In this series, I have been exploring the notion that, as practitioners, we can easily lose contact with who we really are and the important role our character plays in helping clients realize their change aspirations. I’ve used the relationship between a sapling and the thicker trunk it later develops for protection as a metaphor for the struggle we all face to keep our character accessible both to ourselves and to our clients.
In this final post in the series, I’ll share some thoughts on uncovering and keeping a vigilance on our character…”waking up” and maintaining a mindfulness about who we are when we practice our craft.
This is an inside job.
Let’s go back to artist Giuseppe Penone for more insight and inspiration.
In this picture, he is literally climbing into the work of finding and revealing the sapling. What this picture evokes in me is a heightened awareness that nothing short of crawling into our own depths will suffice. If we are to reconnect to and reacquaint ourselves with our inner nature, it will require a lot of hard work that can’t be detoured around, truncated, or delegated.
There are no shortcuts to make it quick, apps to make it easy, or surrogates to do it for us. Liberating a character that has been lost to the dense trunk of defenses that grew up around it can only be accomplished when the practitioner painstakingly extracts layer after layer of the obfuscation that has built up.
Done right, this is a messy, extended, resource-consuming, and emotionally laden process…not something most people would describe as a lot of fun. It’s not for the timid or faint of heart.
That’s why the only practitioners I know who have pursued such a path are the ones who did so in conjunction with their mastery journey. They may have had reasons to engage this very personal work other than raising the bar on their professional capabilities…it is not for me to say. I’m just observing that the only practitioners I’ve personally had contact with who have engaged this kind of deep, introspective self-learning are ones who also rose to the top of their games.
Is mastery your aspiration?
The kind of effort involved in “waking up,” as I’m describing it here, runs contrary to what many people want when it comes to advancing professional competencies. What is popular today is the notion that people in our field can elevate their game by accelerating their change agent proficiencies (knowledge and skills). This view is favored because this kind of “technical” training is relatively straightforward:
Don’t get me wrong—technical training in change implementation concepts, tools, and methodology has its place. It is precisely what people in entry-level positions, and even those in mid-career change agent roles should focus on. It is not, however, what seasoned practitioners should be emphasizing in order to move their work to the next level.
A problem occurs when change agents aspiring to mastery-level work assume they can prepare themselves for the leap by simply attending more technical training. It doesn’t work that way. As they mature professionally, additional technical training tends to generate less and less benefit.
Change practitioners pursuing mastery of our craft generally come to view technical preparation as maintenance—something primarily aimed at keeping them attuned to thought leader perspectives and the latest trends. As such, this kind of activity usually takes up only a small portion of their time and mindshare. Instead, they place their learning emphasis on “who to be,” not “what to do.” They learn how to show up as they apply the techniques with which they are already familiar, instead of becoming skilled in yet another technique. They invest in waking up.
People with primarily technical training as their foundation are called technicians; they deliver accuracy. Those who have been prepared to apply their technical skills as grounded, authentic human beings are called masterful practitioners; they provide effectiveness. Many of today’s new change agents entering our field aren’t being exposed to this differentiation. They are being taught that technical training is all that is required. A more truthful statement would be, “Technical training is all that is required UNLESS you aspire to take your game to the mastery level. At that altitude, who you are becomes more important than what you do. Pursue your technical training now, but know that, down the road, you’ll need to put more and more emphasis on cultivating your character.”
Don’t be surprised when you are surprised.
This kind of an endeavor isn’t about creating a sapling-looking figure from a larger piece of wood. This is more like archeology in that it involves uncovering what is already there. Michelangelo said he didn’t carve his sculptures into the stone he worked on, he freed them from the marble that surrounded them. Character isn’t developed, it’s emancipated. We don’t determine what it should be, it divulges itself to us.
This is about honoring what is, not imposing what should be. In this sense, we must be prepared to be surprised by what our character reveals about itself. If we only allow it to bring to light what we want or expect, we will defeat the whole purpose of the rescue effort. “Don’t be surprised by what you learn about yourself when you wake up” would be the wrong advice. In fact, if you aren’t surprised by what your inner core announces about itself, you are probably still trying to control the outcome too much. “Don’t be surprised when you are surprised” is a better angle for approaching this undertaking.
It would be wise to take a cue here from improv comedians who are masters at acceptance. Regardless of what is said or done by their fellow comics or the audience, it is taken in as information to fuel the next joke. They don’t engage the typical left-brain logic filters to determine which input best fits with where they want to go. They assume where they are going will become clear by the input they receive. They don’t direct the outcome; they allow it to tell them how to get there by listening to and using whatever information is made available.
You must find your own path.
Waking up and staying awake to our inner nature can be approached from several perspectives:
The purpose of this blog series has been to examine how our character is either inhibited or brought forward, and the impact this has in our work environment...when we are functioning as professional change facilitators.
Delving into how our inner nature affects the way we practice our craft is something that we each have to commission in our own way. There are various enablers we can call on to help guide and facilitate as we reacquaint ourselves with our core and learn to authentically express ourselves with clients. Some routes are very interactive (e.g., using a coach, mentor, or peer community for exploratory discussions). Other approaches are more introspective. This is not something where “best practices” will be of much help. Anyone drawn to enroll in this journey must determine for himself or herself how best to proceed.
That said, here are some questions that might be worth considering either on your own or in a dialogue with others.
I’ll continue to use Penone’s “The Life Within” artwork as a metaphor to frame the inquiry.
The Sapling That Holds Your Essence
The Surrounding Trunk That Protects Your Character
We can’t cultivate character by acquiring new concepts or skills. It isn’t about learning, it’s about uncovering our true nature and realigning with its inherent value and impact. We must reacquaint ourselves with who we are and stop denying our essence in order to keep others comfortable. It isn’t easy to untangle ourselves from all the conditioning we’ve taken on over the course of our lives, but to excel in this profession demands nothing less.
We each have “a life within”…a vibrant, dynamic, spirited sapling that is the primary source of the benefits we provide clients. Practitioners on a mastery path have a responsibility to themselves and those they serve to crawl through the layers of their trunk to reveal, honor, and express what is there.
In my first post of this series, I talked about how the components of our character can be covered up over time, and our risk of becoming numb to our true core over time. Here, I’ll discuss the nature of our relationship with our character.
Character’s Hidden Assets
I like to use metaphors when describing human dynamics. Good ones provide a simple way to convey complex characterizations. They also inform us of implications we might not otherwise recognize. Such was the case when I came across the picture you see here.
For some time now, I have been looking for a simple image to portray the complex nature of a practitioner’s relationship with his or her character. I had just about given up hope when a friend sent me this incredible picture. In an instant, I knew this was what I had been looking for. Its simplicity captures all the intricacies and entanglements of how our character forms and then gets covered over. It also offered me new insights into the process I hadn’t previously considered.
The sculpture, by Italian artist, Giuseppe Penone, is called, “The Life Within.”
Penone’s body of work is phenomenal in many respects, but my purpose in sharing this particular carving is to help examine our relationship with the core of who we are…our character. To appreciate why I think the image is so perfect for this purpose, it is important to understand the process the artist used.
Penone revealed the past of an old tree by carving a young tree from it. But he didn’t create “a” young tree from the old one; he found “the” young tree that once was by chipping away the trunk that had evolved around it. He carved out the inside of the trunk and left the knots in place that eventually allowed tiny limbs to emerge. He continued to remove the rings of growth until the "sapling within" was revealed.
Rather than impose a new form, he drew out an existing one. “My artwork shows, with the language of sculpture, the essence of matter and tries to reveal with the work, the hidden life within.” –Giuseppe Penone
The Unfolding of Character
To me, this image of the sapling emerging from a larger oak’s trunk represents the nature of a practitioner’s character. I find it useful to also include additional references to this metaphor so other contributors to the tree’s maturation process can be reflected:
Between these stages of a tree’s growth, there are key exchange points…junctures where there is a kind of passing of the baton. Each transition is vital for the tree’s ultimate well-being and is therefore risky business:
To fulfill the oak’s destiny, the acorn needs the seedling to emerge from the ground and engage the first struggle for life. In turn, the seedling needs the sapling to advance beyond mere survival and bring forward the tree’s essence. Finally, the sapling needs the trunk in order to have a defense against the weather, disease, and animal life that might otherwise preclude its destiny.
We can use these four interdependent, but distinct, facets of a tree’s development to help understand:
The Acorn: Its main purpose is to be the uncompromised source of what the adult tree will later represent. When it releases its energy to the seedling, it passes on the essence of being a tall and sturdy oak (the tree’s character, if you will), as well as the genetic guidance for further physical growth. The risk is that the acorn won’t survive long enough for the seedling to gain a foothold.
The Seedling: Its major mission is to fight against the odds and endure long enough to provide the underpinning from which all future growth can occur. The risk is that it won’t survive long enough for the sapling to bear the tree’s essence.
The Sapling: Its central function is to establish a foundation for growth and be the keeper of the tree’s inner nature throughout its life. The risk is that the sapling won’t survive long enough to benefit from the trunk’s defenses.
The Trunk: Its principal aim, year after year, is to add rings of hardwood to protect the tree’s true nature. The risk is that the trunk will become so dominant that it smothers the sapling’s spirit…producing a tree that is large and strong but also inanimate and arid—big, thick, sturdy, and impressive, but somehow rigid and lifeless.
Each of these turning points is pivotal to the oak’s existence, but it is the relationship between the sapling and the trunk that I want to use for our exploration of a practitioner’s character.
Learning from Parallels
As professional change agents, we can draw some parallels between the sapling/trunk relationship and our own struggle to stay connected to our inner nature. Here are five ways we can learn from the oak.
1. Protect your essence without snuffing it out.
The sapling is the keeper of the tree’s character, but it is a fledgling and lives an extremely precarious existence. As soon as it is established, it triggers the buildup of a more durable envelope in which to keep the tree’s essence. This is where the trunk’s growth comes in.
The sapling’s charter is to hold and nurture the quintessence of who the tree is, not to protect it from possible harm. It is the trunk’s job to encircle the sapling with layer after layer of hardwood so its spirit is sheltered from outside damage. The trunk does its job well, but the security it offers can also be the sapling’s demise. If the trunk grows too dense, it will overwhelm the sapling’s ability to function as a reservoir for the tree’s vibrancy.
It can be said that a similar bond forms between the core of who we are and the protection mechanisms we create to buffer our character from harm. The conditioning we have been exposed to throughout our lives (described in an earlier post) morphs our uniqueness into ways of operating that are more acceptable to the clients than would otherwise be the case. Without some means of protecting the essence of who we are, the conditioning process could completely overcome the truth of who we are.
Even slight infractions on our core nature can be distressing, so the prospect of our character being lost altogether is avoided at all costs. To prevent this from happening, we create defenses to shield the integrity of our character and insulate us from the emotional pain we would experience if it were breached. In this way, we can “accommodate” others who expect something different from us than who we really are, without actually transgressing our inner core.
Whenever we find ourselves in settings where our true nature isn’t valued, the tendency is to grant people what they want but then add another layer of defense. Over time, a debilitating rhythm can be established…keep people happy/add a layer…keep people happy/add a layer, etc. The defenses are an effort to “be in the world but not of it”; yet, after enough years of keep people happy/add a layer, the core spirit that is supposed to be protected becomes no more than a faint echo.
2. Don’t build so many defenses that even you can’t find your true nature.
The sapling/trunk relationship is a paradox. On the one hand, the sapling depends on the trunk’s ever-growing strength to buffer it from jeopardy but, at the same time, it runs the danger of becoming completely engulfed and eventually assimilated into the very thing that is there to preserve it.
Every safe haven has its price; for the sapling, it’s that the trunk can become so dense the sapling’s identity (and therefore, the tree’s soul) can appear to vanish. The tree is alive but it lacks “aliveness.” If the sapling can’t withstand the pressure of the trunk’s growth, a large tree will still be left standing, but will not flourish without the vitality that comes from its inherent spirit.
Life is a risky proposition and not every acorn yields a seedling. Many seedlings never produce a sapling, and there are plenty of saplings that fail to properly safeguard themselves with an adequate trunk. Likewise, not every sapling that generates a protective trunk survives the pressure of its defenses. When this happens, the sapling is absorbed into the trunk itself to the point that the tree’s spirit is lost. The protector becomes the assailant of that which it was supposed to protect.
We can say the same for many change practitioners. Their character becomes overwhelmed by the protective mechanism they set up to safeguard their uniqueness. Compromise after compromise leads to layer after layer of protective defense. At a certain point, the basic nature of the tree becomes so entombed within its own defenses that it is rendered inaccessible.
3. Don’t let your tough exterior become who you are to others.
Saplings that have been lost to the layers of their own hardwood never actually cease to exist, but their appearance can become so obscured by the trunk’s dominance that it is no longer apparent to onlookers.
All saplings become encased in their trunk’s denseness—that’s inherent in the protective process. The problem occurs when the tree’s spirit can no longer be distinguished…when its identity loses its definition to the encircling mass. If this happens, the oak’s inner nature is still there but its beacon can no longer penetrate the thick enclosure it is in. Its vitality can’t pass through the trunk and be visible to the external world.
No one can see anything but the massive trunk, so, to the outside observer, the tree is the trunk (along with its branches and leaves). To a passerby, the essence of the oak’s true nature wasn’t “replaced” by the trunk’s imposing nature…as far as the person is concerned, there was never anything but trunk, branches, and leaves.
There is no thought that, at one time, a sapling was chartered to carry the tree’s soul and that it was still in there—very much alive, even though buried beneath the trunk’s weight. The sapling and the innate spirit it holds is all but forgotten.
The same can be said for change practitioners who lose contact with their character. Our autonomous spirit isn’t something that actually goes away, even when smothered and left unattended for long periods of time. What can happen, however, is that our defenses become so concentrated and impenetrable that, to others, our essence becomes invisible. Our true nature is nowhere to be found…all that is noticeable are the layers of hard, compressed defenses that have built up.
4. Don’t forget about what makes you unique.
It is bad enough when a sapling’s “aliveness” becomes engulfed in its own protective trunk to the extent that no one else can see it. What is even more devastating, however, is that when this happens, the tree also loses contact with its essence. Never mind that a passerby can’t discern the tree’s vitality; its own true nature becomes dead to itself.
Practitioners can fall prey to the same fate. When our defenses against character infringement and the accompanying emotional pain becomes too great, we forget our character is there. Going “comfortably numb” starts to look like a viable option…unconsciously falling asleep to our uniqueness becomes preferable to having our distinctiveness go unrecognized or devalued.
5. It’s about achieving a dynamic balance.
It is natural for the fragile sapling to encircle itself with a more stable buffer for protection, but does the maturing process produce a trunk that nurtures and protects the sapling’s essence, or does the trunk overtake the sapling and lose all connection to the nucleus of its own essence?
A sapling without a substantial outer layer to shield it from the elements is unable to survive, much less thrive. Trunks that strangle and overpower their sapling core, however, can grow to be impressive structures, but they tend to be lifeless, hollow forms without much of an energetic center.
The trunk’s function is to safeguard the sapling’s inner nature, and not to become such a dominant force that the sapling’s spirit is lost. Professional change agents must achieve the same dynamic balance. There is no question that we need defense mechanisms to cope with the demands from clients that we subjugate our true core in order to cater to their wishes. The challenge is how to employ this armor without losing our connection to what it is to protect…how not to fall asleep and forget who we are and the positive impact our uniqueness can have on client effectiveness.
 To make some of the points I want to emphasize in this portrayal, I have arbitrarily designated the tree as an oak. I have no idea what kind of wood Penone used for the actual carving.
The “character” (our true nature) we bring into client relationships is the heart of who we really are as change practitioners. It is this essence of our uniqueness, not what is in our bag of intervention tricks, which ultimately determines whether we generate meaningful benefits for clients. However, our interior character needs a voice in order to be expressed to the exterior world; the “presence” we convey is that voice. Even though presence is what we use to interface with clients, the path to optimizing our effectiveness is through evolving our character.
To be successful as an advanced change practitioner, it is important to:
1. Deeply explore your character so you can understand and accept who you are,
2. Embrace the presence you broadcast as a natural reflection of your core and an expression of your unique gifts, and
3. Seek out clients who value your character/presence package, instead of trying to artificially mold yourself to fit the expectations of the various people who might come your way.
In this series, we’ll explore step one in this sequence by addressing the question, “As professional change facilitators, how can we cultivate our character to increase the impact our presence has with clients?”
Character isn’t “fixed,” it’s refined.
Many people mistakenly think they can develop character in the same way they might attain new knowledge or better their communication skills. They think they can improve it by simply pushing themselves to greater heights.
Cultivating character, however, isn’t about adding (or removing) parts; it’s about surfacing and honoring what has always been there but which, over time, might have become covered up or is leading to unwanted consequences. We can’t “correct” our character by assessing what is missing and attaching the absent elements (e.g., “I’d like to be more caring so I think I’ll infuse some empathy into my makeup”). There is no Photoshop equivalent for character enrichment.
In other words, it isn’t about learning as much as it is about remembering. Character is revitalized by sinking into the depths from which we came in order to rediscover it…it is uncovered, not concocted.
The most effective approach to refining our character involves reviving and amplifying existing qualities, not trying to develop something that didn’t exist before. We can also learn to downplay (though not totally eliminate) facets we don’t value, or re-channel their impact into more constructive endeavors. What we can’t do is fashion character features that were never there or destroy the ones we don’t like.
The true nature of who we are has always shaped our lives, regardless of how muted or cloaked that influence might have become. Rediscovering our character is an act of liberation, not acquisition…exploring, accepting, and leveraging not only what is already within us but recognizing it as the greatest asset we have as change practitioners.
Simply stated, when it comes to character, you have to play the hand you were dealt. That said, it’s not a static phenomenon. Character evolves and grows stronger (for better or worse) on an ongoing basis:
Are you asleep at the wheel?
If we take as a given that our character is always advancing and strengthening itself, the question becomes, “Is this occurring with or without our attention?” Are we mindful of its continuous maturation or is all this happening without our conscious knowledge?
Even if we are blind to who we really are, deny what we don’t like about ourselves, or are ignorant of how influential our character has become, it still has an impact on clients. Therefore, it is best for professional change agents striving for mastery-level work to be attentive to their state of character. Being vigilant of our character’s effect and intentionally fostering how it unfolds is something we should all make a top priority.
There are many ways to go about encouraging our character’s advancement, but they all have one thing in common…waking up. Since character enhancement involves nurturing and channeling what is innately there, rather than inserting foreign traits or eliminating unwanted attributes, the most important thing we can do is to reacquaint ourselves with what it is about who we are that we have lost contact with.
When did it happen?
When addressing the subject of character, we are talking about something that is indigenous to the center of our being, so, at some level, there must have been a time we had access to it. Yet, as our lives unfolded, most of us went adrift from at least some aspects of our core. We failed to maintain an open passage to our inner nature and started functioning as if we could feign what others wanted from us instead of honoring our true spirit. We fell asleep and began dreaming that we were other than who we are.
But why do we go to sleep in the first place? How can we lose touch with something as fundamental as who we are and why is awakening so difficult? Why is operating in a “walking sleep mode” even a viable option?
To cut to the chase—the illusions we maintain when dreaming can sometimes be far less stressful than the harsh realities we face when we take life head on. For many practitioners, the truth is, although they stay busy with change-related activities, they operate in environments where they are not viewed as critical assets applied to vital initiatives. To the contrary, they are considered tactical resources assigned to marginally important projects and, as such, doing anything other than what their clients expect is unacceptable. Under such conditions, using unawareness to anesthetize themselves can be preferable to the heartbreak of going unrecognized and/or unvalued by those whom they serve.
Falling asleep means forgetting that we each have a unique center worthy of expression. It is succumbing to victimization so thoroughly that our senses no longer register when we sell ourselves and our profession out to keep a job or keep powerful people contented. This kind of self-induced slumber requires that we feed ourselves a litany of bumper-sticker platitudes so we’ll remain oblivious to the real implications of what is happening:
New practitioners are at risk when indoctrinated by incumbents.
When it comes to our relationship with who we really are, hibernation can prove to be a much less painful alternative to feeling small (if not invisible) and/or contorting ourselves into who or what others want. Unfortunately, this kind of sleep modus operandi has turned into the approach of choice for many change agents. Operating while “comfortably numb” is a pattern that is playing itself out within our professional community far too frequently: we first trade off, then disregard, eventually discount, and finally lose awareness of who we really are.
What is particularly disheartening is to see a new generation of change facilitators entering the field and being coached by incumbent practitioners who went numb a long time ago and no longer carry the flame of their own truth. Novices are being indoctrinated into the dysfunctional view that they should pretend to be what clients want rather than who they really are—that this is the only way our profession can function in the politically charged environments in which many of us operate. To the contrary, I believe this is not how our craft should be practiced.
Incumbents who pass along this perspective to beginners don’t declare it as clearly as I am stating it here. They don’t need to. The strongest imprinting takes place when apprentices observe what the senior practitioners they admire do on a daily basis. With this in mind, it is easy to see how trainees can conclude that our profession considers it acceptable to say yes to client demands, even though they are not in the clients’ best interests, and then artfully dodge the flack when the initiatives subsequently fail to reach their intended outcomes.
The mastery path carries great responsibility.
Going to sleep means losing the distinction between keeping clients happy and practicing our craft as called for at the mastery level. Waking up doesn’t guarantee we’ll never again capitulate to political pressure. It means that if we do subdue our true selves in order to “keep the peace” (if not our jobs), we are aware of what is happening and we make an informed decision. We don’t fall unconsciously into numbness and/or feel victimized by circumstances.
To wake up, we must unravel the conditioning that has influenced many of us since infancy. To say this conditioning is entrenched in how we function as professionals is an understatement. In virtually every aspect of our lives, we have been instructed in how to subjugate our nature to the surrounding pressures, not the other way around.
The intent behind this kind of guidance was usually well-meaning. It helped us “fit in” (initially with our families, then friends, spouse, community, religion, school, work, etc.). The net effect, however, has been incredibly detrimental for us as change practitioners. We have been taught to trade truth and authenticity for the love and acceptance of others—not a pact that is ultimately in our best interest, nor that of our clients.
An inculcation process that permeates virtually all aspects of life is difficult to see, and harder to extract ourselves from. It is the water we swim in, and the air we breathe, so it’s tough to be objective both about its existence or how to handle it.
This is easy to see in our own ranks: the shortfall of sovereignty among so many change practitioners has been mostly unexamined within our professional community. The rampant timidity with which many practitioners perform their role is simply not something that is often examined when we gather at conferences or write about our work. Do we fail to discuss this blight on our profession because we are blinded by the limitations of our own perspective or because we lack the courage to speak the truth?
In some respects, it makes no difference. What does matter is that we come to grips with what must first be acknowledged, then addressed, and finally resolved—to pursue a mastery path in the change business, the tenacity to bring our full selves forward must be seen as an imperative, not a preference to be exercised or not.
My purpose in raising this issue isn’t to advance autonomy for its own sake. This isn’t about some adolescent fantasy of emancipation without accountability, nor is it about independence for the sake of making practitioners feel entitled to a carte blanche relationship with their clients. My motivation for probing into the kind of personal space occupied by character is fueled by the responsibility that comes with pursuing mastery of our craft. The intended readership for this blog is seasoned professionals dedicated to elevating their practice of the craft to new heights. I believe doing so necessitates an introspective dive into the depths of who we are, and that can’t be done unless we wake up.
This is damn hard work.
There is nothing easy about waking ourselves from a lifelong slumber that results when professionals regard their innate being as less valuable than what clients want. But then, if easy is what you are seeking, this is the wrong blog for you.
Mastery in our field is a double-edged sword. There is the satisfaction and the economic rewards of being at the top of your game, and then there are associated responsibilities that come with those benefits. Mastery-level work means living up to the respect that clients grant to professionals who work at that level. Nothing less than our all-out best is permissible if we claim the high ground of being exceptionally skilled at what we do, stand on our truth, and authentically express who we are.
If you want to accomplish all this and excel in our field, you must wake up. It’s non-negotiable. Either pull yourself out of the conditioning that encourages you to water down what you say and do so people can stay in their comfort zone during change, or stop kidding yourself that you are on a mastery path. Wake up from the dream that you are other than who you are…rejuvenate the connection to your true nature and the value you can create for clients when you allow your character to be the center of gravity for your work.
In the next post, I will talk about the hidden assets of character and the nature of our relationship with it.