Success and Failure are Equal Ailments

Dragons-At-Work-Author-Stephen-JosephsThis week’s commentary is guided contemplation of Lao Tzu’s poem in Chapter 16.

Here’s the text to the poem.


Click below for the audio.




# 10 – Translation by Witter Bynner


Favor and disfavor have been called equal worries,

Success and failure have been call equal ailments.

How can favor and disfavor be called equal worries?

Because winning favor burdens a man,

With fear of losing it.

How can success and failure be called equal ailments?

Because a man thinks of the personal body as self.

When he no longer thinks of the personal body as self

Neither failure nor success can ail him.

One who knows his lot to be the lot of all other men

Is a safe man to guide them,

One who recognizes all men as members of his own body

Is a sound man to guard them.



Yielding to the Breath With Your Whole Body

Check your breathing in this moment. As you inhale or exhale what parts of your torso move with the breath, and what parts remains still? Does it feel like your muscles, and ribs yield to an incoming breath, or resist it? When you exhale do you relax? How long does it take to complete a full breath?

If you’re practiced in breathing you’ll be able to take a breath that almost instantly calms, refocuses, and energizes you. While it’s true that even unpracticed people can interrupt angry states by simply taking a breath, breathing practice develops a more profound capacity to shift states and attention.

From meditative arts to martial arts, singing, and athletic performance – breathing enhances performance. Looking at the sheer variety of techniques these arts employ you might wonder if there’s any “right way” to breathe?

For nearly half a century I’ve practiced techniques from a wide variety of disciplines, and I now prefer to teach the gentle Taoist methods that produce profound responses quickly.

We dwell in the realm between sky and earth. In the Chinese internal energy arts you’ll find practices designed to deepen our awareness or our human condition called the Marriage of Heaven and Earth. Their purpose is to draw in and integrate the sublime qualities above and below us.

Imagine that, like a tree, your roots extend deeply into the earth while your leaves draw in the heavenly energy of our star, the Sun. And imagine as you inhale, your rib cage and torso make more and more room for the sky inside your belly and chest. You do this by becoming soft and yielding to the breath, so there is no place in you that cannot accommodate and melt to an inspiration of breath.

On your exhale, continue to relax. Become still and alert, so the next breath enters an even more receptive body. If you stay in the moment each incoming breath will feel new and fresh with each inhale. You feel innocent.

If you learn how to integrate not only your torso but your limbs, hands, and feet into your breath you’ll breathe with your whole body.

The A.L.I.V.E. system that Michele teaches Dan will get you started on whole body breathing. In an upcoming post my friend and colleague Anat Baniel will also teach you how to make your body responsive to a complete breath.

Here are some audio instructions that will help you yield to the breath:

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Please share your experiences with the breathing audio in the comments section.

CEO Disease and Humility

Dragons-At-Work-Author-Stephen-JosephsI applaud Rick Brandon’s concept of CEO disease.

In my interview with Rick, he talks about saying to CEOs, “You know, you’re probably not as bright or smart or funny as you think you are.” Then he went on to joke, “Of course we don’t work at those companies anymore.” His joke is right on the money.

In Hans Christian Andersen’s tale, “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” we never find out what happened to the little boy who innocently exclaimed, “but the Emperor isn’t wearing any clothes!,” The fairytale is silent on that point, but we have numerous examples of contrarians, truth tellers, and whistleblowers whose careers have stalled or ended because they spoke up.

Here’s a passage from the bold new book, “The Great American Stickup“, by Robert Scheer. He tells us about Brooksley Born, the outspoken woman who headed the Commodity Futures Trading Commission who warned of the dangers of unregulated derivative trading. That lack of regulation is one of the contributing causes to our 2008 world financial meltdown.

“Born had known all along [about the danger of unregulated derivative trading], but her warnings were consistently ignored, even as she refused to back down. The Wall Street Journal’s Michael Schroeder captured the hostility of Rubin and other Born critics in a November 3, 1998, article entitled “CFTC Chief Refuses to Take Back Seat in Derivatives Debate.” The newspaper reported: “The nation’s top financial regulators wish that Brooksley Born would just shut up. For nearly a year, Ms. Born . . . has been warning about the risk of unregulated over-the-counter derivatives.” Greenspan, Rubin, Summers, and Leavitt opposed Born’s efforts to seek regulation, warning that threats of oversight could destabilize the financial markets and could also lead to lawsuits.

Born’s warnings continued to fall on deaf ears, the Journal reported, until September’s near collapse of Long-Term Capital Management LP, the hedge fund whose “huge exposure to derivatives threatened to rock already-shaky world financial markets. Suddenly, the maverick CFTC chairwoman looked less like a turf-conscious alarmist and more like a modern Cassandra.” Cassandra or not, she was finished. Born’s term was coming to an end, the president [Bill Clinton] had never uttered a word of support, and she did not request a new term. Despite the startling evidence provided by the LTCM collapse, nobody at the top wanted to hear her dire warnings. Clinton himself must be held accountable for this one; by embracing the Republican deregulation mania and ignoring Born’s prescient caution, he made a misstep far more damaging to the country than his dalliance with a White House intern.”

The real cure, not just symptomatic relief, is humility and maturity – qualities which are often in short supply.

Question for reflection:
What can we do in our leadership development trainings, our coaching, and in our own lives that allows us all to listen to each other with humility? What can we do to hold our “best ideas” more lightly?

We’ll see how Dan develops some of that capacity as the Dragons at Work tale moves forward.

Stay tuned.

In the comments section, share an example of “the emperor’s new clothes” syndrome you have experienced. Did sanity or delusion win in the end?

To go to Chapter 13 click here.

To go to the interview with Rick Brandon on Office Politics click here.

Stephen Comments on Procrastination

Dragons-At-Work-Author-Stephen-JosephsDon’t Put Off Procrastinating, Procrastinate Right Now!

Chapter 11 is only one paragraph, but books could be written about the phenomenon it describes. Look in the self-help section of the book store, you’ll find hundreds of them.

Dan’s now on a diet, and strangely, he’s gaining weight. We’re told, “The moment he read his nutrition plan, even though he had just eaten, he felt hungry and deprived.”

This is the polarity response at work. Before I explain that term, here’s another example.

I just attended a meeting where a noted nutritionist gave a two hour lecture about diet, health, and the evils of eating sugar. Our group had been staying at a resort for three days, and at dinner each evening a platter of cookies and other sweets was served. In each of the first two nights, we consumed about half a platter. The night of the “evils of sugar” lecture, we ate two and half platters of sweets. Why?

The Polarity Response
The polarity response describes a familiar phenomenon. When (and because) we are told to do something, we do just the opposite. It’s as though we have a little oppositional voice inside us that takes over. When we hear a command or even a suggestion it says, “no, I won’t.”

Years ago I had a client who procrastinated. If he had a ten item To Do List, he’d only complete the first eight. Even if he had the whole afternoon to accomplish the last two items, at the end of the day they still weren’t done.

As an example, the ninth item on his to do list was to call Mr. Smith. He called and Mr. Smith’s secretary said he was away from his desk. My client said he’d call back in 15 minutes. But he never did call Mr. Smith.

As he told me the story I observed that he cocked his head to the left as though he were listening to something. I asked him to tell me what his experience was at the moment he put the phone down after talking to the secretary. He said, I say to myself, “At least I tried.” I asked, when you say that, who are you talking to?

Upon some reflection, he discovered he had two voices in his head. One, which sounded a lot like his mother, nagged, “You better call Mr. Smith!” And the other voice, the voice of the polarity response, refused to make the call.

My client had a perfect system for procrastination. The voice in his head that told him what to do next elicited an unconscious oppositional response, resulting in a stalemate. The trouble was the voice that told him what to do had good ideas, but because it sounded like his mother he refused to listen to it.

There are lots of ways to fix this. I gave this client the suggestion that the voice inside his head could change its tone to that of a friend and ally whose advice he could take or not at his pleasure. The result was that his procrastination dissolved and he became gleefully productive. I say gleefully because when that kind of inner conflict resolves, it frees up a lot of bound energy.

It’s amazing how clever we are at getting in our own way. We can be quite stubborn in our opposition to goals that we ourselves set. Doc Childre of HeartMath aptly refers to this phenomenon as the cellular pout.

At some point, we have to get clear of this and declare that the war with our parents (or whomever) is over.

So the tip for this week is to simply observe yourself and see where you persist in sabotaging your goals.

A great exercise:
Sit at your desk as your “oppositional self” and write your memoirs. Simply write nonstop for 20 minutes. Write in the present tense, and write continuously without editing yourself. If you do this for five days in a row you’ll be amazed at what your mind produces.

As journaling brings unconscious processes into the light, some people may uncover things that they want to explore in psychotherapy. That path can be quite valuable. For many people, journaling, simply as a way of getting clarity, lessens the automatic reflex of the polarity response.

Readers: Please let me know how it goes when you write your memoir. I’d love to hear from you.

As we progress further in the story, I will offer other techniques that even more thoroughly dissolve internal opposition to success and fulfillment.

Stay tuned.

Where have polarity response played a part in your life? Write a comment.

Stephen Comments On The Relaxed Coach – The Relaxed Client

Dragons-At-Work-Author-Stephen-JosephsChapter 7 covers a lot of territory. Michele and Dan design their coaching relationship, select the important goals, and begin working to improve Dan’s health and vitality.

Michele and Dan agree that 1) the goals of coaching will be his goals, 2) Dan will be open to try new things if they seem promising, 3) he will speak up if he doesn’t like how the coaching is going.

Guided by a series of questions from Michele, Dan chooses to take advantage of Michele’s expertise in Qigong.

It may seem odd to some readers that Michele begins working with Dan’s body so early in the coaching relationship. For that matter, it may seem strange that she includes any attention to Dan’s physical experience at all. Many approach leadership as if it were an entirely cerebral activity, but as a martial arts master, Michele is aware of what a superbly functioning mind-body contributes to excellent performance. She is experienced enough to be surefooted in guiding Dan’s learning process.

She gives Dan a quick and compelling experience of relaxation that he can use at work. He’s interested in pursuing that skill, perhaps because his fear of dying has opened him to trying new things. There is nothing more bracing than an encounter with death. In his 2005 commencement speech at Stanford, Steve Jobs said,

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything — all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure — these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” [Stanford commencement speech, June 2005]

For those of you who are drawn to experience some of what Dan learns, I have provided an audio that guides you through a brief exercise in breathing and attention. I use this in the morning to smooth out and gather my energy and set my intention for the day. It’s best done lying on your back in bed.

Listen to audio: Introduction to Energizing the Lower Center

Listen to audio: Practice Energizing the Lower Center

For coaches who are drawn to use this A-L-I-V-E system in your work, I suggest you begin learning it by yourself. When you are experienced and confident enough, you’ll find it easy to incorporate it into your coaching. I will keep adding A-L-I-V-E instructions to the Dragons at Work website, so you can learn it along with Dan.

In his interview on this chapter, Bill Ryan gives us background on the method of opening and closing the joints that Michele uses. It comes from an ancient Chinese system of healing and martial arts that I began studying with Bill and his teacher, Bruce Frantzis, in 1992. Bruce’s system is vast, and I realized I needed private instruction to guide me. Bill did a great job of filling in the details. If you’re interested in private Skype sessions with him, I recommend you give it a try. Bruce Frantzis’s recent DVD home study courses are excellent, and I recommend them, as well.

Questions for Reflection:

Which brings more to you, you or your renown?
Which brings more to you, you or what you own?
And which would cost you more if it were gone?

Lao Tzu Witter Bynner translation


For Executives: When you coach direct reports to develop them…

  1. Remember that you are their boss as well as someone who occasionally coaches them. Because of these overlapping roles, it is important that you are clear about the boundaries and scope of what’s included in coaching.
  2. Get agreements about the purpose and focus of the coaching.
  3. Agree on how you will both know when progress is achieved.
  4. Collaboratively define how you can both address and get the coaching back on track, if it deviates from what you’ve agreed to.

For Human Resource Executives: When you coach employees at any level of the organization…

  1. Same as above. Considering the many ways you support your organization, your overlapping role relationships can be quite complex. Clarity of boundaries, purpose, and process are essential.
  2. The clearer you are on the point above, the safer your employee/client will feel and the more successful your coaching will be.

For Coaches: In your coaching…

  1. Are there areas that may be specialties of yours or even natural gifts?
  2. Are you comfortable about offering these to clients where appropriate?
  3. Would you like these areas to be part of your brand (what you are known for)?
  4. If so, have you designed your marketing materials and interview processes to let clients know how you may uniquely serve their needs?

In the next week’s chapters Michele observes Dan at a meeting with his team. He gets irritated at a direct report and a pall falls over the meeting. We’ll see how Michele debriefs the meeting and coaches Dan.

Stay tuned.

PS – We’ll cover the 7 Powers Profile as the story unfolds.

Stephen Comments On How To Design the Coaching Relationship

Dragons At Work Weekly Wrap UpIn Chapters 4-6 Dan decides to hire a coach and he interviews three coaches before he makes his choice.

There are multiple outcomes for a first meeting with a potential client. Most important is to provide the richest set of experiences possible, so the client can make an informed decision. Many executives haven’t worked with a coach, so they’re unfamiliar with the interview process. But they are familiar with job interviews, and they may want to interview the coach the way they would a prospective employee. Although they may feel comfortable and in control doing it this way, it won’t give them the information they need to make a good choice.

I believe a coach needs to persuasively invite the client to, as Michele says, roll up his or her sleeves and have a brief working session. There is no substitute for the direct experience of working together.

Of the three coaches, Michele succeeds in engaging Dan. She sidesteps his request for a theoretical conversation and using humor, she gently confronts him: Does he want to work or not?

The first coach makes the mistake of acting like a consultant. It’s helpful to have pertinent technical knowledge, but the real job of the coach is to develop the client. Simply offering technical advice, especially to someone who’s already an expert, is a losing proposition.

The second coach loses control of the meeting. She falls into the trap of answering Dan’s questions. His behavior unmistakably tells her that he doesn’t care about the questions or the answers. Instead of addressing that head on, she talks about what holds interest for neither of them.

To begin their coaching, Michele asks Dan what questions about the project are on his mind. He floods her with questions. Dan becomes frustrated with her when she says, “Those are all good questions.” He wants answers. Of course, Michele would be foolish to provide answers for two reasons. First, she has no answers. Second, even if she had great answers, Dan, who has yet to begin any self reflection, wouldn’t be able to understand or assimilate them. Michele’s job is to provide the framework and act as a catalyst for
Dan’s inquiry so the coaching reveals what he needs to know.

Michele also uses the interview to test if Dan can follow her breathing instructions and calm down. His response tells her that he may be able to take advantage of her expertise in mind-body disciplines.

After a sleepless night, he chooses her over the other two coaches.


For Executives: To choose the best coach for yourself…

  1. Be transparent and hold nothing back in an initial working session. That will allow you to check out the coach’s real competencies.
  2. If you have questions about the process, ask the coach directly, rather than making private assumptions and judgments. The coach’s responses will help you decide whether or not to hire that coach.
  3. Chemistry is important. Trust your gut. You’ll spend a good amount of time together, and the coach has to be someone you can respect and collaborate with.

For Human Resource Executives: In choosing coaches for your executives…

  1. Coaching is a profession without entry barriers and few recognized credentials. Check the coach’s background and experience.
  2. Make sure that your coach knows how to deliver results so that evidence of success is apparent to key stakeholders. It’s even better if the coach is schooled in how to quantify results and offer a business rationale that speaks to your company’s strategic goals.
  3. Make sure there is a true ROI for coaching. Coaching should deliver a return that is worth 10 to 20 times your investment. If that is not the case, consider alternatives.

For Coaches: In choosing clients… (it’s much the same as for the executive choosing you)

  1. Be transparent and hold nothing back in a working session. That will allow you to check out how the client responds to your approach, and it will deepen your connection with them.
  2. If you have questions about the client’s responses, ask the client directly. Your job is to make sure the client gets the best coach, and it may not be you. So, inquire and be ready to refer.
  3. Chemistry is important. Trust your gut. If you don’t think this client is a good fit for how you work, be honest and offer alternatives. You need to coach people who are a great match for you. If you give that value primacy it will best serve your clients and your business.
  4. Make sure you have a strong working partnership with your internal HR partner. S/he can provide you with background and onsite observations you can’t get any other way.

Question for Reflection: If you had the opportunity to work with a wise and skillful coach, what would you tell the coach about yourself and your goals that would lead you to the core of what your coaching would be about?

In the next chapters we’ll see Michele and Dan dive into their coaching work. Intrigue, more tools and useful stories are to come.

Stay tuned.

Did you miss the previous chapter?

Stephen Comments on Relieving Workplace Stress

Marcia Crawford’s character is modeled on a number of excellent HR professionals I’ve worked with over the years. Some people enter Human Resources to bring order to compensation, benefits, legal compliance, and the administrative facets of HR. Others are drawn to the profession because they want to contribute to and improve the experience of employees in the work environment. They see the world of work as a place for people to bring out the best in each other and evolve personally and professionally.

Some HR executives have training in psychology, but the scope of their interest includes not just individuals but the organizational systems in which they work and the rigors of running a profitable business. Marcia’s passion and expertise are on the human development side of the continuum. She feels for Dan and his organization, and she understands the business impact of a failed project.

In this chapter Marcia, VP of HR, confronts a common situation. Brilliant, hard-working, driven executives can be blind to the costs of their abrasive management style. Lost productivity and revenue, attrition, and even share price devaluation are very real consequences of the way Dan operates.

Because Dan’s knowledge and expertise are critical to the project’s success, replacing him is not an easy option. It would be ideal to keep Dan and develop his leadership style. Marcia knows that coaching is often the intervention of choice for executives like Dan who cannot take time off to attend training. Coaching can give Dan the one-on-one training that only uses content that is pertinent to this mission critical project.

Previously, Dan had rejected coaching, but now with his limitations staring him in the face and his new health concerns, he is suddenly amenable.

Though coaching is highly cost-effective, it still requires financial investment. Like most HR executives, Marcia knows some of her colleagues view executive development as a cost, and not always a justifiable one. She believes good executive development produces a competitive advantage for her company. But mindful that others disagree with her, she needs Dan’s coaching to produce demonstrable results.

Marcia selects from her network of coaches three possible matches for Dan’s needs. Dan has agreed to interview them.

Let’s see how that turns out in Chapter 5.

Stephen Comments On How a VP of HR Evaluates Executive Coaching

Dragons At Work Weekly Wrap UpIn Chapter 1 we meet our hero, Dan Schaeffer, whose tensions at work spill over at home.

In the interview, our expert, Dr. Redford Williams, advises us about how to deal with anger. The skills in his system help us evaluate the difficult circumstance, so we can decide whether to take action or to “chill out.” He also informs us how anger physically takes its toll on us. I have met abrasive managers who claim they don’t get headaches, they give them. Now we know what’s happening to their arterial walls.


For Executives: How to not take anger and stress home with you…

  1. Before you leave the office, organize the next day. Having confidence that you can smoothly re-enter your workplace helps you drop the emotional charge of unfinished business and relax.
  2. Before you enter your home, take a moment to reflect on and appreciate who and what awaits you. Set your intention to relax and enjoy your evening.
  3. Before sleep give yourself the suggestion that in the morning you’ll have new insights about how to re-imagine the difficult situation and move it in a positive direction. While you sleep your unconscious mind is the supreme problem solver.

For Leadership Development Professionals: Working with angry employees/clients…

  1. Connect with their frustration. Listen first. Any judgment conveyed in verbal or non-verbal behavior will get them to dig in their heels and categorize you as an enemy.
  2. Ask them, “Given all of the difficulties you just described…”
    a. What are some useful outcomes you can imagine for the situation?
    b. How would that move the situation forward in a positive way?
    c. What’s the first small sign of positive change you can put in motion.
    d. (If at any point they continue to complain and rant, repeat step 1, and then 2.)
  3. For helping them manage their anger, Dr. Williams gives us an excellent formula in the interview.

Question for Reflection: What is the positive use of anger? When have you been able to harness it without incurring its negative by-products?

In the next chapter we’ll see how a coach works with Dan’s anger.

Did you miss the previous chapter?