When the Executive Says: “Let Me Be Honest”
As I begin this week’s post for VIM Executive Coaching, I am suddenly reminded of a camp counselor I once knew named “Doc.” I think his given name was Robert, but to all of us kids he was Doc. Doc was a high school mathematics teacher and assistant principal during the school year, but over the summers he coached baseball.
Doc had a fascinating story, especially fascinating to a group of 11 and 12-year-old kids who were pretty much devoid of any baseball talent. For a few years (and he had some wrinkled old pictures to prove it), Doc made it all the way up to Triple-A baseball. He played one season for the Buffalo Bison’s, and two seasons for another team, I think Toledo. He even shared that if it hadn’t have been for WWII, he might have brought him up to the big leagues.Doc got injured. He never told us how, but he walked with a limp.
He was the best coach I ever knew, and one of the best men too. For he had the ability to be honest with us aspiring ball players and at the same time to be compassionate. One of my friends, a kid named Ted, wore thick glasses. A lovely, good kid, he could not hit the side of a barn with a tennis ball, let alone a curve ball thrown by a pitcher. Doc never yelled at him, never made him feel bad. Instead, he had Ted focus on his stance and his swing. “Don’t worry about being Babe Ruth,” said Doc, “Be the best Ted at hitting you can be.” Ted developed a beautiful swing, and to everyone’s amazement he hit foul balls and pop-ups from time to time.
Ted was just about a guaranteed strike-out, but Doc never let him get down on himself. One day, Ted got up to the plate and for whatever reason his beautiful swing made contact with a fastball. Had Ted not been so flabbergasted at seeing the ball fly, he would have rounded the bases for a home run. He stopped short and scored a Triple. Doc called a time-out, ran to Third Base to shake Ted’s hand. The kid was mobbed by several other players (coaching is infectious!). After that point, Ted would hit the ball with more confidence. He was not an automatic strikeout.
No, Ted did not become a Major League Baseball player. I did an internet search on him not long ago, and saw that he became a lawyer, advocating for the poor and disabled. I have no doubt that he occasionally thinks of his old baseball coach.
Doc could have said, “Let me be honest with you Ted, you will never amount to anything as a player. In fact, you’re not much of an athlete. Why not help me with the equipment and towels?” Had he done that, I am sure Ted would have quietly resigned himself to that role, and who knows how his life would have unfolded? Doc was a leader and saw past the obstacles to help someone become better and more productive.
The beauty is the story is not really about Ted, but about Doc. He was a leader who understood that honesty without compassion will “kill” the very soul of a child – or person.
Let’s take this same story and bring it into any aspect of the business world. As VIM Executive Coaching is called upon to observe numerous meetings, and of course, counsel and coach numerous executive leaders, I have heard the word “Honesty” used in many ways. Typically, honesty always precedes a punishment of some type, up to and including termination. Most always, “Let me be honest,” stands for “You have no chance here, you can’t possibly succeed.”
As I have heard these lines about honesty uttered, I often wonder how many would-be terrific executives and entrepreneurs have had their careers and self-worth crushed. Honesty without compassion is cruel. An executive who is “honest” with an employee without also being compassionate, will at-best create resentment. There must be a balance.
To nurture an employee, to really invest in an employee, is to understand that effective executive leadership requires response not reaction. Honesty is fine, but only if empathy is a part of the leadership process.