As a facilitator of leadership training programs, I’m sobered by research that ranks the impact of training programs as pretty low on the developmental experience scale. At the top of the list: challenging life experiences and adversities. I even see this in my own growth as a professional. The strategy I now use as a coach when working with executives “in crisis”was significantly influenced by a series of difficult events near the end of my father’s life.
Ten years into retirement, my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. His decline began gradually as he exhibited predictable milestones of the disease. But three years later, he deteriorated at a shocking rate. Within months he was in a wheelchair and uncommunicative. His gentle face and eyes lost their glow of recognition, which was the scariest part.
Dad’s rapid decline required a small army of family members to change, bathe, feed, and transport him. His every action required support. And when we weren’t providing care, we developed a habit of just living around him, as if he was an empty chair in the middle of our lives.
One day, my mother took matters into her own hands. She reasoned that the medications he was taking for blood pressure, heart disease, dementia, etc. were adding very little, so she simply stopped administering them. Within a week, my father rose like a phoenix out of what we now know to be an over-medicated stupor. Once again, he was walking, engaging in conversation, and even dosing himself with insulin.
New behavior, old habits
Ironically though, while my father’s behavior changed, his life did not. He remained passive, operating from the mindset of an invalid. Worse, my family’s care-taking behavior didn’t change either. We coddled him, anticipated his every need, and even forgot to include him in conversation.
We were blind to this until my friend, Brent, called it out. Brent’s expertise is sourced from his own 15-year battle with Parkinson’s that he refuses to surrender to. In his assessment, my father had changed for the better, but our habitual care-taking of him was holding him hostage.
Changing minds is harder than changing behavior
Brent had an idea. “I think we should see how far we can push your Dad” he said with the resolve of a doctor. He proposed a three-day father-son fishing trip on a lake in South Carolina. He quipped, “If it doesn’t kill him, he’ll have a ball.”
We fished hard and caught many stripers, despite some challenges. Dad got badly sunburned (my bad), hooked himself repeatedly, and fell flat on his face when an unexpected wave hit. Yet nothing fazed him. I had a renewed experience of my father as alive and resilient. And, he had a renewed sense of himself. By the end of the second day, he uncharacteristically demanded we take him to a restaurant to eat all of his forbidden fried foods.
After the trip, we gave a colorful account of our adventure to our family. With my help, the story was slightly embellished, what good fishing story isn’t? But it was the way my dad demonstrated his transformation with authentic exuberance that dramatically changed how everyone viewed and interacted with him. Over the next three years, we all challenged his limits to his delight. Mom took him on cruises to Alaska, up the Mississippi River, and to the 50th anniversary of the hospital he had founded. And we even continued our annual fishing trip.
Supporting significant professional change
Earlier in my coaching career, my focus was on helping a client replace bad habits with better ones. This is necessary, but insufficient, especially when significant change is called for. When an executive’s career is on the line, one can be assured that there is baggage in the form of reputation and bridges burned. Radical change must be supported on three levels: 1) a change in behavior supported by 2) a change in mindset of the client, and reinforced by 3) a change in the support systems and beliefs of others.
My father changed his behavior when my mother took him off his medications. But this didn’t change his life or his impact on others. It was the ‘fishing quest’ that shifted his thinking around his own self-imposed limitations. He returned a new man, contemplating new dreams that were as yet unfulfilled. This in turn transformed our view of him, and we enlisted in helping him fulfill those dreams to the extent that we could.
The same strategy works for executives in trouble. I still help clients change behavior. But I’ve also learned to identify an ordeal that, “if it doesn’t kill them”, facilitates a transformation for themselves, and demonstrates a genuine commitment to a new way of being in the eyes of others.