Thought Experiment: Imagine that you are . . .

Thought experiment: Imagine that you are Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s (yes, there are two y’s at the end of his name) executive coach.  How might you approach this assignment? What are the issues that you would have to think through? What emotions might you experience? And finally, how might your thinking about this assignment inform the way you approach your real-life coaching assignments?

For myself, I’d first have to get past the awe I have for Zelenskyy’s courage and accomplishments to date, even before the invasion. Being in awe of our clients rarely serves them well. Emotional Self-Awareness with regard to what we feel for our clients is essential. If we’re not tuned into those emotions, unhelpful ones could lead us astray.

My own conceptualization of the problem goes this way: President Zelenskyy and the Ukrainian people seem to have experienced an initial galvanizing adrenalin rush in responding to being invaded. Their sense of unity appears to have been intensely inspiring. But as the Russians, with their superior numbers and armaments, slog on, and as Putin’s incredibly thin veneer of civilization peels away, allowing him to authorize unspeakable brutality, the initial adrenalin rush may wear thin. How does President Zelenskyy go about leading his people through the long haul?

To be clear, I’m not asking about military strategies. I’m asking about leadership strategies, in the most difficult situation I can imagine. I’ve never been in a coaching assignment with consequences anywhere close to the consequences that this one has. Have you? Outcomes of death and the destruction of a country far outweigh the worst outcomes we might witness in our normal work, which usually involve things like firings and bankruptcies. It’s hard, but you can recover from those. Recovering from war is much, much harder. For some, impossible. So, what could we offer?

In preparation for writing this post, I consulted the Listserv of the Society of Consulting Psychology (Division 13 of the American Psychological Association). Members of SCP include many of the top executive coaches in the country, if not the world. Many thanks to those who responded.

In reading observations from my colleagues, the first thing I realized was how little I truly know about Ukrainian and Russian cultures. If our job as coach is to help clients predict their own and others’ behavior, we need to know something about the cultures of those involved.

The first step, for me at least, would be to recognize that I’m looking at the situation through an American prism. How I imagine that Ukrainian and Russian people will think, feel, and behave is likely to be wrong much of the time. Kerry Cronan, an Australian psychologist and coach, informed me that, “A critical characteristic of the Slavic cultures is that they are much more communal in their approach, as distinct from the mentality of the individualistic Westerners.” So, my ignorance would be a real problem. To be useful as a coach to President Zelenskyy I would have to put myself on a steep learning curve about Ukrainian and Russian cultures.

My potential misinterpretation of Russian and Ukranian thinking becomes compounded if I’m also unaware of my own American assumptions and biases. So coach self-awareness would be critical.

To tie this thought experiment back to our real coaching work, it is important to remember that culture is relevant every time we enter into a different organization. Each organization has a culture that shapes the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors of its members. Therefore, we need to get on a steep learning curve about the organization, never assuming, for example, that because we have successfully coached one large financial institution, we have the next one nailed.

As we enter into our fictional relationship with President Zelenskyy, we’d need to do a lot of listening, and ask intelligent questions. In addition to the valuable schooling this would give us in the Ukrainian culture, doing so would also have great value for President Zelenskyy. As he explained things to us, he would become more observant of his own thinking, giving him access to his own assumptions that may or may not be useful. Our listening and learning actually would help him think more clearly. (The same is true of the listening and learning we do with each client. Letting our clients explain things from their point of view is never a waste of time.)

As a part of our cultural learning curve, it would also be important to talk with as many of the President’s associates as practical. (I say as much as practical, because there is a war going on, after all.) In addition to sharing elements of their Ukrainian culture, these associates could also tell us about their observations of the President’s approach, what seems effective from their point of view, and what they worry about. In other words, doing a set of 360 interviews on the fly would give us a broader cultural perspective as well as allowing us to get more grounded on the man himself. Doing a set of 360 interviews, as time and resources allow, can be an invaluable tool for us with our real clients as well.

I always find it valuable to talk with my client’s colleagues. Otherwise, I’m only seeing the world through my client’s eyes, and I run the risk of becoming shaped by the limits of my client’s perspective, instead of helping him or her expand that perspective. (Of course, such opportunities typically become available to us only when we are hired by the organization, as opposed to seeing someone privately in our office.)

With regard to learning about Russian culture, so that you could help the President think through how he might respond to this or that, you probably wouldn’t get a lot of access to the Russians on the other side of the battlefield. You would have to find alternate ways to learn, such as reading, or talking with people who had lived in Russia. (Likewise, if you are coaching at GM, and want to predict the behavior of competitors, you probably wouldn’t get a lot of access to the folks at Toyota. In this kind of situation, you would have to do some indirect learning as well, maybe by talking with people who now work at GM but who may have worked at Toyota previously.)

With regard to Russia, Kerry Cronan added:

“The approach I found in Russia is to have a credible person to work with and then outreach to affirmative colleagues and work with the group. Yes, there are bully attitudes that can faze the Western outlook, but this is a process of working out the correct decision processes of the group. However, I believe that the issue with Putin is more related to a Czaristic style of governance that aims to rule by taking advantage of the collegial approach – often described by Russians as “Haos Ruski” – Russian chaos. I cannot say that I can completely understand the complexities of Russian culture in working with them – but importantly, Westerners need to understand their vulnerability and blend with the seemingly chaotic environment.”

See how complicated this is? Humility would be essential in a coach with this assignment. It’s not a bad characteristic for coaches in general, though don’t confuse humility with low self-regard. Humility in this case would simply allow you be comfortable with the fact that there is a lot you don’t know, prompting you to be open to asking questions and learning.

In addition, John Fennig, a psychologist/coach/consultant in Minnesota, talked about the importance of “assisting in securing resources” in this kind of a situation. As you talk with the President’s associates, just as when you talk with the associates of your real clients, you may discover options for obtaining resources and ways of “connecting dots” that had not yet been put together by the leaders involved. It is easy to miss things that “everybody knows,” except when they don’t.

Finally, how would you deal with the sheer terror of this situation? How would you manage your own fears, and help the President manage his? And, beyond reducing discomfort, what would make managing fear so important in this situation?

One of the chief dangers of war, I’m told, is miscalculation in what is called the “Fog of War.” Such miscalculations can lead to escalations, more brutality, and the widening of conflict. I’m fortunate that I’ve never had to experience war personally, so take what follows as speculation, informed by what I’ve learned over a lifetime as a psychologist.

I suspect that much of the “Fog of War” is linked to the amygdala. The amygdala’s job is to scour the environment for threats, and, when it thinks it sees one, to alarm us (to make us feel anxiety, anger, or even terror) so that we are motivated to take action. However, the amygdala is prone to seeing danger where none exists, and to exaggerate the danger of actual threats, encouraging us to take extreme action. (It “thinks” things like, “Better safe than sorry,” and “Live to fight another day!”) Therefore, it is essential not to trust our first impulses when we are terrified or furious. We need to assess the “danger” carefully, and reality test our impressions.

In a situation where death is a genuine threat, anxiety is warranted, certainly, but it is easy for anxiety to get out of control, leading to those miscalculations so common in war. In this case, the amygdala might encourage someone to drop The Bomb, or encourage NATO to create a “no-fly zone” over Ukraine. The Bomb is always a bad idea. But reasonable people might disagree about the no-fly zone. Such decisions, however, need to be made by our prefrontal cortex, not the amygdala. With that in mind, President Zelenskyy would need your help in managing his anxiety, so that he could make the best decisions possible.

You wouldn’t be able to help him do so unless you could manage your own fear. This can be another lesson for us in our everyday coaching work. Emotions are contagious. If your client is highly anxious, perhaps about a critical comment from a boss, don’t get caught up in your client’s anxiety. Your calmer approach can help your client move from amygdala-think to EQ-think. It helps to remember that our job as coach is to help our clients solve their problems, not to take over their problems. When we make their problems our problems, our amygdalae can hijack our own thinking.

What might we say about anxiety to President Zelenskyy? We might say, “You are right. You could die.” (And if you are in the bunker with him instead of coaching by Zoom, you could die.) “Your family could die. Many more of your people may well die. Terrible things are being done and more are coming. While keeping that in mind, talk to me about what can be done to protect Ukraine and its people over the long haul. Let’s focus on what can be done.” Helplessness invites submission, takeover, and death.

Closing Comment: I felt compelled to write something about Ukraine and President Zelenskyy for this post. He and his people are teaching the world about courage in the face of evil. We can all learn from them and perhaps apply that learning to our (less terrifying) work. That said, I also want to honor the courage shown by ethical humans who put themselves at risk in order to lead. Their work is especially important in these times when bullies of many stripes give themselves permission to take cheap shots. I’m reminded of the words of Teddy Roosevelt:

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”

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