I had a client working with someone who was making his job very difficult. My client’s team was located remotely around the world at the time, so he had to manage them remotely. Not easy.
As he was talking about this particular individual he said, “I just have to get tougher-skin to handle this person and focus on getting past this deadline.”
His use of the words “tougher-skin” caught my attention because it was out of character for him. His management style and strength as a leader drew as much from his ability to be direct, strong and clear as it did from his compassion and self-awareness. This was not a guy who was afraid of being vulnerable.
Because of this, I suspected that the term tough-skin wouldn’t be helpful in helping him manage his employee. But what to suggest as an alternative? Tough-skin, thick-skinned…etc – so many of our expressions that convey strength are associated with hardness. What could he focus on to help him deal with this person in a way that was in integrity with his leadership style?
I thought about individuals who exemplified strength without hardness or harshness, like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Thich Nhat Hanh. I wondered what their guiding metaphor was?
And it clicked – what if he focused on what he absolutely understood about himself – not the feel-good beliefs of what we try to show the world we are, or the sad, powerless parts of who we are at our worst moments. But our essence that remains before and after beliefs, self-concepts and identification.
For my client, it was compassion. He said it so matter-of-fact that. He didn’t seem to have to even think about it.
So I said to him, “The world is full of leaders with tough-skin…but a lot of them are a**holes. Then there are others who may not be jerks, but who shrink before real challenges that call for a deeper kind of strength. You don’t strike me as either type. So, how can you draw even more from your compassion to be stronger?”
He paused and said, “You’re right, that’s what I want. To lead from who I am.”
And he did just that.