Leadership Coaching Tip: Brutal Facts Plus Positive Emotion

Amiel Handelsman

Amiel HandelsmanLately, I’ve been wondering what kind of leadership this moment in history is calling for. The short answer is second-tier leadership, defined as that which promotes the health of the entire spiral. I am impressed by the work of Don Beck and others in describing the dimensions of this, like searching for the underlying cultural DNA, conducting vital signs monitors, facilitating the various waves of emergence, and creating win/win/wins. To this list, I would add the following equation:

Brutal facts about the future + positive emotion = the leadership this moment calls for

This, you will recognize, is an integration project.

Let’s start with brutal facts. What happens when you convey brutal facts without a clear practice of evoking positive emotion? To answer this question, we can consider the case of a leader I admire, David Walker. From 1998 to 2008 Walker served as Comptroller General of the United States, the government’s chief auditor. Currently he is President and CEO of the Peter G. Peterson Foundation. For the past few years, Walker has been touring the country with a forceful and daunting message. It goes like this:

  • The annual deficit our federal government faces now pales in comparison with the cumulative fiscal burden we face two to three decades in the future. If you add up all of the money the federal government has promised to spend in the coming decades and subtract its anticipated revenues, the net is $53 trillion. Implicit exposures to Medicare and Social Security comprise over three-fourths of this fiscal hole. For sake of comparison, the total household net worth in the U.S. today is $59 trillion.
  • This fiscal hole amounts to nearly half a million dollars per household. That’s a big burden for future generations. In contrast, the federal bailout bill Congress just passed equates to several thousand dollars per household.
  • Faster economic growth cannot solve the problem. Reversing Bush’s tax cuts for the wealthy, ending the occupation of Iraq, and eliminating earmark spending together would just scratch the surface. To balance the federal budget in 2040, we will have to either cut federal spending by 60 percent or double taxes. That is, unless we take substantial action today on health care, taxes, and Social Security.

The gift of Walker’s leadership is that he conveys brutal facts about the future. These facts provide a key part of the conceptual framework needed to design win/win/win solutions. (A full conceptual framework would include the other three quadrants, but this is a separate point). In this regard, Walker’s presentation resembles Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth, which is 100 minutes of brutal facts about global warming.

And yet—are brutal facts sufficient for the leadership this moment calls for? Let’s do a simple empirical test, one that Bill Torbert would call first-person research. How did you feel after reading about the massive fiscal hole—more or less energized to take action? How did you feel after watching An Inconvenient Truth—more or less energized to act?

During Walker’s talk and Gore’s film, I felt curiosity followed by an excited and indignant “aha.” After both experiences, I felt resignation. Something was wrong. Something needed to be done. But I was too bummed out to imagine a positive future, much less bring it into being. The truth not only failed to set me free. It knocked me down. Sound familiar?

If great leadership is about mobilizing people into action in a way that honors every wave of development, brutal facts are true but partial. Great leadership also evokes positive emotions like gratitude, hope, satisfaction, and joy—even while delivering brutal facts.

Why are positive emotions important? Because we act from a deeper intelligence when we’re feeling good than when we’re feeling lousy. No matter our center of gravity on the developmental spiral, we’re more open. Positive emotions free us to do things we care about even when—particularly when—times are tough and the obstacles are great. Researchers in positive psychology and positive organizational studies provide support for these assertions. They show us, in the words of the Chilean biologist, Humberto Maturana, why love is the only emotion that amplifies intelligence.

To test the primacy of position emotions to the leadership project, let’s return to David Walker. This time let’s toss a little positive emotion into the pot. Imagine that you’re sitting in an auditorium listening to Walker talk. After briefly providing the brutal facts about the fiscal deficit, he says this:

The scenario I just described, the $53 trillion deficit, is not set in stone. It is not the only future we’ve got. There is another story that is also possible right here, right now. It is a story of a generation of Americans making bold, courageous choices for the sake of the next generations, for the children and grandchildren they love and for people they’ll never meet. It is a story of my friend, Sheila, 55 years old, who decided to support major health care reforms and new tax policy. These were sacrifices, and she was grateful to make them. Do you know what I mean by grateful? It’s when you have that wonderful warm feeling in your chest because you did something positive for another person.

Sheila’s story is part of a larger story, the story of a generation of people who realized that they already knew what they needed to learn. Their task—the opportunity before them—was to apply this knowledge in a different context. They already knew how to sacrifice for the next generation. They already knew that this was the highest and most rewarding form of love. How did they know this? Because in their families they had done this every day for decades. For decades! The shift they made was to realize that such generosity, such an expression of love for generations to come, was also possible in their public lives, in their lives as citizens. They realized that government was not some force out there, but the way we all come together as citizens to leave the next generation better off. And this is exactly how things turned out.

The story I’ve just told hasn’t happened yet. Yet I must say, and you can tell by looking at my face that I mean it, it’s a story I love to tell, because I get to play a central part in it. As a hero. And so do you. Because in the end we’re all in it together, aren’t we?

Empirical test #2: do you feel more or less energized now than you did before reading the (imagined) second half of Walker’s speech? I hope you feel more energized. I hope you’re feeling the capacity to act, to imagine, to design.

So, again, here’s the formula I am proposing:

Brutal facts about the future + positive emotion = the leadership this moment calls for

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Amiel Handelsman is Principal of CuriousLeader Consulting LLC, an executive coaching firm based in Portland, Oregon. His article about Integral CoachingSM, co-authored with James Flaherty, was published in 2004 by the International Journal of Coaching in Organizations. Amiel publishes a monthly newsletter called How We Lead. He is currently designing a statewide initiative for the 2010 Oregon ballot and is exploring what an integrally-informed approach to campaigning, legislating and governing would look like. Amiel can be reached or