The following is an excerpt from Dragons at Work by Stephen Josephs, a fictionalized leadership case study. It’s the story of Dan Shaeffer, a tightly wound IT executive whose command-and-control style is failing to deliver results, and his relationship with executive coach Michele Wu. How he is coached to deal with a political enemy, reestablish trust with his team, and become a better leader, father, and husband propels the story forward.
Monday morning, the Thoreau room was tidy and clean. The dry erase markers were lined up in the tray beneath the newly washed whiteboard. The thin industrial carpet had been vacuumed and the trash emptied. At 9:55 AM, with three hours of conference calls behind him and trouble emerging on multiple fronts, Dan almost canceled his meeting with Michele. He could use the extra time, but then again he had engaged her to help him solve the time problem.
Michele walked through the door, promptly at 10:00. This morning she wore black linen pants and an ivory sleeveless tunic. He guessed her patent leather flats were chosen for comfort as well as style. Single gray pearls dangled from each ear below her black hair; on her left wrist, she wore a gold antique watch and thin jade bangle. As usual, her eyes were clear and observant, and her manner unhurried.
“Hi, Dan. How was your weekend?” she said.
“After I left you, I went home and practiced listening with Janice.”
“How did it go?”
“Sort of like picking up a wildcat by the scruff of the neck.”
“And what did your wildcat have to say?”
“Nothing that wasn’t true. She wants a marriage, and in truth, I want that, too. She reminded me of that in a way I couldn’t ignore. The listening was hard work. I wanted to jump in and argue with her, and I did do some of that, but I also managed to breathe and keep listening. We even laughed a little. By the end, I think she felt good that she got to say what she did, and I promised her that I would get my job under control.”
“Good. All the more reason to do it,” she said.
“Yeah, and afterwards I ate a whole package of Oreos. I’ve gained five pounds since the start of my diet. So much for my health goal.”
“Are you worried about it?” she said.
“Yeah…I don’t know. I guess so. It’s a little hard to believe I’m making progress when I can’t stare down an Oreo and walk away.”
“Do you want me to help you with that?”
“Lots of luck, Michele.”
“It’s not about luck. We simply need to apply the skills you’ve already learned and add a new one. We can work wonders with Oreos and other temptations,” she said.
“You’ve got my attention now, but I’m skeptical about this one.”
“Tell me about the Oreos.”
“I had just finished my conversation with Janice, she left to pick up Maggie, and suddenly I got hungry, very hungry, and I found myself pulling the Oreos out of the cupboard and then the entire package was gone. As I ate them, I kept telling myself not to do it, that they were bad for me, but that didn’t make any difference. It’s like I had a devil on one shoulder and an angel on the other, and the angel was a real loser.”
“That’s actually a very common experience – you listen to two voices arguing and go into an altered state while you eat. Did you actually taste the cookies?”
“That’s the funny part. I was eating them but I wasn’t really there. There were only a couple of moments when I actually tasted them.”
“And you had just finished a difficult conversation with Janice.”
“Yes. I was trying to be on my best behavior. Maybe this was my reward or a way of letting off steam.”
“It could be either of those things, or it might be something else. Do you want to find out?”
“Imagine you are back at the kitchen table. You have just finished your conversation with Janice. What do you do?”
“I walk straight over to the cupboard and grab the Oreos,” he said.
“Sounds like you made your decision right there at the table. What did you experience just before that?”
“I don’t know. I was hungry, I guess.”
“All right. Again, imagine you are sitting at the table,” said Michele.
Dan leaned his forearms against the edge of the table.
“Now let your body answer the following question: If you didn’t eat the Oreos, what emotion would you have to feel?” said Michele.
Dan looked at her blankly.
“Let your body feel the emotion that you felt then – the one that you were trying to avoid by eating cookies.”
Dan’s lips tightened, his head tilted to one side, and the muscles around his cheeks contracted.
“I feel frustrated,” he said, “like nothing I do is enough.”
“Let’s work with that feeling. A Zen Master, Genpo Roshi, uses a beautiful process to work with emotions. He calls it Big Mind, Big Heart. It comes to mind now, because of the inner dialogue you described and because you were just speaking from a part of yourself that feels underappreciated.”
“Yeah, I do feel underappreciated, but what do you mean by ‘a part of myself’?” he asked.
“When you told me you had an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other, you experienced two different parts of yourself. These parts are in all of us, and there’s real benefit to listening to them, because without our being aware of it, they often drive our behaviors. We can explore these parts, so that you can have more control over your eating.”
“Boy, this is starting to get weird.”
“I know. Is it too much for you?” she asked.
“Almost, but let’s give it a try.”
“Good. First say: ‘I am the voice of the underappreciated self.’”
“ Will this really make a difference?” said Dan.
“I don’t know yet. Want to continue?”
Dan sighed. “OK.”
“Nice expression of resignation. Now, say, ‘I am the voice…”
He caught up to her words in a sing song voice. “I am the voice of the underappreciated self.”
“Excellent. As much as you can, let yourself connect with that underappreciated part of you. Settle into how it feels and let me know when you’re there.”
Dan became still for a moment, then nodded.
“As the voice of the underappreciated self, what’s your job?”
“To feel like nothing I do is good enough. No one appreciates what I do.”
“And what do you do for Dan?”
“I complain. I suffer. And I provide him with an excuse to eat. If they don’t appreciate him, at least I can get him a treat now and then.”
“You seem to do that very well.”
“I’m a master.”
“So, if you get him treats, what does that do for him?”
“I sneak a little pleasure into his life. Is that so wrong?”
“Not at all. Thank you for speaking so openly,” said Michele. “We may speak to you again, but now I’d like to speak to another voice: The voice of the critic.”
Dan looked at her quizzically.
Michele said, “Just say, ‘I am the voice of the critic.”
“I am the voice of the critic,” he said.
“Very good. Let yourself settle into it…What do you do for Dan?”
“Doesn’t matter. Everybody.”
“And by criticizing everybody, what does that do for Dan?”
“It makes him feel superior…although, I’m pretty hard on him, too.”
“Sounds like you’re relentless.”
“It’s hard work, but somebody’s got to do it.”
“Because, if you didn’t, then what?”
“The whole world would go to shit.”
“Yes, the whole world would go to shit. And if everyone did their best to fix themselves…”
“It wouldn’t matter. I would still find ways to criticize them. No one is perfect, especially not Dan.”
“Would you say you’re on duty all the time?”
“Are you deaf? Of course I’m on duty all the time!”
“Well said! Thank you. I imagine you’ll have more to say, and I’d like to move on now.”
After a pause Michele said, “I’d like to speak to another voice, the voice of the mind that holds all the parts. The Big Mind. Shift your posture so you’re upright and balanced, and relax into the present moment. Take as much time as you need to adjust your breathing and your attention.”
Dan closed his eyes, straightened his back and breathed slowly and evenly.
“Say ‘I am Big Mind,’” she said.
“I am Big Mind,” he said.
“Tell me what you experience from this place.”
Dan’s breathing deepened, and his voice resonated more fully.
“Everything is OK. It’s peaceful.”
“What’s your job? What do you do for Dan?”
“Well, I could do more, because I’m here all the time. Dan doesn’t know to find me, but I’m patient. I’m here underneath, whether he notices or not. He’ll learn.”
“Yes, I believe he will. Can you hear the other voices – the critic, the underappreciated self?”
“Oh, yes. I hear them all the time.”
“What’s it like to hear them?”
“They sound bothered. But I’m not bothered by them at all.”
“Good, because we’re going to revisit the voice of the critic. Dan, become the voice of the critic.”
“I am the voice of the critic, and that wasn’t a very smooth transition.”
“Glad to see you’re still on the job. Can you feel the emotion that drives you?”
“I feel something in my neck and face. It’s like my head is shaking ‘no’ and I feel some disgust or contempt. Like I’m saying, ‘No, not that way.’”
“Good. Now, here’s a familiar instruction: Never mind what it’s about. Just experience the constellation of sensations in your body. Breathe and smile into those sensations as you observe them, as they are…Now, let those sensations melt in response to the smile and the breath as your body returns to a sense of ease, as much as it can.”
Dan’s shoulders softened, and his head and neck subtly straightened.
“What emotion is there now?” asked Michele.
“I’ve felt this before. Like I wish things weren’t this way. It’s sadness.”
“Where do you feel it?”
“In my chest.”
Using the breath and the smile, Michele helped Dan dissolve the sadness, and afterward he said he felt more at peace. Michele let him rest for a few moments and asked, “As the voice of the critic, what do you feel now?”
“I don’t know. Not as angry, I guess.”
“Yes. So, what can you still do for Dan?”
“I can detect and correct error. I still won’t let anything slide by, but I don’t have to rant or be nasty.”
“Excellent! If you gave a new name to your role what would it be?”
“Oh, I’m in charge of quality control.”
“As the voice of quality control, what do you do?”
“I insist on quality, but I don’t have to take it personally when things are not the way they could be. I can more easily accept things as they are and see possibilities for improvement. I feel more patient.”
“Very good. Glad you’re on the job in your new capacity.”
She waited a moment.
“Dan, take a breath and return to neutral. Just be yourself.”
“Now, that was interesting!”
“Yes, it was. Let’s check in on your eating. Imagine that you just finished your conversation with Janice and you know that there are Oreos inside the cupboard, just a few steps away. What are you feeling now?”
“I just feel calm,” he said.
“OK, let’s check in with that voice on one shoulder, the one that won out over the loser angel.”
Dan closed his eyes and smiled. “Oh, yeah. That one. This is very familiar. I can hear it yammering away. It’s saying, pardon my language, ‘fuck your stupid diet. I’ll eat what I want.’”
“Excellent,” said Michele. “Now get in touch with the energy that’s driving it. What sensations in your body seem to be associated with it?”
“I feel like my head wants to turn away, like I’m refusing to play.”
“Like an oppositional child,” said Michele.
“Exactly,” said Dan. “It feels very deep.”
“What would you call this voice?”
“The voice of opposition.”
“Say, ‘I am the voice of opposition,’” she said.
“Perfect!” said Michele laughing. “As the voice of opposition what do you do?”
“I oppose everything. Especially Dan’s self-improvement bullshit.”
“What would happen if you didn’t?”
“Who gives a shit?”
“Certainly not you,” she said.
“You got that right.”
“You probably can’t get in touch with the emotions that drive you.”
“Hey, cut the reverse psychology crap. You think I’m five years old?”
“I was thinking you might be two.”
“OK, so what!?” he said. Dan closed his eyes and was silent for a moment. “It’s a feeling of stubbornness. And it’s tinged with rage.”
“I’d like to speak to that voice. May I please speak to the voice of rage?”
“Say, ‘I am the voice of rage.’”
“I am the voice of rage.”
“As rage, what do you do?”
“I seethe. I boil over. I blow Dan’s stack”
“Where do you show up in his life?”
“I’m everywhere, just like that fucking big mind guy, but much more in control.”
“What do you do for him at work?”
“I make sure he doesn’t become a doormat for idiot weasels like Bob.”
“Good. Now, just for a moment, fully feel this rage in your body. Feel it as a constellation of sensations.”
Dan clenched his fists and lowered his head.
“Good. Stay with that. Breathe into the sensations. Very good. Now, drop what it’s about. It could be about anything. Simply feel the sensations. Where are they in your body?”
“In my neck, my shoulders, and my jaw. My fingers, too.”
Again, Michele helped Dan dissolve these sensations. As they released, others emerged that were associated with opposition – feelings of sadness and defiance. When they resolved, he told her he felt calm and relieved.
“Now, check in with the voice of rage,” said Michele. “Be the voice of rage.”
“What skills do you have that Dan still needs?” she asked.
“He still needs to voice his opposition when group think and politics threaten to carry the day. I can’t be bull-shitted.”
“With those hot emotions no longer powering you in this moment, what voice are you starting to become?”
Dan sat silently for a moment.
“I am the voice of unflinching honesty. Without the rage, I can be much more strategic and effective in how I deliver the message. I don’t have to leave bodies in my wake.”
“Good. Now, return to yourself, Dan. You’re the one who holds all these voices. How do you feel?”
“I feel very calm. Sort of open, slowed down, and settled. Just right here.”
“Excellent. You did that very well. When we started, you said it was getting weird. What do you think now?”
“It was even weirder than I imagined it would be.”
Michele laughed. “Yes, and…”
“And very helpful. I feel great now. Thank you, Michele.”
“You’re welcome. Even though we focused on your eating, I think everything we worked on will show up to good effect in your leadership. Do you agree?”
“I do, but what about the cookies?”
“Yes, let’s go back to that. If you were sitting in your kitchen now, would you feel compelled to eat the Oreos?” asked Michele.
“Let me explain how this works. These voices are in all of us. When they are disowned or overused to the exclusion of others, we are out of balance. Working with the voices lets us integrate them and feel more fully human. At the same time the Big Mind brings us into a space where all voices are welcome, and none of them can highjack the enterprise.”
“The enterprise of becoming fully human. Sometimes we run from that, because it takes courage to feel all of what we feel as humans. Often, people eat because they want to change their mood, not because their body needs nourishment. If you’re OK with any emotion, any voice that arises, there’s no need to distract or dull yourself with food. Enjoying food should be an aesthetic experience. ‘Aesthetic’ means ‘of the senses.’ Its antonym is ‘anesthetic.’ Ironically, when people use food to anesthetize themselves, they don’t enjoy what they eat.”
“The processes I’m teaching you give you ways to release the emotions that drive unhealthful eating. Diets often fail because they don’t free you from these underlying emotions. People on diets are at war with themselves. Their internal tension is like a slingshot. All the pulling away from the food they promised not to eat just snaps them back, and at some point they either gorge themselves or eat the wrong food. The trick is to be fully present when you eat. Then it’s a lot easier to make good choices.”
“All right, that sounds good in principle,” said Dan. “Let’s see how it works in real life.”
As soon as they scheduled their next meeting and Michele left, Dan’s mind, with his body only a step behind, sped to the vending machine just down the hall.
All materials the property of Stephen Josephs, copyright 2013.