The class act: strong enough to be gentle

I bet some of the most profound lessons you’ve learned about business and life come from the most seemingly mundane events. One of the most important for me about being a decent human being in all aspects of life came to me all because of an idiotic wrestling match.

I come from a large family, five boys and two girls. We wrestled growing up because my father was a champion wrestler in his youth, and so we all wrestled: Me, my sisters, my mom — everybody. I was the youngest son for a long time and I always lost. It was always me on the bottom of a wrestling dog-pile and frankly, I got sick of losing.

And then one day when I was six years old, my mom brought a child into this world. For me. My little brother, Terry. The moment he came home, I could roll his little helpless body over and pin him. Every time. The rest of growing up was that way. I would pin him every time we went at it. It was the tacit rule. I was six years older, six years bigger and sometimes he would just look at me, lie down and pin himself.

When we moved into adulthood, Terry decided when he was 32 to marry. At that point in his life, he and his fiancé, Jackie were firmly entrenched in the Boulder lifestyle.  Terry asked if he could have his wedding reception in my backyard because I have a nice garden; that after his streamside wedding, complete with fishing poles and a wedding dress with hiking boots.

That hot August afternoon when he had his reception, some 125 pacifists in hemp shorts and Birkenstocks filled my backyard as they noshed on the reception food of tofu burritos and healthy strawberry margaritas laced with vitamin C crystals. After having downed a few of those, things got interesting.

Terry and I put our drinks down and before we knew it, we were wrestling in the middle of the backyard. It was all fun and games at first, but Terry had forgotten the tacit rule from growing up: I was supposed to win. We ended our match looking like two goobers; bloody and smiling like idiots. We were hurt, but I won. People talked about the wrestling match for a long, long time.

Unbelievably, it taught me about something I teach in workshops today.

I teach executives emotional intelligence. That’s the set of non-cognitive (non-IQ) attributes that predict overall workplace and life success at least four times – four times – greater than IQ alone. Over the years, business has had its own wrestling match with the “soft skills” measured by emotional intelligence.

We know they’re important, but how do you teach them and more importantly, how are they measured on the bottom line? This is where the lesson from my backyard wrestling match comes in.
When I wrestled Terry on that steamy August day, I was 38 years old. I was no longer in my 15 year old, lithe and more muscular body. And so, to win I had to hurt both him and me.

I was no longer strong enough to be gentle. In order to be tough, I had to be mean. There is a parallel in the business universe and especially during this more vulnerable economic era. The strongest businesses surely have sound finances.

But the ones that keep thriving through tough times have the support of their people because they have been gentle with their people, even if they’ve been through layoffs. Those were done with respect and class. This is the time when you find out as a leader if you’ve enlisted not just the brains of your people, but the heart and soul of them as well.

So, it’s not too soft of a business sentiment to say this: As we go into the end of the year and get ready to renew, rejoice, reconnect – remember to show a little more compassion for one another, inside of business and out.

It’s been a tough go for most of us this past year, whether Democrat or Republican; rich or poor; Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist or Atheist; black, brown, yellow, red or white; recommit to something that works for human beings everywhere. Kindness and respect.

Be strong enough to be gentle. It takes a good deal of class.

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Categories: Management & Leadership