Paul was afraid, but that wasn’t the problem, as you’ll see.
He needed to have a tough conversation with Sheila, an employee of fifteen years. Sheila needed to either change or leave. She was his wife’s best friend, one of his first employees, and surely had the best intentions. But her negativity was a poison in the culture, ever since Sheila went through a bad divorce.
Paul gave himself every reason in the world to procrastinate this conversation, and it worked. He avoided it for years. His small manufacturing business stagnated to break-even. They lost key customers because of Sheila’s attitude, and high-achieving employees found greener pastures where they didn’t have to deal with Sheila’s bureaucracy.
Paul didn’t see it yet, but in this conversation, his entire life was going to change, not only his business.
When Paul tried to coach Sheila, they bickered like an old married couple. She didn’t see him as a boss, probably because she was friends with his wife. But Paul never liked being a “boss” and went many years not standing in his authority or for results. He needed to be liked.
“I can’t do it now,” Paul said, “It will ruin her holidays.” It was mid-October, and Paul was ready to delay the conversation another quarter.
“What are you most afraid of?” I asked. One of the favorite questions of the leadership coach.
“That my wife will never forgive me for firing her best friend.” Oof. That’s a big one.
“Understandable, Paul, and what’s the fear look like?”
“What do you mean?”
“Is it bigger than you are? Smaller? Is it sharp and jagged like a serrated knife? Or is heavy and smooth like a giant bowling ball? Take a look at it.”
“It’s like 100 bags of sand crushing me. I can’t move.”
“Okay, good. Now is that true, that you can’t move?”
“It feels like it.”
“And I totally get that, but is it true?”
“I think I can move a little. I can wiggle my fingers and toes.”
“Great, keep going! One body part at a time.”
“Okay, yeah. I can move around a little, but the weight is still there.”
“Is it still crushing you?”
“No, but it’s heavy.”
“So the fear is heavy–so what? Do you want to let it stop you?”
“No, but there’s so much fear there.”
“So? Did you think one morning you’d wake up and have no fear of confronting Sheila?”
“I guess maybe I did.”
“And that’s why you’ve been waiting for so long. You’d been waiting to be unafraid. What’s courage mean to you?”
“So doing something with no fear is courageous?”
“Like eating ice cream?”
Paul laughed, “You know what I mean.”
“What I know is that most people have this crazy idea that being courageous means not having fear. But how brave is it to do something when you’re not experiencing fear? Isn’t it more brave to be afraid and act anyway? To have the strength to move under all that weight and not be stopped by it?”
“Hmm, I never thought of it that way.”
“And consider where else in your life you’re waiting for your fear to disappear, rather than using it to get inspire, take action, and show it who’s boss.”
“Whoa, many places. I’m so often paralyzed in my life by fear, and then I think the fear is the problem.”
“Exactly, but you can’t control the fear in one way. You can only control your relationship to it. You can decide that fear is a reason to not act, or a reason to act. It’s entirely up to you.”
Paul had the conversation with Sheila the next day. It wasn’t easy, but he did it. He laid out what he needed from her position and a timeline for when the change had to happen. She quit a week later. Paul’s wife said, “I was wondering how long you were going to put up with her s***t.” The following year revenue and profit rose significantly. Paul was done putting up with others’ s***t, because he no longer was a victim to his own. That’s how it works: change happens from the inside out.
Because of this, the work of a leadership coach is inevitably about helping people see where their beliefs and values are not serving them. You can know all the right things to do, but if you’re unconsciously driven by a mistaken belief about what courage is, or what fear means, it won’t matter. No inside change, no outside change.