Having Tea with the Dragon

In a transactional world where on-time, within-budget results are the Holy Grail, it is no wonder that what we often seek most is not how to grow as leaders but simply how to get other people to do what we want them to do. The study of our leadership too often becomes the study of our barriers: the unrealistic demands, the power politics, the poor treatment and irrationality, the hierarchy and the intractable, complex, silted-in and siloed bureaucracies, not to mention the failures of top leadership to create meaningful, strategic, engaged change. Of course, we assume we’re not contributors to all that.

Not long ago, I sat with a group of brilliant managers whose goal was to support one another in their own growth and development. The meeting quickly became a more or less high level gripe session aimed at what was wrong with their organization. Not one of these managers could be described as overly self-interested, overly competitive or personally ambitious in any negative way; nor were they cynical, nor defeatist. To the contrary, these were altruistic, highly dedicated folks; key, long term players. No one would want to lose any of them, and they certainly were not seeing themselves as victims, as helpless, or as intentionally looking to blame somebody else. If they were going to blame anyone at all, in this group it would be most likely themselves.

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Yet, their expression of concerns and complaints also seemed to be a default mode, a sharing and diagnosis of all the fearful problems “out there.” Support for one another quickly became a “me, too” form of support: “Yes, I have the same problem…why just yesterday this is what I faced from the X Department, Y person….” with an implicit common lament: “What could I do?” In turn, the discussion became brainstorming regarding all the big rocks in the road.

And why were these people complaining? Because this was a safe place to do so.

What’s less visible is that this conversation is also the cultural system at work, part of the very same risk/safety protocol that keeps the politics and hierarchy and the intractable reality going. It’s an aspect of the very same dragon that faces us villagers every day. It’s the system reflected in an inevitable stratification to our thinking — between those people who seemingly can change things and do something about the dragon, and those who cannot. (Of course, if you talk to “those people,” they’ll tell you they can’t do anything about the dragon either….) Everybody can feel this stratification and no one likes it, but no one quite knows what to do either, except keep discussing and complaining about the dragon and those who should be but are not defeating it; telling stories about where it last showed up; giving each other support about how to live with the dragon and maneuver around it.

What’s never asked is the central question, “What does this dragon actually mean to me personally?” The focus on getting external results through one transaction after another obliterates that question; makes the question a blind spot.

Luckily, at a certain point in the discussion, and with a little facilitation, the managers realized what they were doing. One person pointed out how limiting such negative discussions are. “If we continue with the gripe session, then it just comes down to ‘So how much longer are you going to stay?’” “Sharing complaints feels good for awhile,” she continued, “but in the end it’s a very short-lived kind of gratification.”

No wonder there are so many general, cultural prohibitions against gripe sessions. They make reality — the dragon — way too visible but they don’t lead anywhere except out — certainly not deeper into ourselves and the bumpy ride of our own leadership growth. The common compensation — to buck up and focus on the changes you can make in your own attitude, superficially, or in your own small neighborhood — is frequent but inadequate advice.

I find myself reacting to the extreme of opting in or opting out that often concludes such conversations. On the bus or off it. A sense that we must buck up or leave. I react because this is just one more way to feed the dragon. The “cope or leave” choice just leads to more repression and, inevitably, more negativity leaking out of really good people. Nor are we bloggers immune from some responsibility for keeping the system going, too. How many simplistic articles can we write about bucking up, stomping out the negative parts of ourselves, getting negative people out of our lives. The “right stuff” still seems to be that good employees don’t complain and that leaders certainly don’t — although we actually do! We have created a new Victorianism, but instead of sex and sensuality being the taboo, it’s “negativity” that’s prohibited. And I cannot imagine we are all privately consistent with our own good advice!

Here’s what I believe: we simply must go deeper. 1) Good people complaining is a sign of deeper problems and real distress in an organization, and 2) all the engagement surveys and intellectual systems thinking in the world won’t change the fact that the dragon exists.

The alternative should not be hard to explain but it is, actually. Sometimes, as a way to get started, I ask a question such as, “What if the system is actually unchangeable but you really don’t want to leave and yet you can’t just cope with things as they are. What then can you do?”

That’s a question about your own inner development as a person. It’s a question about how you are actually colluding with the very dragon you say is a problem for you. When people begin to answer this question they find all kinds of things about themselves. They may see their sense of stuckness. They may see how they place the system in charge of how they value themselves. They may see what their actual principles are and their own congruence/lack of congruence with them. They may see the vision that is fundamental to the sense of meaning in their work and their lives — or their need to find it. They may see that they are locked in contempt and have not reached out to trust their own capacities. They may see how little they are actively giving others, or themselves. These discoveries can begin from seeing how the culture is also based on an expectation that first the dragon goes away and then we focus on becoming who we are and need to be, when the real solution is just the reverse. We start our own process of development (or even healing) before help from outside arrives — if it ever will.

In this sense, growth as a leader has absolutely nothing to do with “results,” with “performance,” with “influence” over anyone but the one humble person at the center of it all, the one incomplete person, the one person who really wants to live. If you are focused there, whether you — or we — ever slay that dragon is less important than what you are learning today: how you can trust, how you can give, what your vision is, how to be congruent with your principles, how to bring forth your authenticity, what’s needed to affirm your value and make your contribution (whether it is understood or not) — in other words, how you can focus on your own growth and your own good life in every single “transaction.” In fact, knowing what you know, you may decide to leave, but if so, that will be because of what you are moving toward, not what you are moving away from.

And when you bring your own vulnerable learning edges to a group to share openly, you can get meaningful help from one another and offer it in return. This help isn’t about “what do I do?” so much as “how do I grow?” Emphasizing that, you don’t have to focus so much on each time the dragon breathes fire and on how fearful we all are. You don’t create a gripe session, which is pretty much the same thing as getting drunk — feels good in the moment but leaves a hangover and the desire for even more escape. You help create a community based on what’s best within.

You know, then, that the dragon is just another name for “us” and our collective karma — which is why all those other external solutions don’t and cannot work. But you also know how influence begins to take root from the inside out. And you have helpers (some of them invisible perhaps). You have a certain, indefinable subjective strength. You have insight into the cultural and psychological structure of organizations, and know how to sit down to tea with the dragon. That’s because you also know that the only true dragon is the system inside you, the one that serves as both barrier and teacher, the one that helps you find the most important leadership work — inner and outer — that you are meant to do.

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15 Comments

  • Simply gorgeous.
    You captured so many profound truths in this post. Thank you for reminding me of the futility of my own perfectionism and inspiring me into a deeper acceptance of what is.

  • Dear Blair~

    Thank you so much, and especially for pointing out perfectionism’s all too frequent “contribution.” That is often a challenge not easy to confront — or accept — within oneself. The voice of self-critique can be so insistent. I’m very glad you are in the business of helping us with that one, Blair. As they say, you can’t help cure a disease you haven’t had.

    All the best
    ~Dan

  • Dan,this one may take a week (or longer) to sit with before unearthing all the treasure! I’ve read thru it about 3 times now. : )

    So many points to ponder, however, what stood out for me the MOST at the moment was this part:

    ‘Nor are we bloggers immune from some responsibility for keeping the system going, too. How many simplistic articles can we write about bucking up, stomping out the negative parts of ourselves, getting negative people out of our lives. The “right stuff” still seems to be that good employees don’t complain and that leaders certainly don’t — although we actually do! We have created a new Victorianism, but instead of sex and sensuality being the taboo, it’s “negativity” that’s prohibited. And I cannot imagine we are all privately consistent with our own good advice!’

    ‘Negativity is prohibited’ is probably the most common false belief of the modern age. At least here in America.

    Trying to avoid negative thoughts and feelings in ourselves and others isn’t making it go away. If anything, it is make the negative energy worse because denial does not eradicate, it merely brews underground. And leaks out thru all of those in our words and deeds. The little and not so little passive aggressive barbs and jabs that get wielded upon one another or the innocent bystander because it’s not safe to honestly express certain emotions or lacking the courage to own the emotions enough to speak up and say something…or to own them enough to actually DO something that will change circumstances.

    Alienating ‘others’ who are considered ‘negative’ is basically to alienate the part of oneself that is continuously being denied.

    All around us we are saturated with denial. ‘I cannot accept anger in you because I cannot accept my own.’ ‘I cannot accept your dissatisfaction with our relationship so I expect you to pretend that everything is wonderful at all times even if you are miserable inside because then we might have to do something about that…and it might mean that other people learn we aren’t as great as the image we keep projecting to the world and we don’t want to disappoint anyone…’

    Or insert any number of personal examples in there that would go along with your question:

    ‘What does this dragon actually mean to me PERSONALLY?’

    What does ANGER mean to me….personally?

    What does dissatisfaction in ‘this’ relationship mean to me…personally?

    What does my lack of ‘drive’ in ‘this’ environment mean to me…personally?

    What does this DESIRE mean to me…personally?

    No one else really CAN answer those questions for us. Because those answers may be different or have a different ‘flavor’ to them for each one of us.

    Just as trying to define what success means as a group is far too confining and limiting to most of the people because what one considers to be success doesn’t necessarily mean success to someone else. Our values and the priority of those values play a huge part on how we define ‘success’ in life.

    Which is further complicated when our definition of success doesn’t happen to align WITH the definition of success touted by modern day society/culture.

    When you shared how you reacted to certain things, that is encouraging to ME for many reasons: 1) I can identify with it. 2) It lets me know that I’m not alone 3) admitting the reality and existence of a less then ‘ideal’ thought or feeling doesn’t take a way an ounce of respect…I don’t think any LESS of you for ‘admitting’ the weakness..it actually increases my respect for you.

    The truth is we aren’t GOING to be able to eliminate the negative. Our ‘work’ and invitation to this work is in learning to dance with the shadows between the dark and light within us and around every single day.

    Now does that mean we will always enjoy it? No! I’ve been going through things that I haven’t enjoyed at all. I find myself going through the ‘if only’ dialog….’If ONLY…’they’ would have done this…or said this…if only they would have come to me instead of x, y, z..if only they would have asked me questions instead of assuming and walking away….’

    I can’t control ANY of those ‘if only’s. However, the if only conversation DOES let me know what’s important to me and why. It also lets me know that the people I may be ‘if only’ about still happen to be people I care about even if I feel like they are driving me nuts at the same time! (grins)

    Thanks for such another enlightening and splendid post.

    May we all learn to drink our tea with the dragon…mindfully.

    : )

  • Thank you for this post. I especially resonated with “The “cope or leave” choice just leads to more repression and, inevitably, more negativity leaking out of really good people.” It’s important to remember that we are all fallible and struggling with our own “dragon.”

  • Dear Samantha~

    Wow, such a great discussion of the taboo against negativity, putting your finger right on it, how the alternative is a kind of denial that creates all kinds of problems for us and our relationships later. As a culture, we are very unresolved on this issue — and maybe a little afraid of it. What I love most is where you come out, which is in how the “if onlys” tell us about ourselves. It is a deeply adaptive practice, I believe, to notice and reflect upon our experiences, pain and projections onto others in order to study the ways of our own ultimate growth, acceptance and letting go — your beautiful comment models that so well. Thank you, Samantha!

    All the best!
    ~Dan

  • Dear Lucille~

    Much appreciation to you for taking a moment to share a comment on this post! And I believe you have it so right. We may have trouble understanding why we or others “leak,” if we don’t acknowledge that basic human fallibility. Knowing that, sharing that, we all have an opportunity to support each other and help one another grow.

    Thanks again for dropping by!

    All the best
    ~Dan

  • […] We think of the system as "out there," but the most important system to change is the one within.  […]

  • Dear Dan,

    Bravo – what a great piece. The dragon’s everywhere. Just as with the shadow side we learn early to stay far from or just at the edge of it’s periphery.

    I especially resonate with the statements you and Samantha made about the prohibitions with “negativity.”

    Never one to shy away from jumping into the fray, I even notice these subtle prohibitions within social media. My sphere of what affects work is broad – everything that affects culture is valid, although perceived by some as “negative” or “political” any number of labels that essentially safeguard the dragon.

    We want to stick with upbeat conversations in a world filled with relentless pain that needs our careful attention. This is often very hard because it reminds us of our own unresolved hurt and fear.

    Now some of this is interest and preference, certainly, but imbeds to stick with “positivity” constantly leave us in positions of atrophied emotional buildup – evidenced by the support sessions you mention “degenerating” into gripe sessions. Staying positive can feel tyrannical under these circumstances.

    The more I study and work with feelings – the more I appreciate their essential wisdom. We can’t skip them – or bury them – or fit them into ontime, within-budget “results.”

    Until we make time and safe space for “conversations for possibilities” we won’t make a dent in the dragon that is. And as you say “all the engagement surveys and intellectual systems thinking in the world won’t change the fact that the dragon exists.”

    Wonderfully written, deeply told.
    ~Louise

  • Dear Louise~

    Thank you so much for your wise perspectives. I love this term, “atrophied emotional buildup,” atrophied and I would also say displaced, with the best and most dedicated people then absorbing a sense of guilt for not being able to stay positive in the face of their wounding as human beings. It may well be that “gripe sessions,” in this sense are necessary. We expel the poison through our complaints in order to see them more clearly — both as defining the reality of how the culture works and also a projection of the places we most need to give our conscious attention and place our efforts to grow. What’s valuable in the moment of seeing how the system and our growth as leaders are linked, how transformation personally and internally is so deeply connected to shifting the collective realities — and karma — we face.

    As always, thank you so much for sharing your light!

    All the best
    ~Dan

  • […] We think of the system as "out there," but the most important system to change is the one within."That’s a question about your own inner development as a person. It’s a question about how you are actually colluding with the very dragon you say is a problem for you."  […]

  • Hoda Maalouf (@MaaHoda) wrote:

    Thank you so much Dan for this mind challenging post!
    For years I lived & worked in environments that are far from being perfect. And instead of “opting in or opting out” as you have mentioned I tried to change things smoothly around me. I live &work with people who don’t stop criticizing the systems we live/work in. I don’t, not because I see “life in pink” (la vie en rose) but because I believe that by working within this dragon system I have better chance to change things. Slight improvements here and there will eventually add up to make a difference. Invincible dragons for some are challenging targets for others. “Better to light one small candle than to curse the darkness” ~Tagore

  • […] We think of the system as "out there," but the most important system to change is the one within.  […]

  • […] “We think of the system as "out there," but the most important system to change is the one within.”  […]

  • Dear Hoda~

    So very true about lighting the candle!

    I am concerned in this post with systems where coping is difficult. Often this is because of the sense of personal harm or jeopardy — essentially, the way people feel they are treated, especially regarding their most important and accomplished work. It does not take much to feel devalued or dismissed or put down in some of these systems. Candles can be put out as quickly as they are lit.

    Typically, this gradually painful experience for people co-exists with their sense of commitment and real loyalty to the organization. The sense of devaluation is not something that a person can ignore every time in the way water rolls off a duck’s back. Consequently, the question I ask in the post — if you can’t change the system and want to stay yet cannot really cope, what then? It is the sense of great personal investment, sometimes developed over the course of many years, coupled with poor treatment that makes the Dragon so challenging — but also an opportunity.

    I would never say people should give up trying. In fact, the high level “gripe session” I mention is evidence of a hope for change and the willingness to work at it — yet I believe there is another “move” here that takes people into themselves in a different and more important way. The aim is neither coping nor external actions that are supposed to fix something “out there.” It’s about a transformation that delights in both the way people and systems change — from the inside out.

    Here’s to more candles than any dragon can blow out!

    All the best and great thanks to you!
    ~Dan

  • […] system to change is the one within.”  You can read more in this his powerful post titled “Having Tea with the Dragon”. […]

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