I would read anything by Irvin Yalom, which is – far more than its subject matter – how I came to be reading his book Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Dread of Death. I first encountered his deeply compassionate writings when a colleague recommended his book Love’s Executioner and Other Tales of Psychotherapy. I have enjoyed a number of his books including his novels: Lying on the Couch made me laugh out loud.
Yalom’s work as a psychotherapist has contributed enormously to his field. Whilst, historically, some psychotherapists have taken the view that psychotherapy is all about the client, Yalom has understood the impossibility for the psychotherapist of being a blank canvas – a distant and dispassionate observer. For any man or woman brings a personal history to the role of therapist. The therapist needs to cultivate self awareness in order not to entangle clients in his or her own unfinished business.
What’s more, dispassion and distance does little to promote healing for the client. Yalom stands alongside Carl Rogers and others in viewing relationship and especially unconditional positive regard as an important contributory factor when it comes to the success of therapy. His writings offer many examples of interactions with clients which might well horrify colleagues from other branches of his profession.
Now, since I work as a coach and my clients are leaders, you may well be wondering “what has this got to do with me?” The truth is that both coaches and leaders need high levels of self-awareness if they are to be effective. Daniel Goleman (in his book Working with Emotional Intelligence) lists three competencies which are concerned with self-awareness, based on research into what makes us effective at work. Our self awareness is also the basis for our ability to relate to others – our ability to lead, to influence, to develop others (and so on) depends on our willingness to understand others and this, in turn, depends on our willingness to understand ourselves.
Perhaps the greatest challenge is to have empathy for others even whilst recognising the fullness of their strengths, weaknesses, quirks and limitations. We can only do this if we can view ourselves in the fullness of our own strengths, weaknesses, quirks and limitations. There can be a paradox here; for if we believe that excellence in leadership depends on being better than our fellow human beings, we undermine the very basis for our outstanding performance as a leader.
It’s for this reason that the quote above strikes such a deep chord. When we can listen to the wild dogs barking in our own cellars, we can begin to understand ourselves – and others. It takes a huge measure of compassion to be present to all sorts of thoughts, feelings, characteristics and motivations which, as children, we have learnt to condemn. It takes compassion, discipline and dedication.
So, if you want to get by as a leader, you can afford to read this posting – and move on. If, though, you want to go beyond getting by, I invite you to ponder the quote at the top of this posting. How willing are you to listen to the wild dogs barking in your cellar?