Naked Emperors

Here is the Polish poet and Nobel Laureate Wislawa Szymborska, commenting with her signature comic touch, on the occupation of poets when asked to reveal their occupation—

Bureaucrats and bus passengers respond with a touch of incredulity and alarm when they discover they are dealing with a poet…. But there are no professors of poetry. That would mean after all that poetry is an occupation requiring specialized study, regular examinations, theoretical articles with bibliographies and footnotes attached, and, finally, ceremoniously conferred diplomas. And this would mean, in turn, that it’s not enough to cover pages with even the most exquisite poems in order to become a poet. The crucial element is some slip of paper bearing an official stamp. (xi-xii)

—that nevertheless finds echoes in other occupations that have not been sanctified, authorized and deodorized for commonplace use.

In my case, it happens when I tell people that I am a Trainer (Dog trainer? Circus trainer? Fitness trainer?), or should I say a Coach (Football coach? Little League coach?) or Leadership Speaker (inevitable comparisons—flattering though they are—to my namesake Anthony Robbins?). Outside the corporate world, there are the bestseller writers on self-help books that most readily come to mind, some flavors-of-the-month like James Redfield (of The Celestine Prophecy fame), and others of the more perennial variety in the Dale Carnegies and their more recent avatars, Deepak Chopra and Dr. Phil. These figures shape the public perception of my occupation, and derive their credibility from the enormous marketing engines that drive readers to their books, and participants to their seminars. But what exactly is being sold here? Szymborska (again on poets), provides a pertinent observation and stringent criterion:

And yet it wasn’t so long ago… that poets strove to shock us with their extravagant dress and eccentric behavior. But all this was merely for the sake of public display. The moment always came when poets had to close the doors behind them, strip off their mantles, fripperies, and other poetic paraphernalia, and confront—silently, patiently awaiting their own selves—the still-white sheet of paper. For finally, this is what really counts. (xii)

What really counts. For a poet, it is a great poem; for a trainer, it is in creating an enduring change in thinking and stance in the mentee. The big secrets of success are not really secrets. Most people know that discipline, hard work, leadership qualities, team-work, out-of-the-box thinking, initiative…and we can run the gamut of desirable attributes, skills and knowledge onwards, but the bottom line is that training is not in just imparting content, but in inspiring performance. Unlikely a simile though it may be, great trainers can be in their own humble way, like great poets: they inspire us.

And lest we dismiss these comparisons as frivolous for the hard world of business, let us recall that before our MBAs, our certifications, and professional designations, there was business—that formative cornerstone of civilization—which existed for millennia. We may have evolved to our particular structures and logic of business, but the business of training, of educating, of coaching, and indeed of mentorship (Mentor, whose name comes from Greek mythology, was tutor and guide to the son of Odysseus) have ancient and enduring origins. Even among the most hardened of businesspeople, there are memories of great teachers, guides, advisors,… and yes, trainers, who shaped their thinking and actions. We look at the great achievements of great men and women, of great companies, of great inventions, great innovations, and all too often we see the lone warrior in the spotlight; we do not acknowledge the supporting apparatus that lies in the darkness below the stage, the whole foundation upon which the soaring pinnacle was built.

So, what really counts? In business parlance we call that the return on investment, the ROI, whose financial measures may be in dollars and cents, but in training is expected to be a productive change in behavior that improves business performance. I say “expected to be” because the criteria used to measure performance are amorphous, difficult to quantify, and regrettably subjective. Therefore when training is called for (and especially in its most august manifestation, Performance Coaching, or more recently, Leadership Development), how do we choose who is the best person for the job? All too often we choose the person with the most slips of paper bearing an official stamp, the people with the most mantles, fripperies and other paraphernalia, so to speak.

This is not to deny the importance of certification, credentials and experience, which are all important to ensure a certain level of quality, certain benchmarks for performance, and even a common foundation of principles and accepted practice through which practitioners in the field communicate with one another. But (and here is the big BUT), when credentials become the most significant criteria through which we evaluate a practitioner’s performance, we are losing sight of what really counts. And naturally, when that becomes the evaluative criteria, it shapes the output.

Classic behavioral theory (once shunned in business and industry as too airy-fairy-psychological-nonsense), is making an interesting appearance in the new Behavioral Economics and Behavioral Finance. This should not be a surprise to us common sense thinkers in other aspects of our life. And one of those little precepts we quickly learn (as children, and later adults) is that the criteria used to evaluate performance will shape the output of that performance. If better grades will get one the promised bike, many an enterprising kid will work for the grade (irrespective of whether learning actually took place), which provides an all too typical paradigm that the kid will follow in later life. So, kids focus on grades, poets on fripperies, and trainers on slips of paper bearing an official stamp, when they should be focusing on learning, better poetry and inspiring greater performance respectively.

In the fable of the Emperor desirous of new clothes, perhaps he needed to ask himself what he really wanted: flattery? Or beautiful garments? So long as flattery seemed to be his criteria in choosing tailors, we know what he got. But for the rest of us, royalty or not, what expectations do we have of our tailors, our poets, and our trainers? And is it what really counts? If not, we can surely expect some kid in the street to hoot at a naked emperor.

Work Cited:

Szymborska, Wislawa. “The Poet and the World” (Nobel Lecture). Poems New and Collected 1957 – 1997. Trans. Stanislaw Baranczack & Clare Kavanagh. New York: Harcourt Brace & Company. 1998.

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