On Being with Krista Tippett

Jerry Colonna

Can You Really Bring Your Whole Self to Work?

Last Updated

June 20, 2019


We still work with the old idea that we should check the messy parts of ourselves at the door of our professional lives. But Jerry Colonna says doing so cuts us off from the source of our creativity. “The result is that our organizations are actually less productive, less imaginative; not just poor workplaces for individuals to be, but poor places for collaboration … and spontaneity and laughter and humor.” Colonna is a former venture capitalist who now coaches CEOs. He says undoing the old model starts with radical self-inquiry and asking ourselves questions like “Who is the person I’ve been all my life?” — and that it’s only after we sort through the material of our personal lives that we can become better leaders.

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Guest

Image of Jerry Colonna

Jerry Colonna is the co-founder and CEO of Reboot, an executive coaching and leadership development firm. He also hosts the Reboot podcast and is the author of Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up. And if you want to hear Jerry in action, he’s featured in several episodes of Gimlet media’s podcast StartUp.

Transcript

Krista Tippett, host: When Jerry Colonna writes about being “presented with the chance to finally, fully grow up,” he’s talking about leadership and our lives at work. That’s not the experience that formed me and so many others in the culture of work that came down to us from the 20th century and still shapes cutting-edge companies now. Leadership is top-down, isolated, perfectionistic — and lonely. We still work with old ideas that all of us should check the messy parts of ourselves at the door of our professional lives. New generations — millennials, most famously — are challenging this. But how to bring our whole selves to work, as the saying goes, without descending into chaos or emotional free-for-all?

[music: “Seven League Boots” by Zoë Keating]

Jerry Colonna: You do name something that I’ll often encounter, which is, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. I don’t want to turn the workplace into a therapy session.” I am not suggesting that in any way. But here’s a simple way to understand it. These forces are at work anyway. They’re there. And unless we create spaces to name these things for ourselves as individuals or collectively as a group, we’re going to continually get stuck fighting against these unconscious forces. Let’s recognize that these things are underway so that we can then pause and move on from that, so that we can actually be productive.

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being.

Jerry Colonna is a bit of a legend inside the world of start-ups and CEOs of tech companies and beyond. And he is, full disclosure, my coach, too. Jerry connects the dots in his own life and work that he asks others to connect in theirs — between a traumatic childhood to success as a venture capitalist, which left him depressed and suicidal. And he has just for the first time put his stories and teachings into a book called Reboot — which is also the name of the consulting company he founded and leads.

Ms. Tippett: I thought I might just adapt my first question, based on where you start a lot of your thinking, which would be to say, how would you start to talk about the religious or spiritual background of your childhood and the relationship of that to the notions of money and success that you walked out of childhood with? And “spiritual,” of course, is to understand expansively the formation of your inner life or your inner drama.

Mr. Colonna: Well, it’s a powerful question, separate and above and beyond this conversation, but even within this conversation, and linking it back to the whole question of money. What occurs to me is a memory. As a boy, I was raised Catholic. And what just came back, as you asked that question, was being, say, 5, 6, 7 years old in my Catholic school uniform, sitting in a pew, wondering, really wondering, if I was worthy, wondering if I was good enough. And I think that there’s a connection there to the question around money, which — can I earn it? — is this relationship with value and worthiness.

Ms. Tippett: There’s this notion of Carl Jung, the psychiatrist — ”I am not what has happened to me; I am what I choose to become.” And the focus of your energy and your vocation is how that manifests in leadership and at work. I think it’s really important that you acknowledge that — that work gives us means to create the safety upon which our lives depend; that it feeds and shelters us and those we love; that work can give meaning, but work can also be a means of our suffering. And in fact, without self-knowledge, work — which most of us struggle with; it’s not like that’s ever complete — that work is a place that we play out and replay what has happened to us in our lives, what our inner drama is, and that we actually become complicit in the conditions that constantly recreate them.

That’s something that I have learned from you. It’s so fundamental. But it’s not something any of us learn in school or come into our working lives prepared to even see, much less navigate. When did you first start to see that? How did you start to see it?

Mr. Colonna: Well, I think it took me actually stepping out of a work routine to begin to be able to look backwards and see my own relationship to work and then, eventually, in working with clients and hearing their stories, and hearing and holding their stories, beginning to see that. I left JP Morgan when I was 38, 39 years old. And really, for the first time, certainly in my adult life, but perhaps for the first time even since being a teenager, I didn’t have a defined title. I didn’t have that all-defining job. And it occurred at a moment when I was clearly in midlife, clearly, at that moment. And I think it was during that period that I began to really question, what was it that work was doing to me, if you will; what was it that career was doing to me? And I remember New York magazine doing an article on my partner, Fred Wilson, and I, in which they labeled us as “princes of New York.” And the dichotomy between being perceived as one thing, but internally feeling completely differently, was just so overwhelming. And I think that became rich, fertile ground for this kind of exploration, in “Who am I, independent of any work identity?” or “Who am I, independent of what New York magazine has to say about me?”

Ms. Tippett: Right. You wrote, “The world loved my doing. But the more the world applauded, the more my soul ached.” And you have this quote from St. Augustine: “My soul was a burden, bruised and bleeding. I was tired of the man who carried it.” Something that just is in this image of you and so many people, so many of us, and so many stories that come at us secondhand, is this bizarre disconnect between what is rewarded in our society and what is actually good for us, and even what we long for. That’s another way I would describe what you’re pointing at with the peril and the promise of who we are at work.

Mr. Colonna: Yeah. I think it’s an epidemic challenge in our society that we reward, collectively, we reward with approbation, with money, with fame, with success — behaviors that can be so destructive; destructive to the individual, destructive to our communities, destructive to our planet. And so, there’s this —

Ms. Tippett: Destructive to employees …

Mr. Colonna: Destructive to employees. When you have a leader, someone who has positional power, who is walking around with a bruised and battered and bloodied soul and not actually pausing to recognize that that phenomenon is occurring and then they get to set employee policy, we start to recreate these systems of toxicity — for many of us, similar to those which we grew up with. It’s a really heady mix of different forces at work, different vectors at work.

Ms. Tippett: And again, I think that the plain truth that you explore in your work and in your writing, but which is something that we scarcely ever name and are not prepared to navigate, is that the ways each and every one of us survived our childhoods is flowing into leadership and is flowing into how our organizations are structured and our shared life inside organizations.

Mr. Colonna: Oftentimes, I’ll step into an organization or work with a particular leader, and they’ll look at me quizzically with, “I don’t understand why this is happening to me. And I don’t understand what is, in fact, going on. What are the forces at work here?” And I often think of either that quote by Carl Jung, which is around understating the choices that we have, the quote you referenced before, or even his other quote, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life, and you will call it fate.” And so they walk in, and they say, “We’re fated to be toxic in this way. We’re fated to be dysfunctional in this way.” And I think that part of the work that I ask people to do is to just look quizzically at that and say, “Really? Fated?” Maybe you have some choice here.

Ms. Tippett: So a couple things I want to give some definition to, and one is the notion of leadership, because in its traditional and, increasingly, the way it is expressed in nontraditional ways, or new ways — you are often working with founders, leaders, especially in the tech industry, people who are running major industries, major corporations, or really dynamic startups. And then there’s this way that — I think leadership is — we’re increasingly understanding that in a healthy, functional organization, there’s leadership at every level.

Mr. Colonna: That’s right.

Ms. Tippett: And then there’s also this phenomenon that I’m really aware of — I was at a dinner table in London last week, with this remarkable group of people somewhere in their 20s or 30s; I suppose, mostly in their 30s. And everybody went around the table talking about what they’re doing, and every single one of them had made up their job, which I think is more and more common. So that’s a new form of leadership. And one of the things you talk about is that what this calls all of us to learn to do is to lead ourselves — to lead yourself and learning to lead yourself. So how do you talk about what that means? How do you start talking about what that means and what’s involved in that?

Mr. Colonna: Well, we can come at if from a couple of different angles. We can talk about power, because that’s often associated with leadership in that way, or what might be more helpful is to come at it from a different angle, which is, what does it actually mean to lead oneself? What does it actually mean when you — as you just said, leadership actually starts to be manifested throughout an organization? Or, if I’m in a self-created vocation, which I really relate to, then I am, in effect, leading myself.

And I think what that latter inquiry process leads us to look at the association that I like to make — and somewhat as a joke, but this notion that — leadership as a path into adulthood, that actualization process of us becoming the person that we really choose to be, the person that lives into that quote, the power of that quote that you read at the top of the conversation.

Ms. Tippett: That we are not defined by what has happened to us, but what we choose to become — who and what we choose to become.

Mr. Colonna: That’s right. That’s right. Leadership presents that opportunity to move us down that path, precisely because those leadership situations are so challenging and so provocative and evocative of the past, for us.

[music: “Down a Winding Road” by a picture of her]

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with leadership coach Jerry Colonna.

Ms. Tippett: You and I have also had this conversation about how there’s this kind of new idea of bringing our whole selves to work, which is absurd on one hand, because we were always bringing our whole selves to work … [laughs]

Mr. Colonna: [laughs] Right. Right.

Ms. Tippett: But we were pretending that we weren’t at every level of the hierarchy. And so that whole self, all those things that we were bringing were coming out in passive-aggressive, repressed, and dysfunctional workplaces. So now we’re saying — and, I think, meaning; so many of us are meaning, and new generations are forcing this — that we bring our whole selves to work.

But that also brings a lot of new responsibility with it — and incredible opportunity. That’s what you just said, that work becomes this place where we become who we want to be. And yet, by shifting those boundaries that we thought we’d created to keep all of this under control, it also creates a space in which all these things that we didn’t realize we were bringing to work with us — all of that is out in the open.

Mr. Colonna: I want to go back to the whole arc of that experience. “In the old days” — which is just such a funny phrase, but in the old days, perhaps when you and I were first socialized as employees, there was that phrase, “You leave the personal at the door” — you don’t bring it into the workplace. And that got promulgated across multiple generations with people saying, “Well, don’t bring your feelings into work.” And you certainly don’t cry. And you certainly don’t have these extraordinary emotions. And then we had this period — and it still goes on. I’m speaking about it as if it’s all past, but of course, it’s still very much present. We have these situations, if you will, where people don’t understand why they’ve somaticized that pain; or they are living a life, as our mutual friend Parker Palmer would say, divided, where the inner and the outer are not in alignment. And they’re going through their days, and they’re going through their days, and they may have outward success, but inwardly they’re feeling as I once did, bruised and battered, that soul just too much of a burden for the man to carry.

In those moments, we tend to fail to see that when we ask human beings to show up without their full self, without their full, catastrophic self, with all of the messes that they are, with all of the discomfort, when we deny that we hold certain belief systems from our childhood, that we created those belief systems to survive the challenges of our childhood — what we are cutting ourselves off from is the very source of much of our creativity, much of our innovation. And the result is that our organizations are actually less productive, less imaginative; not just poor workplaces for individuals to be, but poor places for collaboration and creativity and spontaneity and laughter and humor, because we have cut off, if you will, limbs. We have cut off part of ourselves in a bid to live into that credence that you leave the personal at the door, and you don’t actually bring it into the workplace.

Ms. Tippett: One of the questions — and you name a lot of questions that can guide us …

Mr. Colonna: I love questions.

Ms. Tippett: … questions that can guide us as much as any answers. And one of them is that, yes — you use this language — you’ve been using this a little bit, of “radical inquiry.” On the one hand, there are actually all these questions that also don’t have pat answers, like how do you form an organization; how do you grow an enterprise; how do you hire well; how do you manage well; how do you let someone go humanely — in fact there’s no road map for those. But then there’s the deeper truths we don’t have, really, the words or skills to contemplate, like why, how, and to what human effect does my behavior have on me and the people I work with?
One of the core questions in that inquiry that you note is, who is the person I’ve been all my life? — which sounds so obvious, but it’s not, is it. [laughs]

Mr. Colonna: Well, in my observation — and this stemmed, first, from my own experience in my own body, but in the observations that I have developed around watching other folks is that we don’t tend to pay attention to “who I am.” One of the most radically inquiring questions I ask people is, I ask them, “How are you?” I literally — just that question alone. And I ask it in a way that actually implies genuine interest. “How are you?” Just pause. “How are you?” How are you actually feeling, in your body, right now? Are you tired? Are you scared? Are you exhausted? Are you filled with joy? Are you filled with anxiety? Is it all of the above? Is it none of the above? In my experience, we don’t even pay attention to that question ourselves. And so, to go to the deeper question of, “Who is the adult? Who is the person I have been all my life?” — that takes a radical step, because I haven’t actually been paying attention. I’ve been so busy, I actually haven’t paid attention to my life.

Ms. Tippett: Yeah, and also, so much of the way we’ve organized this, especially our professional selves, is about presentation and performance, and even overwork. And this question of who you are, who you’ve been all your life, it’s buried by that. It’s subsumed.

Mr. Colonna: But another vector that impacts it, I think, is the fascination with outcome and output. And so, if all we’re focused on is getting to the next thing and doing a good job, getting the A, getting the right grade, and all we’re focused on is the next thing, then we don’t actually have space to inquire with a simple question like, “How am I feeling right now?” let alone the larger question, “Who have I been all my life?” which, to me, become essential questions to the larger question of, “Who do I want to be? What kind of company do I want to build? What kind of place of work do I want to live into?”

I don’t know how one answers those latter questions without being able to pause long enough to be able to say, “I get scared when people are angry in my workplace.”

Ms. Tippett: Right, because if these questions and longings are allowed, then what is present is very complicated.

Mr. Colonna: That’s right.

Ms. Tippett: And messy.

Mr. Colonna: And messy, and we don’t necessarily — we’re not socialized to know what to do with other people’s messiness, let alone our own.

Ms. Tippett: Let alone our own, right.

[music: “Kiss the Sky” by Auditory Canvas]

Ms. Tippett: After a short break, more with Jerry Colonna. You can find this show again at onbeing.org in the Starting Point called “Wisdom for the Everyday.” Starting Points are collections for listening, reading, and pondering from our whole archive depending on a particular topic that might be of interest or the kind of day you’re having. Some of our popular starting points are “For the Exhausted and Overwhelmed,” “Poetry for Tumultuous Times,” and “Joy is a Human Birthright.” Find these and an abundance of more at onbeing.org.

I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with the legendary leadership coach Jerry Colonna on our lives at work as ways to become better humans. I’ve been personally working with him since we founded The On Being Project several years ago.

Ms. Tippett: So one of the things that you work with leaders on and organizations on is this subject that would never have been raised in those organizations that you and I knew in our childhood, which would be something like, “What are the survival strategies that we came out of our childhoods with that we brought with us into our professional endeavors, into adulthood?” — which, for each and every one of us, somehow, there’s a direct line to how conflict was managed in our family of origin, which is terrible to think about, [laughs] all of us bringing that, not just bringing our own, but having to clash with everybody else’s.

Mr. Colonna: [laughs] Right. Right.

Ms. Tippett: But you’ve said, for example, that for you, one of the things you internalized, growing up was, “Don’t upset your mother,” all the tiptoeing around. But then we bring that into an organizational life.

Mr. Colonna: To give some context to that, I grew up with a mother who was mentally ill — it was bipolar disorder, schizoid-affective disorder. And so what I internalized was actually the message from my father, which was, “Don’t upset your mother,” because if you upset your mother, everything would start to feel like it was falling apart. And that was sort of a root cause of the chaotic feelings that we grew up with.
That, over time, morphed into, “Don’t upset the other.” And so that, then, informed how I respond to conflict within an organization, how I respond to conflict in my personal relationships. And the result was that I would just bail. I would just avoid it. I would just stay away from it. Or, if I couldn’t escape, I would just lean too aggressively into it, as opposed to the more adult me, being able to see that there’s actually nothing really dangerous about that situation. But that took a long time, to be able to understand that.

Ms. Tippett: So I can imagine somebody listening to this who still has at least one foot, or two, in the mythical world of how it used to work, where there was hierarchy and there were rules. And I can imagine them saying, “Well, what the purpose of making this unconscious — all of these unconscious dynamics, conscious — how does that result, not just in a place that’s more humane, but a place that things get done? [laughs]

Mr. Colonna: So you do name something that I’ll often encounter, which is, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. I don’t want to turn the workplace into a therapy session.”

Ms. Tippett: Exactly.

Mr. Colonna: And I am not suggesting that, in any way. But here’s a simple way to understand it. These forces are at work anyway. They’re there. And unless we create spaces to name these things for ourselves as individuals or collectively as a group, we’re going to continually get stuck in our processes. We’re going to continually get stuck, fighting against these unconscious forces. So what I always recommend is, let’s create a little laughter, a little lightness, a little humor, and let’s recognize that these things are underway so that we can then pause and move on from that, so that we can actually be productive.

Ms. Tippett: And I think that that, actually, points at why this process of inquiry that you are engaged in and describe is, in fact — if carried all the way through in organizational life, in leadership, doesn’t just leave all these clashing emotional dramas in the middle of the room, but it actually invites every single person to be responsible for — to try to understand, in every moment, including the controversies they’re having with others — to take ownership of themselves.

Mr. Colonna: That’s right. Let me draw out the process a little bit. In the book, I talk about the fact that three basic motivations, I believe, drive so much of our behavior: the wishes for love, safety, and belonging. When we are in a conflictual situation, say at work, and it may be an internal conflict, if we can look at the belief systems that are existing, if we can inquire and say, “What need might I be trying to meet by my wish to — my continual wish to get more and more sales? Is it love, safety, belonging, or all of the above?” for example — that’s one way of understanding the intention behind our actions.

But then the magic really begins when we start to look at our colleagues, and instead of seeing them as some source of irrationality, seeing them as just a problem that needs to be fixed and made to go away, but we see them as yet another human being with a broken heart, who’s simply trying to feel love, safety, and belonging. When we can start to see our colleagues that way, all of a sudden the things that actually impede our productivity or impede our collaboration become not obstacles, but the means to connect and actually build something even greater than what we had before. I believe that work doesn’t have to destroy us; work can be this means for self-actualization. And when we create the space for each of us to do this kind of inquiry work together, then what happens is that work starts to manifest in some gorgeous, beautiful work that’s sacred and lifegiving and life-affirming, rather than depleting.

Ms. Tippett: And probably still has its messy moments, right? It’s not about getting perfect, it’s about getting whole. [laughs]

Mr. Colonna: Right, but there’s nothing wrong with mess.

Ms. Tippett: Right — that’s part of this.

Mr. Colonna: There’s nothing wrong with mess. It’s gorgeous. It’s like an art project. I defy you to paint a masterpiece without getting paint on the floor or in your hair. That’s the point. It’s actually fun to kind of be messy. Just don’t be toxic.

Ms. Tippett: I did want to read these questions that you wrote — I was just going to say — as somebody who is an organizational leader, but never meant to be one, it’s all so surprising.

Mr. Colonna: You mean you didn’t grow up, saying, “I’m going to be a CEO when I grow up”? [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: No, I didn’t. In fact, I’ve thought about that, Jerry. When I went to the boot camp, everybody else had a sentence that started like this: “I always knew I wanted to start a company.” [laughs] “I always knew I wanted to start something.” And that’s not true of me. It was more that there was the work, and then I wanted to protect the work and allow it to flourish. So where I was going with that is, then when I talked to other people, who also created things without — well, I think even people who know they want to create something; they don’t know what’s going to happen — people have said to me, “The work is never the problem. It’s the people.” [laughs] It’s always the people.

Mr. Colonna: [laughs] It’s always the people.

Ms. Tippett: So one of the things you say is, when you talk about this, “radical self-inquiry is the path to seeing habits and patterns.” And I find these a really helpful set of questions that you pose, that anyone could pose of themselves in a workplace. And this is, I guess, when “the people” are driving you crazy, whatever that means in whatever context — “What parts of me are being projected onto the other person?” This is kind of what you said. “How do I reclaim those parts of me? What do my reactions say about me? Why do I do what I do? Why do they do what they do? What need for love, safety, or belonging might they be trying to meet with their irrational behavior?” — which is in italics, just because it’s behavior that appears irrational to me but has reason in them.

Mr. Colonna: Well, what I hope to do, with those kinds of inviting questions, is to open up the possibility that the way I’m seeing things is not necessarily factually correct, objectively true, and to begin to look at the sources of conflict for things that I might learn from that — that Buddhist concept of everything being workable. Even the people who press our buttons are actually helpful for us, helpful to us in our process.

Ms. Tippett: Teaching us; they are our teachers.

Mr. Colonna: They’re teaching us all the time. And it’s painful, because we’d much rather put them in a box, lock them away, or, in the case of those of us who have power, other them, dismiss them, turn them into demons, scapegoat them, shove them out the door.

And I think, when we give in to those lesser angels of our nature and when we act out of those impulses, we’re really not only doing a disservice to those folks, which is true, but we’re doing a disservice to ourselves and the rest of us within the collective, because we’re missing something. We’re missing the opportunity to actually learn from that experience.

[music: “Anything You Synthesize” by The American Dollar]

Ms. Tippett: I’m Krista Tippett, and this is On Being. Today with the leadership coach Jerry Colonna.

Ms. Tippett: I guess I need to put this out there too, that as we create workplaces where people bring their whole selves to work and there’s leadership at every level, it still is a workplace. And I think this is confusing, and this is hard, to know how to navigate this, because it’s not a family because everyone won’t belong, forever — at least, not in the form in which we are colleagues today. Some of that will just be organic, and some of it will be because there’s not a fit or things go wrong.

Mr. Colonna: Or life changes.

Ms. Tippett: Or life changes. So how do we make sense of that and navigate that consonantly with this way we want to honor each other?

Mr. Colonna: I think your observation that it is a workplace is incredibly important. And I smile, because of course it’s a workplace. And yet, part of what we’re dealing with all the time is, “And yet, it feels like my family! Oh, my God, this is crazy.” And so, sometimes, the way those in positional power resolve that implicit conflict is to say, “Well, we’re all family here.” And then that feels a little weirdly dysfunctional and codependent and strange.

Ms. Tippett: And that can get really messed-up.

Mr. Colonna: And that can get really messed-up. And sometimes, the way we resolve that, as we were saying before, is, “No, no, no, you leave your personal stuff at this door. Stay away.”

Ms. Tippett: So what’s the middle way? [laughs]

Mr. Colonna: And so the middle way is to recognize that none of us leaves our personal stuff at the door, that we are always seeking to replicate structures from our childhood, and, by reinforcing that we have a shared sense of purpose, a shared sense of mission, and a shared commitment to work, we can use that as a kind of exoskeleton structure so that, internally, we can each do our work but not expect the organization to solve the wounds of our childhood. When we use our work environments to try to heal our wounds, we are actually opening ourselves up to even more pain and suffering.

Ms. Tippett: I hear you, and I also think, somebody — it feels like there’s such a fine line between what you’ve been describing and that.

Mr. Colonna: Yeah, it’s hard. [laughs]

Ms. Tippett: So it’s that we create an environment in which people have the freedom and the invitation to be fully themselves and to actually find the experience of being at work a means to becoming a more full human being and an adult — the art of growing up. And that’s not the same thing as — I just want to get this right — as expecting the organization to do that work for you or your leaders to do that for you.

Mr. Colonna: That’s right, and I think the distinction that you just made is really important. It’s my work. This is the “leading myself.” I still have my work to do. Now I understand that if you are in — you get irritable every time I send you an email, well, I understand that I need to understand how to operate with you, and you need to understand how to operate with me, and we each need to understand how we operate, ourselves.

Ms. Tippett: So you do — well, you have a million practical tools. This is not all — this is, in fact — a lot of it has nothing — feels nothing like therapy. It’s really practical.

Mr. Colonna: That’s right.

Ms. Tippett: So one of them, I think, is really helpful, and you have this in the book, is OFNR. So this is — let me just frame it the way I understand this; this is — let’s just say, “We acknowledge that there’s a lot going on inside me, and there’s a lot going on inside you.” There’s this line of John O’Donohue, that every time you start a conversation with another person, they’re halfway through a conversation they were already having with themselves. I find that really helpful. So every time something is going on, especially if it’s a conflict or something hard that you need to talk about, this is a way to work with that and move things forward. So just describe this — the OFNR approach.

Mr. Colonna: Sure, sure. So I want to acknowledge, too, that this is an adaptation of work that I’ve learned from the nonviolent communications work of Marshall [Rosenberg].

[Editor’s Note: Mr. Colonna misstates Marshall Rosenberg’s last name as “Rosenfeld.” It is corrected in the transcript for clarity.]

So O stands for observation; F stands for feeling; N stands for need; and R stands for a request.

It kind of works like this: You and I have a scheduled meeting on Monday morning, and you show up ten minutes late. That is an observable fact. You showed up ten minutes late to the meeting. That fact triggers a whole set of feelings in me. So, Krista, when you showed up ten minutes late to the meeting, it made me feel like you didn’t care about the meeting.

That distinction is really important, because typically, what happens is, 9:05 rolls around, you’re late to the meeting, I’m looking at my watch, saying, “There goes Krista. Gosh darn it, she doesn’t care. She never values the meeting.” And I’m off to the races. I’ve created a whole storyline around that. So going back to the structure: Make an observation about value-neutral fact, something that is undeniable.

Ms. Tippett: That is a fact; state something that is a fact.

Mr. Colonna: It is a fact. And you get agreement from there. Just get agreement from there. Then, at the next level, you talk about how it made you feel. “It made me feel devalued.” Or, “It made me feel as if you don’t think the meeting is worthy on time.” That’s a story I’m telling myself.

Ms. Tippett: Right, and how absolutely different that is from, “You devalued me.” Or “You disrespected me.”

Mr. Colonna: “You disrespected me. You don’t care about this meeting. You don’t care about the work. You don’t care about my deadlines.” We don’t know if, in fact, that’s true. You then pause. And you let that person take in the fact that their action triggered a set of feelings. They’re not responsible for that set of feelings. They’re only responsible for their actions.

Then we move on through the hierarchy into needs. “I have a need to feel that the work we do is valued by both of us. So, in the future, if you’re going to be late, can you let me know?”

Ms. Tippett: And that’s a request.

Mr. Colonna: And that’s the request. So it’s a narrow but surprisingly frequent kind of example, where there’s a small little incident that all of a sudden blows up into something much larger. But I think what we’re both making a point about, which is that there’s a profound difference between observable, objective fact — “This thing happened,” “We changed a policy” — and then a whole bunch of story-making and feeling that happens right afterwards. And we, all of us, are too quick to substitute interpretation for observation. So you change the policy, and all of a sudden, for me, it meant one thing; for my colleague — and all of a sudden, it goes on. And because we’re not schooled in the language of being able to discern between observation and feeling, we merge the two. We conflate the two.

And that’s where I think most of the problems in an organization — you made the observation about people being part of the challenge. Well, it’s people, but it’s because of people’s feelings and the way we communicate. It’s not people by themselves.

Ms. Tippett: No. No, it’s that we all — we struggle with ourselves and, therefore, with others. [laughs]

Mr. Colonna: That’s right. That’s right. [laughs] It’s hard to use this process to grow up. It’s hard to fully actualize. It’s hard to be in a practice of movement towards becoming the adult that you were born to be. It’s really hard. It’s so hard that most people don’t do it. It’s hard because it’s painful. It’s hard because we have to confront things. It’s hard because we have to withstand other people’s feelings, because it’s hard for them to go through what’s going on.
But I think that it’s worthwhile. Again, our friend Parker Palmer likes to say that violence is what we do when we don’t know what to do with our suffering. And I think that corporations, businesses, have a well-earned reputation for inflicting a kind of suffering on our communities and our planet; and I think that a lot of that stems from the fact that the leaders in those corporations don’t know what to do with their suffering, and so they inflict it on others. And so we see a kind of callowness, a kind of inhumanity, constantly perpetuated.

Ms. Tippett: There’s a question in the series of questions that you ask that I’d like to pose to you. And this would be this part of the path of being the same person inside that you are on the outside; of those things working together. “What kind of leader and adult am I? What is enough?” What is enough — boy, that’s not an American question. “What is enough? How will I know when my job is done?” Just, right, today, how do you start to answer those questions, given the life you’ve lived?

Mr. Colonna: Well, I think I can take them in reverse order. There’s a line from David Whyte, which we use all the time, my colleagues and I, which is, “Good work, done well, for the right reasons.” And when I can lay my head down on the pillow at night, saying to myself, “Good work, done well, for the right reasons,” then I feel that I have done enough, and I am enough. And when I can hold that, then I understand that that is the kind of leader I am. I am not the kind of leader that is rapaciously seeking more, more, more. And when I can feel my way into that, then I know that the kind of adult I am, the kind of man that I am, is a man who knows — dare I say it — when to rest.

Ms. Tippett: That’s just such a — again, it’s in this category of something so simple, and yet, what do we not know how to do in our lives?

Mr. Colonna: Rest.

Ms. Tippett: Make room for rest and honor that.

Mr. Colonna: Make room for rest.

Ms. Tippett: Yes … and in our workplaces. I was going to ask you, and I feel like that kind of speaks to this, this whole conversation we’ve been having about the nature of leadership, the nature of organizational life, absolutely shifts the meaning of authority that emerged in the 20th century, in any case. And I just wonder what “authority” has come to mean to you; how that notion has transformed through this work you do and the insights you’ve had.

Mr. Colonna: There are times in which those who have power need to speak with authority. But too often, we mistake and conflate that action for the day-to-day “directing” of people’s lives. And I think that leadership is much more subtle, much harder, and ultimately, more life-giving, more fulfilling. And that is, the leader’s role isn’t to be the authoritative figure telling everybody what to do and how to do it, but to be the model for creating a container in which their best possible work can get done and to perhaps remove obstacles from the paths that are in front of their colleagues so that they can then grow into their best possible selves. That feels very strong, very firm, and not particularly authoritarian.

Ms. Tippett: [laughs] Right. Jerry, thank you so much.

Mr. Colonna: Thank you. This was a blast.

[music: “Brace Brace” by Bonobo]

Ms. Tippett: Jerry Colonna is the co-founder and CEO of Reboot, an executive coaching and leadership development firm. He also hosts the Reboot podcast and is the author of Reboot: Leadership and the Art of Growing Up. And if you want to hear Jerry in action, he’s featured in several episodes of Gimlet media’s podcast, StartUp.

Staff: The On Being Project is Chris Heagle, Lily Percy, Maia Tarrell, Marie Sambilay, Erinn Farrell, Laurén Dørdal, Tony Liu, Bethany Iverson, Erin Colasacco, Kristin Lin, Profit Idowu, Eddie Gonzalez, Lilian Vo, Lucas Johnson, Damon Lee, Suzette Burley, Katie Gordon, Zack Rose, and Serri Graslie.

Ms. Tippett: The On Being Project is located on Dakota Land. Our lovely theme music is provided and composed by Zoë Keating. And the last voice that you hear singing at the end of our show is Cameron Kinghorn.

On Being is an independent production of The On Being Project. It is distributed to public radio stations by PRX. I created this show at American Public Media.

Our funding partners include:

The Fetzer Institute, helping to build the spiritual foundation for a loving world. Find them at fetzer.org.

Kalliopeia Foundation, working to create a future where universal spiritual values form the foundation of how we care for our common home.

Humanity United, advancing human dignity at home and around the world. Find out more at humanityunited.org, part of the Omidyar Group.

The Henry Luce Foundation, in support of Public Theology Reimagined.

The Osprey Foundation — a catalyst for empowered, healthy, and fulfilled lives.

And the Lilly Endowment, an Indianapolis-based, private family foundation dedicated to its founders’ interests in religion, community development, and education.

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