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.
“What are you watching, Grandfather?” said Michele.
With eyes fixed on the TV screen he said, “I’m improving my English.”
Tony Soprano, a mafia boss, was meeting with friends at his bar, Ba-Da-Bing. One of the members of his gang fretted over a complicated career decision, and Tony offered wise counsel about achieving happiness through the execution of familial obligations.
“Ah!” said Grandfather at the episode’s end. “Very Confucian. And how is Dr. Melfy?”
“Just so you know, Grandfather, Dr. Melfy is a psychiatrist on that show. I’m an executive coach.”
“Yes, I know. And how is Dr. Michele?”
“I’m OK,” she said. “I’ve been doing interviews for a client and he’s getting some pretty harsh messages from the people around him. I wonder how he’s going to react when he reads the report.”
“What kind of messages?”
“The picture that’s coming back is that he’s very bright, very driven to achieve, and that he pushes people too hard. He pushes himself way too hard.”
“Why does he push?” asked Grandfather.
“He prides himself on having all the answers, and now he’s got a big unmanageable project that’s more complex than anything he’s dealt with in the past. It’s like he’s grabbed the tail of a large animal that he can’t tame and he can’t let go.”
“That reminds me of the story about monkeys and how to trap them. I know I’ve told you the story before,” he said.
“Yes,” she said. “I’d like to hear it again.”
“Why don’t you tell me? How do you trap a monkey, Dr. Michele?”
“You find a tree with a hole in it, a hole just big enough for the monkey to get his hand into. And then you put a peanut in the hole. The monkey reaches in, grabs the peanut, but now his clenched fist is too big to pull out of the hole. So, he’s trapped, because he can’t let go of his prize,” said Michele.
“Yes. There is a wonderful, spacious forest all around him, and he is trapped in a tiny prison of his wants. There are birds, lizards, flowers, magnificent trees, and he can enjoy none of it,” said Grandfather. “What peanut does your client grasp?”
“He wants so badly to succeed, and he insists on doing it his way,” said Michele.
“And what will you do for him?”
“Because his mind is so strong and because he is scared now that he might have heart problems, I’m showing him things to relax his body-mind. Maybe, if he can interrupt his angry responses, he can make wiser choices.”
“Good to start there. It will make him feel better and he will make some progress that way, but it won’t cure the disease,” said Grandfather.
“What would you do?”
“He needs to dissolve his small self and live in the awareness of his true Self. Until this is done, hope and fear will continue to disturb his mind, and even success will not bring peace. As Lao Tsu says, (Grandfather recited in Chinese. This is a translation).
How can success and failure be called equal ailments?
Because a man thinks of the personal body as self.
When he no longer thinks of the personal body as self,
Neither failure nor success can ail him.
One who knows his lot to be the lot of all other men
Is a safe man to guide them,
One who recognizes all men to be members of his own body
Is a sound man to guard them.
“That’s how we need our leaders to be,” he said. He sat back in his chair, and looked at his granddaughter. His eyes softened.
“That’s pretty advanced, Grandfather,” she said. “I’m just trying to get him to stop yelling at people.”
“If stupidity got us into this mess, why can’t it get us out?” — Will Rogers.