Targeting a Change of Heart
A leadership coach and consultant explores how confidence in Basic Goodness influences his work.
by Diederik Prakke, Senior Trainer-Coach, Hanoi, Vietnam
edited by Jayne Sutton, Shambhala Times Volunteer Editor
Phanlany was a happy girl, her grandfather’s sweetheart. He taught her to play the flute, and she touched hearts when she played at school, and eventually in concert halls — where important people came to hear her play. Once during a concert, she looked at the audience and was shocked — some people seemed bored, distracted. They had come to mingle with the crowd, not to truly listen. She felt her most precious gift rejected, and from that day onward she refused to perform in public. She became a gloomy lady walking around with her instrument in a backpack.
One day, a girl stopped her in the park and asked what was in her pack. Phanlany held her flute in her hands, and before she knew it, she had played a sequence of songs. When she looked up, a large crowd had gathered. Tearfully, she thanked the girl for helping her reconnect to that life force.
When I share this story with participants in leadership courses they immediately get it — while we are born with hopes and dreams, we get hurt along the way. We downsize our dreams, and try to laugh off the sense that we’ve failed to become what we were meant to be. My invitation then is to use the leadership course to bring the original wholeheartedness of my participants back to life.
The Aim of Leadership Development
For those at the very top — a CEO or high government official — boosting leadership competence must make sense as an investment. It is an investment that can pay off handsomely, if all involved are committed to working with the full reality of the situation, including existing attitudes and inertia, mindsets and beliefs. Beliefs determine our feelings, feelings determine our behavior, behavior determines results. Merely transferring new knowledge and skills is rarely enough; the consistent application of competencies depends on reshaping beliefs and feelings.
So I invite my participants to take a fresh look. Not a naive look, but a deep and thorough look: a look of goodness — the recognition that by nature people are basically good, and inherently motivated to contribute to meaningful results. Starting from this assumption changes the job of the manager from pushing people to high performance through perks and punishments, into essentially creating space for greatness.
Some might argue that this outlook is hopelessly naive and embarrassingly optimistic. But maybe it is hopelessly naive to hope that aggression can provide a path to long-term positive results. No ruler or military would be strong enough to save humanity against its wish, if indeed humanity were basically bad. Perhaps that’s a reason for optimism — even the worst leaders act fundamentally from good intentions, misguided and frustrated though they may be.
As Sakyong Mipham Rinpoche notes: “If we hold the belief that humanity has already failed, and try to limit the damage with a mediocre social vision, we are surrendering to an underlying belief that humanity is bad. When we stop believing in humanity’s possibilities, we stop building our future.”
Enormous things have been achieved, in part, through pushing and negativity. How much more could be achieved without it? Realistically, we have no option but to aim at a change of hearts to truly address today’s pressing problems.
Inviting a Change of Heart
The challenge is to offer a glimpse of basic goodness as an actual experience. Participants often resist approaches such as empathic listening or nonviolent communication — It won’t work in our organization, it won’t work in Asia, it won’t work in government, etc. Such skepticism is healthy: At the end of the day, participants will not, and should not, do anything they don’t believe is at least worth trying. But I challenge them to try some tools with an open mind and to bring in real-life cases where they doubt my approach would work. Role-playing and discussion often lead to the next click: “So that’s what you mean.”
If asked by the commissioner of a leadership assignment to guarantee an attitude change by a fixed number of participants, I decline flat-out. Such a promise would run counter to the principle I work from: People are basically good and as they realize this, they naturally do good, and attitude change has to be a free choice. Any attempt at coercion would negate that these principles are true, universal, self-evident, and worthwhile. Similarly I am critical in contributing to codes of conduct or staff assessment and performance reward schemes as soon as I sense a view and attempt to entice or coerce bad boys and girls into good behavior.
At some point you believe in basic goodness or you don’t, and you aim to manifest it fully or you don’t. Each of us must decide whether we want to work wholeheartedly on ourselves. As the Sakyong says, “Of course, we have to discover for ourselves whether it is true that humans and their society are good. But if we’re not buying into that reality, then we are buying into some other version.”
An organization can function beautifully if a few bright minds operate from confidence in basic goodness. But it is up to top management to decide whether this is the fundamental value, and then follow through and align all actions to make this principle part of the corporate culture and direction. Enlightened leadership is not a matter of installing a new software and henceforth running the new default. It is a continuous process of working with the basic mindset of all members of the organization.
Zooming in on Feelings and Beliefs
I lead participants in exploring how feelings and beliefs drive behavior. The “intention-effect chain” starts, for instance, when a manager is dissatisfied with the behavior of a staff member. We map out the existing chain, where intention and effect are misaligned because we are starting from a problem. So we redesign the chain, starting from the desired behavior backward to feelings and beliefs that might establish a positive chain.
Manager’s intention: The staff member should do the work well
Manager’s feeling: Distrustful, stressed
Manager’s behavior: Give meticulous instructions and supervise closely
Manager’s belief: If left to chance, things go wrong. I can force things to go right
Staff member’s behavior: Hiding from instruction, deliver substandard work
Staff member’s interpretation of the manager’s feeling: Disrespectful, moody
Staff member’s own feeling: Fear, dislike, irritability
To redesign this dynamic, we start with the desired behavior, then work back to beliefs and feelings that would engender that behavior. We can then make a guess about how the manager’s actual feelings and behavior would evolve.
Redesigned Intention-Effect Chain
Manager’s intention: That the other person does the work well
Staff member’s behavior: Working independently, asking questions if unsure
Staff member’ own feeling: Confident, trusted, relaxed
Staff member’s interpretation of the manager’s feeling: Trusting, supportive, friendly
Manager’s feeling: Confident, relaxed, seeing goodness
Manager’s behavior: Friendly, willing to delegate, sharing why it matters, asking the opinions of the staff member, sometimes giving suggestions if asked
Manager’s belief: The world will not collapse because of a mistake. The staff wants to do well and will come to me for help if I am consistently kind. My earlier beliefs were unhelpful and unrealistic.
We come to realize that kindness and decency remain the best and most robust “strategy” for obtaining reliable, great results. The Sakyong writes in his new book The Shambhala Principle: Discovering Humanity’s Hidden Treasure: “Many may feel that kindness is impractical…However, kindness is extremely practical, for it cuts through isolation, fear, and aggression. All of us can remember moments of kindness that changed our day, at least—and maybe our lives.” He further points out that, “discovering our worthiness does not particularly guarantee that a better society will materialize. . . Building a good human society will take manual labor. It will not happen automatically. . . A cruise ship does not turn on a dime, and good fortune must be earned.”
Imperfection and Vulnerability
Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche wrote, “You have to admit to yourself that you are not a 100 percent ideal student. … As long as that is acknowledged, it is not regarded as absolutely evil at all. … It only becomes problematic if you try to philosophize or rationalize the whole thing.”
So participants are invited to share their imperfections in a safe learning environment, where they decide how much they share. Progressively they come to trust the process and each other. As trainers and coaches we must recognize that we are imperfect as well. Decades ago I hoped that by working hard on myself, I would become so perfect that I would never embarrass myself. But now it seems that the greatest step to peace and joy is to befriend and be honest about my imperfections. This vulnerability can become a stepping stone.
In our work together, my chief colleague and I have identified our individual strengths and challenges. My colleague has a talent and passion for allowing participants to feel completely accepted as they are. Yet she sometimes will settle for satisfaction on the part of participants, at the expense of impact for the client organization. Myself, I yearn to help people experience radically new possibilities, but I sometimes try to force the issue. Thus we complement each other, to the benefit of our clients, even as we certainly also rub each other the wrong way (probably also for the benefit of our clients). We wholeheartedly support each other in our mutual pursuit, recognizing that ultimately our difference is only a matter of emphasis.
The participants — particularly those who challenge us — represent another stepping stone. We extend genuine interest and inquisitiveness; we allow space in order to better understand the need that is being expressed. More often than not a participant we may have labelled as “challenging” can become our friend and teacher. Our mutual vulnerability in exploring where we feel misunderstood can lead to deeper insight than might have occurred if everything went according to plan.
Confidence in the View
These days, it’s a great relief to find that my beliefs are being affirmed by leading thinkers and researchers. The passion and energy I used to waste on arguing and second-guessing whether my stubborn belief in basic goodness was valid and relevant, is now available to make a contribution.
For example, Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, as well as this year’s To Sell Is Human: The Surprising Truth About Moving Others, shows that companies get better results when, instead of driving with perks and punishments, they make space for top performance. Pink points out that operating from the premise that people are basically good and inherently eager to contribute to meaningful results yields not only higher job satisfaction but also better results for the company. His work, and that of many others, is enjoying great resonance and popularity in the business world at large.
While these trends are encouraging, a vast majority of leaders and followers is still deeply invested in the opposite view — trying to predict and control human behavior through tight rules and regulations… At least I know that the potential market for our services will remain healthy for the foreseeable future!