Watching someone light up with happiness and amazement when they accomplish something new is one of the coolest things to witness. And it’s twice as enriching when you have been part of the journey towards the outcome.
I’ve been taking Marcia, my daughter, swimming for about three years now. Being in the water for me verges on a spiritual experience. I prefer it to being on land in lots of ways. Freedom, weightlessness, expression in three dimensions, beauty of different kinds above and below the waterline. Gills would be a fine addition to my anatomy!
So it was with joy and pride that I watched Marcia grow in confidence enough to achieve a breakthrough last week. She is now able to jump off the side of the pool, plunge under water, resurface and paddle back to the side and pull herself out. She even got as far as treading water without help. It’s so awesome to watch.
Mostly this was her own doing, however I did have to gently encourage her to push past her desire to wallow in the shallows pretending to be Ariel the Little Mermaid. But all that was required was a little motivation and then being attentive to when she needed assistance staying afloat, and patient with her efforts.
Which sums up a lot of what the coaching facet of leadership is all about. Trial and error, otherwise known as experiential learning (you might call this playing) often provide the deepest and most rapid progress along the development curve. The reason that it isn’t so widely practiced in veterinary hospitals is a perceived combination of increased expensive, time consumption and also because it involves both teacher and student accepting some risk.
When you work as a coach, you are helping someone to explore a subject. You ask questions that unlock ideas and thought processes. You challenge thinking and behaviours that aren’t helpful or are, in some instances, pure horse manure.
In effect coaching is really about setting people free to explore both the world within and without, expanding awareness of “reality" and environment in the process. Which is a fancy way of saying getting better at doing cool shit well, on their own.
The thing that holds kids back in the swimming pool is their fear of drowning. A useful, taught, response at first. But if fear wins then no further development will occur. So it’s the job of coach to unlock the fear and help the coachee push through to the rewards on the other side.
For my daughter that meant giving her time to explore the water and learn to love it. And eventually, when she had developed some fledgling skills, to encourage her to take a risk and try…. but being present to support her when she wasn't quite ready (and started sinking). It also meant giving praise for the effort and setting fun goals for her to encourage that effort. (In this instance I pretended to be on a sinking ship at sea and needed a mermaid to rescue me.)
In Marcia's previous worldview, swimming was an impossibility. My world view was that swimming is second nature. All I did was help her to start bridging the gap and in doing so expand her horizons and abilities.
If you can master it, this approach can and should be applied in the workplace.
When you teach, you raise awareness of what is possible, in effect you reveal a possibility. But when you coach you help propel someone from possibility to a new version of ‘reality’.
So be the coach for your people as often as you can. Encourage them to have clarity in their goals. Walk with them towards their fear. Be amazed and reward their efforts and struggles. Push them to try again. And again. And again. Catch them compassionately when they fall. And rejoice that you had the honour of being there when they finally stay afloat and realise that their world just changed forever.
It’s the best feeling a leader (and a dad) can ever have.