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“I don’t know the answer to that.”

I have a really smart, very successful coaching client we’ll call Leslie. She is used to knowing a lot of things. In fact, I would say she is used to being “a knower of things” in her field. She has many other admirable qualities, of course, she’s politically savvy, hard-working, and big-hearted.

Luckily for Leslie she has a really smart, inquisitive four year old who asks her a lot of questions, like “why does Elmo talk like that?” and “why can’t we sing the theme song from Chicago really loud at daycare?”

Leslie has developed the habit of saying “I don’t know the answer to that” to her son when he asks one of his fabulous questions. And she doesn’t feel bad about it – and her son doesn’t either. He just comes up with another question.

However, at work it’s a different story. Leslie feels tremendous pressure to know how to solve any problem that crosses her path, even, and maybe especially, things that others aren’t even quite aware are problems…yet. During a particularly stressful week, I asked her whether she could say “I don’t know the answer to that” at work. I suggested that this could be a powerful response – giving her colleagues an opportunity to pause, reflect on the question, find other sources of help or information.

She was (rather uncharacteristically) quiet for a minute. I imagined her toes lined up with the rim of the Grand Canyon as she considered her options. “Well…I guess I could try…”

Does this have the ring of familiarity for you? Do you have a hard time admitting to yourself when you don’t know something? Or how to do it “right?” Or what success might look like at this new level?

I can relate – I know I “prefer not” to admit my not-knowing-ness. And yet, if I’m not willing to line my own toes up with that Canyon’s edge I will not learn anything new, I will not move on to the next question, like Leslie’s son, I will soon find life stale and dull. And so will others’ around me.

So, you find yourself wrestling with a tough question, simply say “I don’t know the answer to that” and find out what the next question might be. Leslie did, and it started to bring down her stress level.

What’s your Invictus?

If you haven’t seen Invictus yet, don’t miss it in the theater. I was resistant at first because I’m not a rugby fan and it looked like it might be a bit cheesy in that way sports movies can be.

I was wrong, and I haven’t talked to so many people about a movie in years. Especially not a movie about real events and real people. (Well to be totally honest there was too much rugby for my taste, but it was a Clint Eastwood film after all!)

We all know the incredible story of Mandela’s 27 years in prison, eventual release, election as South Africa’s first black president and how his leadership and faith has helped his country heal from devastating racism without any major violence.

What this movie focused on was a seemingly minor situation unfolding against the backdrop of these incredible personal and historical feats:

Mostly-white South African Rugby team loved by most white South Africans and loathed by most black South Africans has a chance at the Rugby World Cup. Mandela gets pressured by his closest supporters and allies to change the name of the team and bring on more black players as part of his new administration. He refuses, to the dismay of his colleagues and many of his citizens.

Instead, he personally befriends the unassuming (and somewhat desperate) white captain of the rugby team and shares with him that the team’s success has the potential of uniting the whole country during a very divided time.

The film is called Invictus because it’s the name of a poem Mandela relied on to help maintain his faith and perspective in jail. Mandela shares this poem with the rugby Captain, which in turn inspires him, and he’s able to inspire his struggling team to victory. And, Mandela turns out to have been right – it does unite the country, at least for that day.

How did Mandela have the courage to stay true to his convictions, despite so much hatred and opposition? What enabled him to withstand the pressure not just from his enemies, but from his closest friends?

Most of us won’t ever be caught up in the cross-hairs of history in the way Mandela was, but I know I deeply resonate with the question of how to keep my faith and motivation going through tough times.

Regardless of the scale of change we might be working toward, or the challenges we might face, each of us is tasked with finding our own version of Invictus, something to carry us through and help inspire those around us. What’s yours?

A dramatic leadership lesson from the bird world

The other morning I was in the small park near my house with my dog. I was talking to a neighbor, when a loud cawing noise caught our attention. We looked out across the athletic field and saw a bald eagle flying straight toward us, trailed by 5 or 6 very cranky-sounding crows. Now, this is a park in the middle of South Seattle, not near water, not near any hills. Needless to say a bald eagle in our ‘hood was a surprise. What happened next nearly made us fall over.

As the eagle came toward us, it banked straight upward over our heads, closely followed by the crows, cawing madly. (There are two crow’s nests in this park and they’re already re-building for spring. Crow babies are an eagle snack favorite.)

As the eagle crested a big-leaf maple, it did a quick flip in the air and caught a crow in its talons, flipped back over and flew away. The crows got quiet fast, and disbursed quickly.

I thought about this amazing sight all day and shared it with several people. I found my storyline switching from one of sympathy for the crow to “if that crow hadn’t been trying to up the eagle’s…ahem…tail…it wouldn’t have gotten caught.”

So here’s the leadership lesson I took away:

If you’re chasing something bigger than you, make sure you’re ready for it. Do what you can to understand the nature of your target and get ready to be nimble if it starts to chase you back! And, if you’re feeling chased by worries, sometimes turning around and tackling one is the best approach.