Making Babies in Business
A Leading-Between-the-Lines Case Study
by Suzanne Maxwell
How do you make a baby?
Uttered in front of a leadership program for Fortune 50 managers, at the Center for Creative Leadership, the question slipped out of my mouth as a response to a participant’s question. Surprised at myself and a little shocked at my asking such a thing in a professional business environment, I took a deep breath, relaxed to the extent possible and went with it. How DO you make a baby? I repeated. Instantly everyone straightened with rapt attention. There was a palpable shift in the energy of that room. Sandy, who had asked the initial question, let out an audible gasp, What? as his jaw dropped down toward his chest. Turning to him, I asked again, Sandy, how do you make a baby? He just looked at me, taken aback. Not wishing to embarrass him, I quickly began to answer my own question.
It’s for darn sure you can’t make one by yourself. It’s takes two completely different sets of parts and processes to create, to give life. The first part is about breaking through, that potent male-like energy of thrusting and hardness, piercing and opening, making way for what may happen next. The other part is about roundness and softness, a gentler receptivity, that female-like part that surrounds and embraces, the engulfing void if you will. Without both of these life doesn’t happen. Neither by itself is enough.
My co-facilitators and colleagues, clustered behind the one-way observation mirror in the little room behind the classroom, their noses now pressed to the glass, whispered excitedly to each other, Did you guys hear what she just said? Wonder how she’s gonna get herself out of this one! Later when they asked me what I was thinking, I had to admit that I wasn’t thinking, I was simply responding to something that wanted desperately to be said in that classroom. My only task that day was keeping my thinking and needing-to-be-in-control mind out of the way long enough for a powerful message to come through and instruct us all.
Earlier in the day, Sandy, a strong and verbal male, had risked his vulnerability with us in this class. He openly revealed that he had been asked by his company to relocate himself and his whole team to Colorado, then had made the request to his team by pushing, cajoling, and extolling the benefits of their going with him. He managed to extract promises from every one of them that they would go too. So he packed up and moved to Colorado. He was the first one there. Then time passed and he found himself the only one there. Not one single member of his team made the journey with him. What did I do wrong? he finally lamented to us in the class. They all said they would come with me and not even one of them kept their word! In response, I began with my question, How do you make a baby?
The classroom erupted in a flurry of voices all competing to be heard, relieving me of further explanation. Now all I had to do was facilitate and help give birth to the message their voices carried. They wouldn’t all agree, but somewhere between the lines of their message, truth might be found, truth being, in my opinion, simply what the opposites have in common.
Polarities and opposite opinions were flying around everywhere. When I push people too hard, they agree with me just to get me off their back, then do exactly what they want anyway. You gotta push people or else you’ll never get anything done. When I want to get something done through others, I ask them what’s important to them, how they might go about accomplishing it if it were left up to them. Personal lives are important, families and quality of life are as much a part of getting work done as the work itself. I don’t think the personal has any place at work, we rent behaviors from people so they have a choice. They can either get on the train or get off the train. I am constantly called to be sensitive to my people’s needs, and often I feel really out of my league. I don’t have time to be a babysitter, and I’m not a psychologist.
The truth about being a really good leader, if truth really exists, might be found somewhere between these seeming polarities.
Questions to Explore:
Why is it that as human beings we say we’ll do something, then later find we just can’t manage to pull it off? What are the conditions that either move us toward the completion of a promise or push us away? How might those conditions be like making a baby? What might be learned from Sandy’s experience?
We spent a lot of time that day simply talking with each other and at the end of our rather animated conversation, what emerged was some common agreement about what being a really good leader means. Being a really good leader involves us in finding ways to create conditions for success for our staffs, those people who actually do the work we are responsible for, since we, as leaders all have responsibilities that are way too complicated for us to get them done alone or in a vacuum.
Like making babies, we have to provide some push, some breaking through, some energy and thrust behind initiatives. Often too, we as leaders are asked to take the first step, begin the foreplay and help generate the enthusiasm and commitment to carry on. Paradoxically, we must also provide safe open-ended spaces and processes wherein people can explore, have juicy conversations, relate to each other, bring their own issues and polarities to the table, and find their own way in a seeming dark but rich environment. The coming to fruition of any endeavor requires both, both the thrusting effort and the safe receptive place of creativity. Any one of these seeming polarities by itself doesn’t lead to a successful outcome, it takes an artful blend of both, just like making babies.
After my infamous, How do you make a baby? facilitation at the Center for Creative Leadership, my colleagues gave me the video of it as a gift for my birthday. I get it out and watch it every so often, to remind me of the power of what I learned about leadership that day.
Suzanne is a principal in ProcessWorks, a consulting and facilitation group and serves as adjunct faculty to the Center for Creative Leadership. Her work focuses on tools that go beyond the classics of strategic planning and team-building and reach into the realm of harnessing the chaotic power of these changing times, for the sustainability and betterment of our organizations and businesses, our communities, our lives. She has worked for 20 years in Fortune 50 businesses, as well as public and private organizations of all sizes. Open Space Technology is one of the tools that Suzanne uses as a non-hierarchical means for unleashing organizational or community-wide creativity and change. Contact MaxAssoc@aol.com or 505-867-3942