but still relatively simple. If you are squatting correctly, it doesn’t make the snatch easier, it just means you can snatch better. When you get under the bar really fast and maintain a perfectly stable squat you can suddenly snatch a whole lot more. Continuing to improve the squat never gets easier, but if you squat badly, you can be guaranteed that your snatch, which is innately more fun than a simple squat, will also never get better; and you’ll probably stop doing it.
Just ask this guy…he’s pretty good at snatching and he probably squats every day.
Let’s look at conversations; like squats, they’re also pretty simple: two people talking. Relationships are a little bit more complicated but still relatively simple. If you aim to have effective conversations, to include the hard, uncomfortable, or emotionally draining ones, they will allow the relationships to blossom and grow. The amount of weight that those relationships can bare will be directly proportional to the efficacy and honesty of those hard conversations. The harder the conversation, the deeper the relationship develops.
If you’d asked me 10 years ago if I was fit, I would have said, heck yeah. Then I did Fight Gone Bad. It didn’t go so well.
I found CrossFit, learned to squat, learned to snatch, and I realized just how much fitter I could actually be.
In retrospect, many of my relationships were similar to my pre-CrossFit fitness. Most of my conversations barely went past surface, transactional stages. I didn’t stay anywhere or with anyone long enough. Outside of my wife, and in all honesty, even with her, I didn’t spend much time in the same geographical location much longer than 1-2 months at a time. And yes, technology has a wonderful ability to keep us connected but in the end, I can often fake emotions over email and text; you can’t fake being somewhere.
Today, I generally travel inside a 10 mile radius most of the week. I see the same 20-30 people everyday. Being in the same place, with the same people for almost a decade, I have had some of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had in my life. For me, the ironic thing is that these conversations aren’t about earth shattering issues. I always believed that hard conversations had to be about complicated and “important” topics. Instead, most of the time, I’m struggling with how to make new members feel welcomed or how to navigate sticky situations when I lose my temper or get lost in my own emotional baggage. Hard doesn’t necessarily mean complicated? Hmmm.
So what makes the conversations so hard? For me, it’s the threat of being authentically vulnerable. Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard Brené Brown talk about vulnerability. Her recent project, Dare to Lead, defines a leader as “Anyone who takes responsibility for finding the potential in people and processes and has the courage to develop that potential.” She goes on to suggest that leadership isn’t about the titles or the labels we traditionally latch onto, but rather about the willingness to courageously lean into situations where we find ourselves on the edge of being vulnerable in ways that bring to light who we are.
I found it, and continue to find it, scary as hell to be honest with myself and others when placed in positions of authority or leadership. I can fake it like nobody’s business and because time was always on my side, if I couldn’t fake it anymore, I’d leave. Now, when I get angry, act rashly, am over confident, flippant, judgmental, sexist, racist, biased, or just plain ignorant, I don’t get to run away to some foreign country or remote location. In many of these situations, I have to first be honest with myself and then courageously face others. That’s not fun.
Luckily, the people I am surrounded by seem to be willing to keep coming back. They’re petty darn courageous and patient, so maybe there’s something to this vulnerable leadership thing.
We all know how to squat but what we really want to do is snatch heavy weight and hit personal records again, and again, and again! But those new PRs won’t keep coming unless we are willing to put in the work on the basics and recognize that being vulnerable to feedback and criticism on something we think we should be good at is the only way to continue to improve.
I’m willing to step into the hard conversations and I’m also willing to be really bad at them. Me and my feelings have a complicated relationship.
But we’re working on it and I think it’s moving in the right direction.
So if you want to squat, snatch, or just talk, I’ll see you in the box.