Can a “Learner” really be Decisive? Exploring the paradox …

aikido 01To me, the most intriguing paradox of Conscious Business—and the hardest to explain—is the interdependence of openness and resolve.  How is it possible (even necessary) to be curious, open, humble, and yet at the same time, decisive and action-oriented?

This question is not just academic. If it weren’t possible to be both decisive and open, the whole set of mindsets and skills that we call Conscious Business would be of very little use.  Why would anyone with leadership responsibilities want to practice being curious, flexible and open, if it meant being ambivalent, indecisive and fickle as a chameleon?

I believe that skillful leaders get a “feel” for how to be “Decisive Learners.” They don’t just get it cognitively. An experiential component leads them to “get it,” in the same way that you first found your balance on a bicycle or learned to look up while dribbling a ball.

By the same token, there is a risk of over-explaining such things. How long would you want me to explain how to ride a bicycle?  (For that matter, how long would you want me to evoke the paradox of the decisive learner before asking you what you already knew about it?)

So my approach in this post is going to be provocative and evocative rather than comprehensive or prescriptive.  My hope is that you will post a reply or join the conversation on twitter, using #decisivelearner.

I’m going to offer two stories: one from the martial arts and one from business. Then it will be over to you!

As you may know Tai Chi is one of the “soft” martial arts, like Aikido. The joke about Tai Chi is “how can you expect to defend yourself when you are moving in slow motion?” Yet meticulous practice of these slow movements (the “form”), as well as “holding” postures, are a critical part of training for the dynamic and interactive part of Tai Chi: “Push Hands.” And Push Hands can be lightening fast (and rock hard).

Traditionally, Push Hands is not taught to novices. I had been learning the “form” and related exercises for almost a year before I was allowed to join a Push Hands class in 1989.  That is when I got my first taste of “open/flexible/receptive and tough/decisive/resolute.” My assignment was to try to “push” my Tai Chi teacher, Lenzie Williams—i.e.  make him lose his balance, or even just move his feet. The difficulty began when I couldn’t even find anything to push on. No matter where I thrust my arms, he seemed to just disappear. (He was “yielding”). And yet, when he pushed me, I went flying across the room. It was a major “aha.” I felt, quite tangibly, how it was possible to be totally receptive, open and relaxed, and at the same time grounded, decisive and powerful. Lenzie demonstrated these qualities without a shadow of a doubt. The only problem was I had no idea how to do it! I had taken the most important step in my learning journey: I was now “consciously (rather than just unwittingly) incompetent.”

With practice, I became “consciously competent,” which meant that if I really paid attention I could evade my more experienced classmates, and sometimes even push them out. The thing I paid attention to was staying relaxed and receptive as I yielded and also as I pushed.  Lenzie always emphasized (and demonstrated) that the greatest strength came from the greatest “yeilding.” It was by practicing softness that we developed our “rooting,” the ability to stand firm like a tree, and push people in a way that was powerful and irresistible.

So that is the martial arts story. I also want to share with you the story of a CEO who transformed his leadership style from directive-and-controlling to receptive-and-encouraging without losing any of his action-orientation; in fact, he became more resolute, not less.

What happened is this: Bob wanted to engage his staff more. He recognized that there were unintended consequences when he “cut to the chase” and went into director mode. His staff would become remarkably passive, waiting for him to tell them what to do. This was frustrating to Bob. What he really wanted was for them to be energized and take more initiative, yet he seemed to be influencing them to do the opposite.

Following an Immunity to Change approach, Bob wrote down his improvement goal: he wanted to be more receptive and encouraging to his staff, particularly when they were tackling a problem that he had a strong opinion about.  Next, he listed the things he did (unwittingly) that undermined this goal: interrupting, taking over, correcting, focusing on flaws, failing to inquire. He asked himself what did he worry would happen if he did the opposite of those things? The worry that first occurred to him was that they would steer the company into an impasse, and the results would reflect badly on him as a leader.

In other words, Bob came to see that he was ambivalent. He was committed to energizing and empowering his staff, but he was equally committed to never letting them get off track. Each of these competing commitments triggered the other: when he got carried away “correcting” his staff, he resolved anew to empower them, but when he trusted them to take charge, he felt an equally compelling need to re-assert control. He was oscillating in a state of “un-resolve,” never fulfilling either commitment to his satisfaction.

Bob did not resolve his ambivalence by “trying harder;” the problem was not willpower. Rather, he began to question the assumption that was holding it in place: that if he let others take the initiative, he would end up being neglectful (because they needed him to course correct) or worse, obsolete (because they didn’t). So long as this assumption remained “true” for him, he was bound to buck and bridle when he felt the initiative passing into others’ hands and out of his control.

Instead of remaining subject to this assumption, however, Bob conducted a set of deliberate challenges to it, in each case comparing what the assumption would have predicted to what actually happened.  First he tried a new behavior: he listened; he left the initiative to his subordinates; he made himself notice, appreciate and acknowledge their progress. Then, he asked himself, “Well, did they go off track? Am I being irresponsible or neglectful? Do I feel superfluous? Are they wondering what value I’m adding?”

To his astonishment (and relief), when subjected to such direct scrutiny, his “Big Assumption” crumbled; its predictions just did not hold up. And just beyond the movie that had been projected by this limiting belief lay a much bigger landscape of possibilities: his staff could seize the reigns enthusiastically, and he could feel good about it; they could suggest things he had never thought of, and he could be intrigued. He felt much more connected to his staff, more “on task” as he delegated, and more fulfilled as he discovered his role as a coach and mentor. Now his way of adding value wasn’t just “to “keep the business on track;” it was also, in a more complex view of the world, to “grow leaders.”

Through this learning journey, Bob did a lot of letting go. He became less controlling, and more curious, open, receptive, engaging, encouraging, and patient. As he put it, he learned to avoid the “impatience trap.”  His staff noticed the changes, and were responsive and relieved.  As Bob had hoped, they became more energized and took more initiative. He willingly relinquished the initiative.  Most of all, he let go of a way of thinking about himself: a self-image as “company savior,” as the one who could discern the risks that others missed, and save the day. He also let go of the corresponding self-doubt: his fear that he would have no other way of adding value.

But here is the paradox: in letting go in these ways, Bob did not become ambivalent or indecisive. On the contrary, he became resolute.  He stopped oscillating between competing commitments, and became more consistent in his mindset and behaviors. Rather than getting caught on the horns of a false dilemma (“if I empower my flock, they will stray”), he was now integrating the poles of a paradox. He could offer both challenge and support, leadership and development.

Bob’s story is not unique. It describes a pattern of human development that Psychologist Robert Kegan has described as the movement from subject to object[1]. An assumption or belief that we were subject to—that functioned as a premise for our behavior without our being aware of it—becomes an object of reflection, and can thus be modified to adapt to the realities we are dealing with.

My aim in evoking Bob’s story was to provoke recognition of this pattern. Have you observed it in someone at work? In your family? In yourself? Can you recognize how this form of human development follows a paradoxical pattern: on the one had you let go of a limiting belief or assumption—of an attachment to seeing things a certain way; you become more flexible, open, receptive to possibilities; you learn. On the other hand, you become more resolute: less ambivalent, more aware, congruent, clear and decisive.

If so, then you may also be able to see the connection between Bob’s story and the martial arts story above: each illustrates not only the possibility, but the necessity of being both receptive and resolute, decisive and open.

So now, over to you. Do you have a story or a comment that could help us understand what it means (and what it takes) to be a #decisivelearner?

[1] Robert Kegan, The Evolving Self (Harvard University Press, 1982)

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