03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Dialogue on Leadership in Uncertain Times: Session 5

Nine months ago my client, JFM, was fired from her job as President of a medium-sized company. She entered leadership coaching with me as a result, and we decided to chronicle her experience, sharing with you, the reader, the essence of our work together. After last month's entry, I received multiple inquiries similar to this one: "What happened to JFM? Is she still working?" I laughed; I had been so focused on the Big Important Ideas that had emerged in coaching that it hadn't occurred to me that people were equally, if not more interested in the storyline. When I shared with JFM that people were curious about what had happened to her she responded with this:

JFM: That's interesting...For the first time in this process, the fact that people are asking about the person behind the drama makes me feel a little self-conscious. What has happened to me on the inside is much more valuable than what has happened on the outside. Externally, I've been on some interesting job searches, even following one overseas, I've taken myself on a 10 day meditation retreat, and, while I am still looking for a position, I'm also considering an MBA.

On the inside, the awareness that has come as a result of what I have been through is nothing short of profound. I have changed. I can no longer hide certain truths about myself, from myself. I have become more aware of my weaknesses and strengths. I will re-enter work a more mature and integrated leader.

As JFM continues to look for a job, she is experiencing some financial stress, and is challenged daily by uncertainty. (Uncertainty is a given of existence. During transitions, however, it is more difficult to hide from this truth.)

In our earlier sessions JFM was meticulously exploring her shortcomings as a leader. In this session, she began to recognize that her previous job had not played to her strengths. As a result, her job search is taking an interesting turn, as she begins to pursue positions that she had not previously considered.

JFM: There is a memory from my childhood that keeps coming to me. I was about six years old, and I lived in an apartment building. One day, I went outside, apprehending the eight apartments in front of me, and I began to sing. I sang to the entire building, bringing the families together in my mind. I felt like a conductor. Eventually, several people came out and watched with amusement.

Although I left my company feeling small and humbled, I realize in retrospect that I did not do well in my last job, in part because the business was too small. I needed a larger playing field. I was bumping up against the walls. Recently a headhunter approached me about a key leadership role within a large organization, something I previously would not have considered. I'm going on this interview.

Jan: Sometimes we have to get thrown out of a job in order to recognize that it wasn't a good fit. This is a challenge in a bad economy. Nonetheless, it is inspiring to watch what you are doing in the face of this challenge. Last time we spoke you were going for a third interview overseas. What happened?

JFM: Yes, I travelled for the third time overseas and participated in a day-long interview. I ended up not getting the job. The position was a new one, and they decided not to create it. I was beginning to get a feel for the politics at the top of the house. The dynamics were complex and ego-driven. People were fighting for power and recognition, and I realized that I would need to be a buffer for my team in order to succeed.

Jan: This sounds like a replay of what you just left. It is interesting to watch: you are not highly political, but you wind up in organizations that are politically toxic. With high emotional intelligence you figure out how to work around this, appeasing the egos of various players at the top of the house, managing your peers with relative equanimity, and then creating a cocoon for the people underneath you. You are brilliant at leading those reporting into you, balancing humanity with accountability, creating a trusting and open environment in which people speak the truth, titrating your leadership to fit the needs of each team member, and at the same time creating an entity that is larger than the sum of its parts. You do this in the middle of a war zone, warding off the negative politics that threaten your high performing group. As I listen to you, I am struck by the fact that you were about to re-create this situation again.

JFM: That is so true.

Jan: We all have favorite themes that we play out in our lives over and over again. The reasons are many; in part, it is a way to project our internal world onto the world around us, so that we can see what we are up to, learn certain lessons, or integrate experiences that we have been unable to resolve. Our lives become a form of theater, as we try to learn something about ourselves that we can't quite grasp. We usually do this without awareness. Eventually, either we recognize what we are doing, take responsibility, and invite change, or we begin to form fixed ideas about "what life is like" based on what we continually recreate. In your case, you might begin to assume this: "The truth of the business world is that the top of the house is inevitably ego driven, short sighted, and greedy. That's just how it is. The business world is tough, and if you want to be in it, you have to deal with this."

To hang onto our view of "how life is" we are forced to narrow our scope, the bandwidth that we live within. This eventually shows up as boredom, restlessness, habitual dreaming about the future, endless hunger for more material gain, anxiety, cynicism, burn out, or a lack of spontaneity and joy. Watching people grow old, you will notice that there is continual change throughout the life cycle. It is not possible to stand still. If you do not grow, you will contract. This includes our worldview; if it isn't continually updated, in a state of perpetual evolution, then it will inevitably contract, becoming rigid and calcified.

I suspect that the lack of "elbow room" in your last position reflected, in part, your inability to truly collaborate in a productive way with those above you. You don't have to recreate your old scenario. Imagine what you could do with your leadership if a significant portion of your energy was not devoted to the protection of your team.