I believe the greatest gift I can conceive of having from anyone is to be seen by them, heard by them, to be understood and touched by them.

–Virginia Satir

Leadership and Support

By “sup­port” I mean sit­ting on the same side of the table as some­one else, being able to empathize and to respect the per­son­’s dig­ni­ty and indi­vid­u­al­i­ty. It means serv­ing as an advo­cate who gen­uine­ly believes in this per­son and is will­ing to help, even if it involves chal­leng­ing feed­back and straight talk. To me, true sup­port is a com­plex skill, one that com­bines intense lis­ten­ing with dia­logue that aims to help a per­son unrav­el and then reweave their own psy­chic world. It means “stand­ing in the fire” with anoth­er, even as you under­stand the prac­ti­cal lim­its of your abil­i­ty to put out any­one’s fire oth­er than your own.

Indeed, unless you can hold onto your­self, I don’t believe you can real­ly cham­pi­on anoth­er per­son. Attempts to do so in a per­son­al­ly unground­ed way are like­ly to cause more harm than good because then sup­port too eas­i­ly involves pro­ject­ing your own issues onto the oth­er indi­vid­ual. And emp­ty or manip­u­la­tive sup­port used as a tool to con­trol anoth­er’s choic­es quick­ly becomes obvi­ous and the only one you are like­ly to fool will be your­self. If you want to tru­ly give anoth­er sup­port, you must do it from a place of integri­ty and not because it makes you feel gen­er­ous or like a good leader or a “ser­vant leader.” You can only real­ly do it if you mean it, if you gen­uine­ly care about what hap­pens to the oth­er per­son. You do it because you see the raw capa­bil­i­ty, truth and spir­it that anoth­er holds, because you see the oth­er per­son­’s intrin­sic val­ue as a human being. Every oth­er rea­son — such as your own need for hero­ics or to pride­ful­ly shift anoth­er’s behav­ior or atti­tude — depletes both you and the one you think you might be help­ing. I believe you most­ly have to do it free of any expec­ta­tion at all.


This kind of gen­uine sup­port some­times seems in low sup­ply these days. In part this may be because it requires that you have some­thing inside your­self to give, that you your­self are not emp­ty, depressed or emo­tion­al­ly needy in ways you’d pre­fer to ignore. My sense is that the good stuff, the real­ly good stuff comes through you to the oth­er per­son with­out actu­al­ly hav­ing that much to do with you. In the best cir­cum­stances, where there is self­less affir­ma­tion and “see­ing” of anoth­er, you might feel like a con­duit for help that comes from a high­er source. You might feel hon­ored and proud to be that con­duit, but need­ing to take cred­it as a res­cuer leaves you only one step away from becom­ing a per­se­cu­tor or vic­tim.

Part of the rea­son this type of true sup­port is rar­er than it should be may be a back­ground cor­po­rate cul­ture where pro­vid­ing emo­tion­al sup­port to oth­ers — just as ask­ing for it — is still regard­ed as a weak­ness, and as belong­ing to spe­cial­ists from HR, the legal team or exter­nal coach­es. This belief that lead­ers and man­agers some­how real­ly don’t need coach­ing skills them­selves because their focus is on get­ting the work done, not deal­ing with peo­ple, is con­sid­er­ably mis­in­formed. While it is true that the work­place is not designed to ful­fill a per­son­’s every psy­cho­log­i­cal need, we are delud­ing our­selves if we think that emo­tion­al needs don’t or should­n’t mat­ter at work. Being for oth­er peo­ple as whole human beings is an essence of what it means to lead.

That stuff about cor­po­rate cul­ture is par­tic­u­lar­ly dam­ag­ing, most­ly because it denies the real­i­ty that the lead­ers need sup­port as much as any­one else — and also need to be able to pro­vide it. This is no more appar­ent than when, as a pro­fes­sion­al coach, I lis­ten as even high­ly accom­plished peo­ple express their vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and inse­cu­ri­ties, share true feel­ings that have remained hid­den for years, and con­fess their unan­swered ques­tions about them­selves, their work and their own psy­chic world. Inso­far as an orga­ni­za­tion is will­ing to hire me and peo­ple like me, it’s clear that those in top roles are con­sid­ered valu­able enough to sup­port, but there is a seri­ous mis­un­der­stand­ing, I think, if peo­ple believe that I do what oth­ers can’t or should­n’t do. In effect, we’ve com­part­men­tal­ized sup­port rather than mak­ing it an orga­ni­za­tion­al norm, and we’ve imbued receiv­ing sup­port with priv­i­lege — it’s only there for lead­ers who are either regard­ed as “key play­ers” or “high poten­tial” or as “hav­ing prob­lems” but are hard to replace. 

I think we have to take a look at all of this and ask what is going on, what kind of assump­tions we are enact­ing. We need to deeply exam­ine our beliefs about the work of man­agers and lead­ers and the nature of the cul­tures, orga­ni­za­tion­al and soci­etal, we are rein­forc­ing. Espe­cial­ly around the notion of priv­i­lege. In the world at large right now there’s an almost rep­til­ian pref­er­ence by many for bias, blame, supe­ri­or­i­ty and priv­i­lege that works counter to any form of gen­uine human sup­port — it’s the chill­ing belief that “I deserve sup­port but you do not.” It’s dark­ness, pure and sim­ple. Dai­ly we read about the impact of such pref­er­ences and where they take us. 

I very much hope you see into the nature of what I am saying.


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