The Stress Doc Letter
Box 1: Purposeful
Box 2: Provocative
Box 3: Passionate
Box 4: Playful
The terms inside the boxes are familiar, yet some of their meanings or associations may prove “out of the box” – surprising and, hopefully, both enlightening and invigorating. It is my belief that grappling with these mind-mood action states and gleaning their psycho-motivational essence as well as realizing the concept’s applied potential means expanding your “personal energy, professional creativity and organizational synergy.” [Ed. Note: As mentioned previously, the Four “P” Model was originally designed for highlighting key components of “Powerful Presentation.” Now the model provides a framework for also understanding the broader concept of leadership and team energy and collaboration. In addition, a friend in the creative design world believes the Four “P” Model – with its “Purposeful, Provocative, Passionate and Playful” building blocks – has wide-ranging relevance, including for such fields as product design and fashion.]
Finally, while examining each “P” term, I will also highlight a key synonym or word association to put additional conceptual flesh on (or, for you vegans, add meaningful fiber to) the Four “P” skeletal system.
1. Being Purposeful. A powerful speaker or leader achieves self-purpose as well as a sense of purpose by establishing educational, emotional and even entertaining “objectives,” “outlines” and “outcomes” that an audience or potential participants can explore and possibly embrace. Of course, some presenters and leaders are also compelled to share their life changing vision, a grandiloquent vision or mission statement that may be more like a sense of purpose on steroids. Alas, there’s often a fine line between vision and hallucination. (And believe me I’ve tripped over that line and fell hard on my derriere many times. Fortunately, I believe there is a correlation between having a hard head and a hard butt. And another silver lining: hard-earned humility often lessens the likelihood of becoming a visionary butt-head!)
Actually, the savviest speakers and leaders are not blinded by their ego or egoals, i.e., having goals that are designed and driven more by pride and egotism than by productive opportunism. Purposeful leaders create a learning and sharing structure and process that evolve through time, error and experience. In fact, these individuals usually have a history of responsiveness to audience or team member feedback. The instructional and interactional objectives and plans of a dynamic educator or motivator are often significantly modified during the course of a project, in the middle of a program or even as an action sequence is unfolding. Evaluation does not only come after the fact.
So “evolutionary purpose” is a combination of being focused yet feedback-driven. Another paradoxical pairing joins this “Purposeful” combo: the capacity for intention and flexibility. One example of “flexible intentionality” is the capacity to be both goal-focused and flexible regarding long-term objectives and short-term opportunities, along with an ability to recognize a need for mid-course correction. Two seemingly contradictory quotations capture the importance of humility, trial and error learning as well as the value of balancing means and end or distinguishing the journey from the destination. The first is from a law firm executive; the second is a Stress Doc maxim:
a) “Strive high and embrace failure.” For the head of a law firm, no matter the project, his goal was a 100% success rate, yet he understood this was frequently elusive. His mantra exalted concerted effort and bold persistence along with learning from mistakes over the illusion of perfection; hard-earned wisdom was prized over “one right way” shortcuts and seductive yet short-lived control.
b) “I don’t know where I’m going…I just think I know how to get there.” This aphorism suggests that for achieving an important goal or reaching a key destination, there is value in meandering purposefully. That is, new insight, opportunity or discovery may require “letting go” of the familiar or getting off the beaten path and taking time for exploration. Of course, this mindset requires a tolerance for some uncertainty and a good deal of patience, as well as (men…pay attention here) knowing when to ask for directions. Jonas Salk would certainly agree. The famed scientific pioneer believed that, “Evolution involves getting up one more time than you fall down, being courageous one more time than you are fearful, and being trusting just one more time than you are anxious.”
Finally, these quotes do not simply illustrate “evolutionary purpose”; they also provide a path to our luminous synonym, that is, they illuminate the distinction between having knowledge and possessing “understanding.”
a. Understanding. Within our “Passion Power” framework, a person conveys “Understanding” when he or she goes beyond delivering data or facts. The “road less traveled” in conjunction with a challenging and well-traveled journey frequently transforms information into enlightened ideas and examples. Such a “trial by fire” learning-leading path, especially when infused with educator-motivator and trainee-team member interchange and reciprocal influence, often yields a battle-tested and highly attuned guide. An individual who carries and shares genuine “understanding” of the head and the heart, to play on an eloquent Bayer Aspirin advertising slogan, for many “helps experience make sense.” And often the purposeful articulation of a leader’s or a speaker’s personal experience is the richest source for audience understanding, intimate connection and the nascent development of trust.
A motivational leader helps the participants appreciate the value of bridging theory and practice and he also provides the tools for such bridge building. In similar fashion, an educator shows how individual experience or a seemingly unrelated or contradictory event (the part) actually connects with concepts, categories and systems (the whole). You understand the reciprocal influence and contextual relationship between the forest and the trees. This newfound breadth and depth enhances a person’s capacity for discrimination, for drawing logical inferences and/or analogical comparisons, and for exploring innovative applications.
Hopefully, the “Passion Power” Model reflects and begins to transfer such concept-application and parts-whole “understanding.” And perhaps the multifaceted perspective provided by the model’s verbal-visual and “psychological mode-motivational mood” framework will challenge you to expand your conception of leadership and “Passion Power.” Which brings us to the second “P”-word.
1. Being Provocative. What’s the first thought that comes to mind when you read the word “provocative?” Is it someone who is sensually enticing or, perhaps, someone who is intentionally irritating? Reasonable responses, but let’s look at the half full side of this semantic equation. Did you know that “provocative” is derived from the French word provocare – “to call forth”? Certainly a competent leader or educator wants to stimulate and draw out, confront and excite a variety of thoughts and emotions, motives and actions. He or she wants to “arouse curiosity” if not generate “discussion or controversy” amongst the audience members. Such a leader believes in harnessing the “Four Provocative or Arousing ‘A’s”:
a) Attention – quickly getting people to “stop, look and listen”
b) Anticipation – having your audience both engaged in the present and starting to wonder, “What’s next?” or “Where is this leader headed?”; having your audience on the edge of their seats
c) Animation – stirring people’s juices and hopes, challenging conventional beliefs, firing the imagination and motivating a sense of adventure as well as a desire to pursue a common (team-or community-oriented) and uncommon (demanding, novel or original) mission
d) Activation – both individually and in groups, providing participants with the training and tools for generating plans and for insuring that action steps are taken to identify common goals, solve problems, reach objectives and to pursue dreams.
The provocative presenter challenges people to expand their perceptions, to make surprising connections, and to “think outside the box.” A positive provocateur is not afraid to generate tension and use controversy as a motivational tool, especially to excite thought and movement “beyond one’s comfort zone.” For example, the provocative tool of choice for the esteemed 20th century pragmatic philosopher, John Dewey, was “conflict.” The founder of American public education declared:
Conflict is the
gadfly of thought. It stirs us to observation and memory. It
shocks us out of sheep-like passivity. It instigates to invention and sets us at
noting and contriving. Conflict is the sine qua non of reflection and ingenuity.
While many leadership factors can induce spirited conflict, I shall focus on one motivational tool that quickly comes to life at the creative nexus of an edgy “cognitive-comedic” mindset and of a provocative communication style.
(b) Wit. Why would I choose “wit” as the signature synonym of “Provocative?” I do this because wit relates to the broad semantic categories of “intelligence” and “humor.” While its connection with humor is commonly recognized, it is wit’s capacity for mental agility that especially has my attention. Clearly, wit involves being clever and having an edgy or well-honed humor. Of course, a sharp wit can appear intellectually cold and may be perceived as arrogant or painfully cutting. And certainly, a leader with a sharp tongue might well be a compelling if not an intimidating figure. However, to achieve the promise of “Passion Power,” you must emphasize the creative as opposed to the vindictive side of being “cutting edge.” As an educator or leader, can you tap into the “half full” dimensions of being “provocative,” that is, can you engage in constructive confrontation without the condescension?” Can your challenging communication reflect human sensitivity more than a sense of superiority?
Actually, wit’s potential for being positively “provocative” has little to do with being interpersonally threatening. Even the capacity for a well-timed “bon mot” or a sparkling turn of phrase, which does have some relevance for answering the opening question, is of secondary importance. My primary focus involves wit as a tool for generating unexpected or penetrating mental and emotional comparisons and connections. For example, some might see wit in action with my reworking of the familiar warm fuzzy phrase, TLC: “Tender Loving Care” into the paradoxical “Tender Loving Criticism” and “Tough Loving Care.” Suddenly, this hackneyed expression is transformed into a complementary, yin/yang-like configuration. Now “TLC” is both a more complex and provocative concept and a more robust motivational-relational tool.
Why exactly might this transformation come under the rubric of “wit?” By its nature, wit uses unexpected or “provocative” pairings as a basis for: a) transcending seeming opposition or contradiction and b) ultimately generating novel connection and even a unifying wholeness. As way of illustration, first consider an abstract definition and then an ingenious turn of phrase. According to Webster’s, “Wit is the quick or keen apprehension and clever or apt expression of the connection or analogous properties of things seemingly unlike.” While the acclaimed humorist, Mark Twain, captured wit’s interconnecting essence with incisive insight: Wit is the sudden marriage of ideas which before their union were not perceived to have any relation. (So opposites really do attract. How well they relate and for how long…and whether their union produces any brainchildren…of course, those are other questions.)
While wit may not always evoke gales of laughter, it will often induce a knowing smile. Here’s a punch line from one of my “Shrink Raps” ™ (a contradictory witticism in its own right). A closing vivid image offering a light-hearted, visual analogy or comparison makes it easier for the reader or listener to laugh at and acknowledge his or her own flaws and foibles:
The boss makes
demands yet gives little control
So you pray on chocolate and wish life were dull
But office desk’s a mess, often skipping meals
Inside your car looks like a pocketbook on wheels!
Linking the messy insides of a car and a pocketbook is a witty comparison. For the “Passion Power” Model, a cleverness that entertains and evokes laughter is as previously noted a secondary, though certainly useful, motivational benefit. As I once penned, “People are more open to a serious message that is gift-wrapped with humor.”
Working Wit: Healing Organizational Wounds
A capacity for generating and grappling with surprising comparisons enables a mind to more clearly see and comprehend both the obscure and the obvious. And in addition to a provocative perspective, such unexpected or paradoxical pairings often help you contemplate and challenge conventional plans and imagine creative or even seemingly absurd possibilities. Consider this real life example. Nearly twenty years ago, I was consulting with a federal court that was automating their record keeping process. Management had not solicited much input from employees directly impacted by the technical changes, especially involving a key administrative form. The employees were not just anxious about an uncertain future but were also angry for being bypassed in the decision-making and implementation process. In the employees’ minds their professional status and experience were being ignored or discounted. And not surprisingly, there was passive group resistance to the change.
Memos and motivational exhortations were having minimal effect when an epiphany began percolating. In a meeting with top management I noted that we missed the boat on the front end, but I believed we could get back on. But we had to stop simply defining employee behavior as resistance to change. We needed to appreciate and truly understand their sense of loss of control and even a loss of identity. We needed to grasp the reality that a new learning curve often generates anxiety and, perhaps, a diminished sense of self-confidence and competence. Once I recognized their state of grief, achieving a starting point was possible: "Let's have a forms funeral." (Going way beyond the box…obviously I now was thinking provocatively “out of the coffin!”) Suddenly, we had a provocative public forum in which a common reality could be acknowledged and emotional intensity be openly aroused and shared. This proved a lot more effective than a typical – whether formal or informal – gripe session. We gave employees a stage for: a) mourning the loss of the old data processing system, b) expressing frustration with management's unilateral process and c) articulating concerns about the upcoming changes. And the stage eventually became a forum for shared laughter around common frustrations and even a sense of celebration. (An Irish wake comes to mind.)
So pairing organizational loss and change with the dynamics of grief yielded an imaginative and provocative analogy, one with real life application. (As a change agent, might we say I was “living by my wits”?) The idea of a forms funeral and subsequent group and community grieving enabled folks to gradually and more objectively recognize the limitations of the old and the productive potential of the new. Initial common ground was forged when a symbolic funeral became an arena for acknowledging employee pain and management missteps. Now all levels in the organization recognized that the whole had to be part of the problem and part of the solution.
A provocative forum, one that called for giving and accepting critical feedback enabled both parties to reach an understanding and to achieve closure. Shifting the conceptual playing field from employees resisting mandated top-down memos to the need for bottom-up expression of grief and appropriate articulation of grievance laid the groundwork for employee-management dialogue and consensus. The double-edged nature of the funeral analogy became apparent: a forms funeral allowed the organization to lay to rest, genuinely and respectfully, a painful and contentious past while creating an opportunity for a new way of collaborating – with mutual “give-and-take.” Clearly, a funeral is a two-way “rites of passage.” By thinking provocatively and acting out of a reframed coffin context, a more cohesive and responsive Organizational Phoenix rose from the administrative ashes of unilateral decision-making.
And speaking of mythological symbolism, I believe poetic lines penned years ago make a fitting transition from a “cognitive-comedia” analysis to the “affective-gravitas” box”:
One must know the pain
To transform the fire to burning desire!
Box 3. Affective – Gravitas = Passionate
(a) Being Passionate. Passion! What does it evoke? Intensity, heat, steaminess…the “s”-word: “soap opera?” No, of course it’s sex? Actually, we in Washington, DC know the “s”-word for passion…It is “Senator.” (Or it was until Bill Clinton ruined my joke.) Interestingly, if you have a good dictionary the “s”-word for “passion” is neither sex nor senator…it’s “suffering,” as in the Passion Play. This relates to the sufferings of Jesus or, more generically, to the sufferings of a martyr. (Imagine all this time I never knew my Jewish mother was such a passionate woman!)
So what’s the connection between “suffering,” “passion” and being a powerful leader or motivator? For me it’s fundamental (but beware a passion that has any motivational speaker or leader becoming a self-righteous or obsessed, “I know the one truth” fundamentalist. Remember, there’s a fine line between vision and hallucination). As a human being, not just a leader, I believe in acknowledging and grappling with, if not savoring, my pitfalls and pain, both present and in the past. And a passionate leader cannot escape this mind, body and soul as well as temporal battlefront. (Recall the basic message of the existential philosopher, Georges Santayana: Those who do not learn from the mistakes of the past are condemned to repeat them.) If I pause and courageously stare into and meditate upon that black hole and, often with the help of tears, my fog recedes and the dark clouds disperse, then that restless “night of the soul” may magically open up a luminous path of natural healing and hope. Surviving the dark night, at times in solitude, sometimes with support, frequently yields a new dawn of purpose and direction. (And support, of course, can range from the psychosocial to the biochemical.)
John Fowles, the renowned 20th century English novelist and conservationist vividly captured pain’s connection to the temporal and the personal. Fowles believed that emotional memories were his “electric current.” For this author to maximize his creative juices, it was imperative for him to be plugged into this power source. Personally, feeling and facing the emotional breadth and depth of my past (no matter how painful) means living more fully in the present and living more fearlessly for the future. Ultimately, you make decisions from the heart (and gut), not just the head. Trial and error (and if you survive, even trial and terror) is often the source of both penetrating insight and passionate humility.
And I use the phrase “passionate humility” knowingly. While acknowledging and honoring humility, you must also overcome a constricting self-consciousness and listen to your inner cry, from a need to be authentically recognized to a need for individual space or to right an injustice. A self-effacing ego must not sacrifice one’s truth or one’s integrity. Achieving real freedom – whether psychological and/or physical in nature – requires “blood, sweat, tears and joy” struggle. You must acknowledge and fathom the depths of the past while grieving past losses and even a perceived loss of the past. (Actually, as many writers and philosophers have noted, the past is never dead; if we are open and honest, it is in fact never truly past.) Both embracing psychic pain and letting go is necessary for meaningful wandering and exploring, and for transforming suffering into both healing and a passionate form of power. Consider these “higher pain-higher power” passages, first from the 20th century pioneering poet, e.e. cummings, the second from the ex-slave and Civil War conscience, orator and liberator, Frederick Douglas:
e.e.cummings: “To be nobody but yourself night and day while the world is trying to make you like everybody else, is to fight the hardest fight you will ever fight…And you never stop fighting.”
Frederick Douglas: “Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of the many waters. The struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without demand. It never did and it never will.”
All this is fuel for energy output and a hard-earned wisdom gleaned from life’s arduous yet, hopefully, adventurous journey. Fears, flaws and fantasies as well as my fire and focus have the potential to be converted into insight and illumination. And in torch-like fashion, this light and lightness can be passed on. Audiences respect and often see as courageous a leader or speaker who can get real, who can confront his or her Intimate FOE: “Fear of Exposure.” And perhaps most important, there is also self-acceptance. As the psychiatrist Ernst Kris noted: What was once feared and is now mastered is laughed at. And as the Stress Doc inverted: What was once feared and is now laughed at is no longer a master! Talk about aphorisms for accepting imperfection, embracing performance anxiety and overcoming dysfunctional authority. These are words for becoming a passionate leader, one who helps others discover or design their own courageous pathway.
So harness and share your pain and passion and embark on a journey of self-definition and self-discovery along the lifelong path of personal and professional learning and leading. Consider my recently expanded passage:
Remember, an error of judgment or design rarely consigns one to a position of incompetence; such miscalculations more likely reveal inexperience or immaturity, perhaps even boldness. Our so-called failures can be channeled as guiding streams – sometimes raging rivers of – of opportunity and experience that widen and deepen the risk-taking passage. If we can just immerse ourselves in those unpredictably calm and churning yet ultimately rejuvenating waters.
(b) Spirit. A vital component of “Leading with Passion Power,” that infuses “suffering” “rejuvenation” and the “fight for freedom” is the idea of “spirit.” Did you know that the first definition of spirit is, “The breath of life,” the result of God breathing life into man? More generically, spirit is “The animating or vital principle giving life to physical organisms.” And the word “animating” is also revealing. Its derivation, “anima,” is the expression of an individual’s authentic and whole inner self in contrast to one’s more surface persona. While in Jungian psychology the anima, the female energy and essence in the male, is an archetype, a universal symbol that reflects the psychic inheritance and mythic ideals of the collective unconscious.
And until researching terms for this article, I had overlooked the intimate connection between “spirit” and “inspiration.” Inspire literally means to breathe life into. Clearly, a passionate motivator or leader wants to infuse and touch, to awaken and animate, to transport and to help self-actualize the deeper essence or spirit of the other. When communicating spirit to spirit some might claim we are connecting to “the vital principle in man and woman coming as a gift from God.” According to Webster’s, we are engaging “the inward personality structure, (the) dynamic drive and creative response of the individual to the demands encountered on the pathway of becoming.”
And if we delve into the realm of the supernatural, even here we find semantic connection between spirit and inspiration in the guise of a muse-like or wraithlike source. Now “spirit” represents that “other worldly” being held to enter into and possess a person (and I’ll add a group). And surely, a dynamic speaker or motivator wants to get under the skin, and inside the individual and collective audience mind; he or she wants to capture, or at least captivate, hearts, minds and souls.
However, the word “spirit” is not just ethereal, it is truly multi-faceted. In fact, there’s a basic, down to earth notion that is charged with vital if not aggressive energy. For example, consider the phrases “fighting spirit” or “esprit de corps.” (Conversely, might we say a team devoid of camaraderie and courage has “esprit de corpse?”) “Spirit” also conveys a sense of “enterprise” – initiative, drive and adventurousness – or of “pluck” – nettle, backbone, grit, toughness and gameness (Roget’s International Thesaurus). Certainly all are vital qualities for the inspiring leader.
I’d like to reflect upon an increasingly frequent occurrence after I’ve delivered a keynote or workshop. I’m no longer surprised (though always pleased) when people come up and tell me that they really enjoyed the workshop or say “great program.” But for this essay, even more salient is how they aver with a touch of amazement, admiration and/or gracious envy that, “You really love what you do, don’t you!” Or someone will comment on my “great energy” or that “the program was inspiring.”
Clearly, the motivation is not simply due to a desire to express one’s appreciation. The implicit message is: How can I get such an emotional charge from my work? How can I bring such intensely focused yet expansively exuberant energy to life’s roles and responsibilities? How can I resurrect my personal and professional spirit?
And not long ago, a workshop participant took her exploration one step further. During a break in my Safe Stress Program, a social worker approached me about her interest in doing public speaking. People have told her she has a flair for communicating with groups. When I encouraged her to choose a subject that for her evokes feelings of passion, her immediate reply: “That’s what everyone says.” But alas, she claimed she wasn’t feeling passionate about anything right now; she couldn’t focus on a particular subject.
I suspect she may have been dealing with some form of BBS: Bjorn Bored Syndrome. BBS is named after Bjorn Borg, the Swedish,’80s tennis great who suddenly burnt out and dropped out of the pro tennis circuit despite being, seemingly, at the top of his game. After so many championships, the glamour was gone while the daily grinding practices remained. The Bjorn Bored Syndrome: When Mastery Times Monotony Provides an Index of Misery! The Stress Doc’s rejuvenating elixir: “Fireproof your life with variety!” (Also fireproof with challenging and meaningful adversity or novelty).
This woman intuitively understood that to rediscover her soul she needed to shake up her career puzzle. And she was challenging me to dig deeper and share something tangible and meaningful. Now really focusing on her heartfelt and existential plea, I responded with a series of suggestions and questions, ultimately helping us both find the proverbial pass in the impasse? Consider these strategic points:
1) identify a source of or an experience related to major personal pain or trauma and/or life-identity challenge or crisis
2) reflect broadly and deeply on how this experience impacted you and significant others?; what were past-present-future fears, frustrations and fantasies exposed or cultivated by this trauma or challenge?
3) how did you not just cope but fight through the warring external dungeons and dragons and internal self-doubts and demons?
4) what did you learn from the initial or ongoing trials, failures and successes? What aspects of your life – substance and style, mind-body-spirit – were transformed? Also, what growth processes still remain? And finally,
5) how will you organize this newfound understanding in your head and heart and how will you share this hard-earned wisdom with others?
And suddenly the light went on. This seeker had a pregnant concept to ponder, nurture and pursue. She stated that she would credit me for her launch once she’s on the national speaking circuit. In fact, with practice and persistence, along with a healthy dose of such attitude and her new rekindled spirit, she just might make it!
So sing out from the stage. Let inspired expression be the medium for releasing your passion and truth and for helping others realize their fervent and fertile desires. To quote my workshop title – “Ignite Your Fire, Inspire Their Focus.” Your passionate essence becomes food for thought and fuel for the heart, while nurturing and energizing spirits within and without.
Box 4. Affective – Comedia
a. Being Playful. I never realized how many common expressions begin with or involve the word “play.” Nor could I imagine how the variety of expressions with their different connotations speaks to the skills and strategies of the versatile leader and performer. Consider these examples: “play upon” (words or another’s emotions), “play a role” or “role-play,” “play it by ear” (that is, having a capacity for improvisation or, for example, by truly listening to your team’s and audience’s needs and interests as your project or program unfolds), and “play the fool” (often knowingly and for strategic advantage). I especially like this usage: “play a trick on.” Based on my experience, being “mischievous” or a tad “devilish” – two of Roget’s synonyms for “playful” – can be very engaging qualities. Many people embrace or long to act out their impish, slightly naughty or rougish inner child (e.g., think adult Halloween costumes). Or admire or envy, if only secretly, those who do.
Certainly, a dynamic leader or presenter wants to give “full play” to his or her mind and emotions – whether play involves range, liberty, license or freedom (within “PG” or, perhaps on occasion, “R”-rated limits). And even the phenomenon of the “play of light and shadow” can be an analogy for the rapid movement or sudden ebbs and flows within and between our two basic dimensions – “cognitive–affective” and especially “gravitas–comedia.” (And as a presenter and motivator I also freely move back and forth between serious and humorous lecture, exercise and group discussion.)
One other duality worth noting is the contrast of “play” and “work.” While the former can be strenuous, for example, playing a competitive sport, true play always retains the objective of “amusement, diversion or enjoyment.” In fact, I recently changed the descriptor of a “Practice Safe Stress” training program from workshop to “playshop.”
More than just being a light-hearted pursuit, play has been one of the greatest enterprises for exploring, socializing, bonding and unifying throughout the evolutionary history of the animal kingdom. Play has many functions: a) gives individuals an opportunity to learn group norms and boundaries, b) allows for innovatively expanding and challenging rules and procedures, c) encourages skill development and the exercise of the imagination, d) may be a learning laboratory for maturation and creativity in the realms of work, friendship and love, and e) frequently builds a sense of individual and group identity and short- and long-term camaraderie as well as fostering trust and teamwork. And play infused with laughter seems to magnify the above psychosocial and cultural processes. Of course, play can also turn into an aggressive “winner take all” or “win at any cost” pursuit or obsession (think steroid use in a variety of athletic arenas). The “playground” starts morphing into a “battleground.”
A “Passion Power” leader has a sense of play that doesn’t lose sight of her and other’s humanity. She has a compassionate understanding of perplexing and incongruous human nature and of our being all too imperfect and inconsistent creatures. And a sense of absurdity that comes out to play and laugh even in the face of stress or danger can help people accept flaws and foibles while affirming both their vulnerable and vital natures. Playful surprise may even gently cajole others to bridge differences and to move beyond a comfort zone.
Consider this example of a leader who was determined to play, even under the most trying conditions, in order to: a) reduce the stress-fueled sniping among his charges, b) bolster morale, and c) inject fun and healing humor and strengthen the belief in a “we’re all in this together” community.
During one of my workshops, a State Department manager shared the following scenario. He had been stationed at the American Embassy in Kuwait in 1990 as war clouds were gathering in darkness and intensity. Not surprisingly, tension in the embassy was rising daily. Being restricted to the compound was exacerbating stress levels in a war-zone. The Ambassador decided to intervene before the internal grumbling and sniping eroded psychological coping capacity and organizational morale. He told his second-in-command to inform personnel that the next day was a holiday and that all embassy staff would be going to the beach.
His deputy, incredulous, protested: “Sir, a war could break out any moment. It’s not safe to leave the compound!” The Ambassador, nevertheless, reaffirmed his desire to have people ready to go to the beach the next morning.
Bright and early the next day the Ambassador descended the stairs in bathing trunks and robe while carrying a blowup rubber ducky. Most personnel were not similarly attired. “Ye of little faith,” declared the Ambassador and proceeded to march everyone outside. And lo and behold, during the night, somehow, this Ambassador had managed to have tons of sand trucked in and dumped in the compound. And staff had a tension-relieving, fun-filled day at the beach. The in-house stress siege was broken; the embassy personnel regrouped their individual and group resources and professionally weathered the war storm.
Strategic Points. Defying outmoded conventions or rules, whether in relation to an external enemy or, when critical, even regarding departmental protocol and procedures is a key weapon in the “Passion Power” leader’s playful bag of tricks. When an authority figure is both brave and playfully absurd in the face of threat or bureaucratic rigidity, the role-modeling and morale-building effect is contagious. Add some visual props and others can come out of their battle shell and play. A daring director just may transform a “theater of war” into the “theater of the absurd.” And team rejuvenation, not just tension relief, may be your final reward.
Let’s allow the father of psychoanalysis to have the closing words on the relation of hazard and humor. Sigmund Freud was a student of humor and wit’s relation to conscious and unconscious coping. Freud extolled philosophical humor as the most mature or “highest” defense mechanism, that is, such humor facilitates self-protection without self-constriction. Such higher power humor (what I call “healing humor”) is based on having internalized parental encouragement of your efforts and gentle tolerance of your failures. Of course, not all of us were so fortunate with those childhood internalizations. The evolutionary goal then becomes generating a mix of courageous and, even, a bit outrageous, mentors and role models along with embracing trial and error learning. And once experiencing sufficient reward for taking risk, you are in position to extol Herr Freud’s ringing declaration: “Look here! This is all this seemingly dangerous world amounts to. Child’s play – the very thing to jest about.” Seems like our Ambassador might have made a good Freudian analyst in addition to a Four “P” – “Purposeful-Provocative-Passionate-Playful” – Leader!
(b) Humor. From my perspective, a Four “P” Leader who knows how to purposefully, provocatively and passionately play is a “Motivational Humorist.” (And if you add a psychological bent, then this person is approaching my trademarked label; he or she is becoming a “Psychohumorist” ™. Of course, I always let the audience decide where the emphasis on this word should go.) As we have seen there is a tangible link between an ability to use humor as an educational and motivational tool and leadership effectiveness. Let me define humor and then elaborate it’s interdependent connection with learning and leading.
“Humor (is) the recognition and expression of the incongruities and peculiarities in a situation or conduct.” A capacity for humor often reveals an ability to appreciate and comically convey life’s absurdities, to poke gentle fun at others and also, especially, to laugh at our own flaws and foibles. Such acceptance through knowing laughter is the essence of healing humor. And as science is discovering, humor and laughter have powerful implications for optimal mind-body functioning. In addition, there is a definite motivational method to mirthful madness. Drawing on content from my book, Practice Safe Stress: Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression, let’s examine some key chemical-emotional-cognitive functions of humor as it relates to stress and leadership:
1. Turning on the Good Chemistry. We all know that there are palpable physical manifestations of the human stress response – including a racing pulse and accelerated heart rate. Well, guess what? Laughter is a natural antidote to stress as it actually reduces your heart rate, thus slowing your pulse and counteracting other secondary stress symptoms before they have a chance to do too much damage! At a physiological level, full-throttle laughter gives your facial muscles and your cardio-respiratory-musculo-skeletal systems a workout, including raising endorphin levels. These chemicals are the mind-body’s natural pain relievers and mood enhancers.
Actually, vigorous laughter has been described as “inner jogging.” With a bit more literary juice, Dr. William Fry, a pioneer in the study of the broad physiological effects of laughter (see his Sweet Madness: A Study of Humor, 1982) likens laughing with gusto to turning your body into a big vibrator giving those vital organs a brief but hearty internal massage! Two minutes of belly laughter is the endorphin equivalent of ten minutes on the rowing machine.
2. Self-Effacing and Self-Affirming Function. Higher power humor involves more than the chuckle or guffaw. Its laughter loosens your emotional defenses. After the physiological reaction there often is psychological insight. You eventually go from “Ha-ha” to “Aha!” (See below.) For example, upon turning seventy-five, a French dramatist and poet, Edmund Rostand, gazing into a mirror, opined: “Mirrors just aren’t what they used to be!” Rostand’s reframe is not just a change in perspective; it likely reflects an expansive sense of self.
Courageous and playful defiance often capture the healing and harmonizing spirit of humor. You don’t have to take yourself so seriously. An ability to face our flaws and foibles, even our mortality, with a light if not an enlightened heart is not just a sign of maturity. It truly reflects wisdom and psychological wholeness.
4. Opening and Freeing Minds. Going beyond the vocal and philosophical, some research suggests that humor may be a catalyst for innovative problem solving. In the 1980s, Dr. Alice Isen, a psychologist at the University of Maryland, found that people who had just watched a short comedy video of television bloopers were better able to find a creative solution to a puzzling problem than subjects who had exercised, or people who had watched a video about math (zzzzz!).
Humor seems to energize the right side of the brain, allowing us to think more broadly, to make complex connections, and to exaggerate ideas and events, thereby allowing us to grasp or generate elusive relationships.
And as was previously noted, “people are more open to a serious message when it is gift-wrapped with humor.”
So what enables a person to become a motivational and healing humorist? Consider these characteristics:
1. A Paradoxical Perspective. First is an appreciation for the paradoxical. We’ve already examined Freud’s belief in humor’s ability to transmute powerful adversity into playful absurdity, as well as Mark Twain and Arthur Koestler’s connection involving wit and laughter and unexpected cognitive connection. Now consider the take of that comic genius, Charlie Chaplin, on the surprising interdependence between the comic and tragic: “A paradoxical thing about making comedy is that it is precisely the tragic which arouses the funny. We have to laugh due to our helplessness in the faces of natural forces…and in order not to go crazy.”
An ability to laugh at our absurdities or seemingly helpless condition makes it easier to accept our own fears, flaws and foibles; we are not alone in our frenzy. For example, after 9/11, when airport lines were creating serious customer stress, Baltimore-Washington International Airport hired actors to play costumed comic figures, such as Groucho Marx – in tails, a crouched walk, leering eyes, and waving an oversized cigar – to banter with folks, so that a sense of the absurd could reduce if not replace anxiety or frustration.
2. Comfort with Craziness and Imperfection. If a person can blend a touch of personal silliness or wackiness, an appreciation for the ridiculous or contradiction, and an ability to express
verbally and nonverbally (think of the Rubber Ducky Ambassador) absurdity, neurosis and/or imperfection he or she has definite potential as a healing humorist. In other words, a leader doesn’t only come in the “strong silent type” variety as often packaged by Hollywood. As I like to say, “strong silent types usually get a lot more ulcers than Oscars!”
3. Harmony Over Hostility. Such a humorist must also avoid “hostile humor”: when a person builds up inflated self-worth or covers up inadequacies with “scarcasm,” that is, ridiculing or demonizing others and reveling in their so-called outcast or inferior status. However, sometimes
a leader must decisively set limits on a stress carrier having the potential for infecting the vitality and harmony of the larger team or community. And often there’s a fine line separating harmony and hostility…and a clever line may propel you over the edge.
Here’s a vignette pitting me against a demonizing antagonist that raises a key question: Did my counterpunch find the best balance between harmony and hostility? I was leading a two-day Stress Management workshop in Salt Lake City, Utah for a federal government agency that was experiencing interpersonal tension and morale problems. The first day seemed to go well. The most tangible evidence was that the next morning a few folks initiated buying donuts for all forty participants. So a variety of donuts were being distributed before the class formally starts. All of a sudden, a male audience member, who later identified himself as a Mormon, began vehemently protesting: “You call yourself a stress expert, and you’re going to allow them to pass out those donuts; with all that fat and sugar!”
I was taken aback. I acknowledged his beliefs and his concern for the nutritional issues as regards stress and physical and psychological well-being. (A few years earlier, for a legal magazine, I had written about changing my diet and exercise regimen. I always liked the title of the article: “Hard Realities vs. Hard Arteries: Fat Food for Thought.”) Before I could finish, our pedantic protester cut me off, continued the challenge, and then declared: “How can I trust anything you say about stress, when you take such a hypocritical position!” Trying to be reasonable, again agreeing with some of his concerns, still I recognized the buying and sharing of donuts as a real form of social nurturance and support. Both of these are important for relieving stress and building emotional health and group morale.
Our nutritional moralist seemed undaunted. I also realized that this ongoing confrontation was agitating the entire group, though no one said anything. I didn’t want to lose control of the atmosphere of positive learning and sharing, nor did I want the audience to lose trust in my capacity for leadership. The tension reached a critical point. I reflexively went into a self-effacing survival mode and replied with maybe a shade too much impatience and irony: “Well, I guess the only way I can justify my behavior is to paraphrase the American philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘[Too much] consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.’”
A woman from the audience fairly shouted, “That’s a good one.” The confrontational standoff was over. My antagonist was disarmed and deflated. At the time, I mostly thought I was poking fun at myself to get Mr. Moralist off my (and the audience’s) back. But in hindsight, I wasn’t simply self-lampooning, but was also wielding a witty (albeit unconscious) weapon.
Today, when I share this story with counselors, educators, or trainers, a number gasp, groan, or grimace. I truly did cut down Mr. Mormon in public. I was not psychologically correct, for which I have conflicting thoughts. And yet, in the spirit of embracing contradiction, my counter ultimately had a healing effect. By the afternoon, Mr. M. could venture out of his crusty shell, this time without fighting dietary demons or Stress Docs. With the help of a group exercise, he began to acknowledge his intense feelings of work burnout. This level of honesty and vulnerability was made possible by disarming his previous offensive defensiveness. And it garnered him, not the moral high ground, but down-to-earth emotional sustenance and problem-solving support from colleagues (who had been inhaling his burnout fumes for months).
The moral: By momentarily disarming an antagonist while still pursuing understanding and healing along with a zest for contradiction, you can set limits on while also supporting a “stress carrier.” By mixing caring and confrontation...you can even (symbolically or moderately) eat donuts! And most important, both the status of the leader and the humanity and standing of the participant are reaffirmed.
4. Sensitive and Tough, Neither Black or White Skinned. Clearly, a motivational leader must be sensitive to people’s pain and show healthy tolerance for feedback and conflict. This individual will help others move beyond all-or-none posturing: to appreciate the serious in the humorous and to cleverly yet compassionately challenge others to go beyond simplistic “right vs. wrong” thinking. Even in trying times, a motivational humorist enables people to see the glass as half empty and half full while often helping them determine the half empty or half full status of that proverbial glass: look for lipstick stains!
A New Yorker cartoon forever embedded the dangers of rigid “black or white” thinking. A pompous-looking publisher standing behind his power desk begins to chastise a humbly dressed, hat-in-hand Charles Dickens: “Really, Mr. Dickens…was it the best of times or was it the worst of times? It could scarcely have been both!”
Finally, throw into this psychological and communicational gumbo a sense of timing and…voila`! You now have a recipe for serious and luminous lunacy and leadership.
The keys to the successful use of humor in a team, division or entire organization – let’s call it a mirthful “Mission Improbable” – involve setting limits on dysfunctional disrupters while strengthening mutual understanding, shared enjoyment, and collaborative conflict resolution among diverse and often competing people. Surely, these are critical objectives in our always on, “do more with less” and increasingly territorial “survivor” climate.
The bottom line: dispense positive humor! This practice will help employee motivation and morale productively flow in these rapidly cycling, unpredictably traumatic, and predictably absurd times. Healing and harmonizing humor are valuable investments that invariably yield invaluable gifts.
While I have tried to argue the playful, universal and critical value of humor, not all would agree with this position. I’m reminded of a syndicated Pogo cartoon. Pogo and his somewhat cynical catfish friend Porky are lazily boating down an unspoiled, scenic river. Porky is crediting God for a job well done…except for one thing. Porky exclaims, “It is jes too bad he didn’t knock off a day earlier when he was ahead.”
Trying to dissuade the catfish of his misanthropic attitude, Pogo claims, “If it weren’t for human beans life wouldn’t have as many laughs.”
Porky’s instant reply: “It wouldn’t need as many.”
Being all too human – whether as speaker or student – we need the laughs. And comic genius, Charlie Chaplin’s powerful explanation bears repeating:
The paradoxical thing in making comedy the tragic is precisely what arouses the funny. We have to laugh due to our helplessness in the face of natural forces and (in order) not to go crazy.
And speaking of powerful forces and the forces of powerful speaking and leading…seek the higher power of humor: May the Farce Be with You!
The “Four ‘P’s of Passion Power” have been outlined as a 2x2 matrix. While perhaps an ideal model, these performance and leadership concepts and applied strategies have been evolving for me over the course of more than two decades as a therapist, consultant, coach and speaker. This educational and motivational schema is battle-tested! My head and heart-felt belief is that when a presenter or leader blends and expresses the “cognitive and effective” as well as the “gravitas and comedia” then, to invert “the bard,” an interactive stage or arena comes into play. Leader and audience or troops, manager and employees or educator and students are set to engage in creative communication and mutually generate a transitional space. This space-time interface is alive with possibility. Both parties can authentically engage and energetically define and design specific relationships as well as an overall “high task and high touch” world of learning, imagination and creative activity. The result often captures the essence of synergy: the whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts!
So don’t miss the chance to explore and practice this “Purposeful-Provocative-Passionate-Playful” way of being and leading. Steps to help you lead a life infused with “Passion Power” and to help one and all…Practice Safe Stress!
1. Stress Doc Books:
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a) Really Hot: The Paperback Version of Practice Safe Stress:
Practicing Safe Stress: Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout, & Depression; Stress Doc Enterprises
Published: 2004; Pages: 372
Price: $20 + $5.00 priority shipping in US; $7 for shipping in Mexico and Canada; other international destinations to be determined
E-book Price: $15
Practice Safe Stress tackles the "Toxic-Traumatic Trio" -- stress, burnout, and depression. Learn practical and playful, inspiring and insightful strategies for transforming these toxins into life-affirming energy, creative focus, and goal-achievement. Bringing a personal, professional, and organizational perspective, the book is alive with imaginative language and memorable "how to" ideas for:
§ Understanding the "Four Stages of Burnout," the "Erosive Spiral"
§ Rebuilding your fire and developing "Natural SPEED"
§ Achieving liberation through "Emancipation Procrastination"
§ Reducing conflict as a healing or motivational "psychohumorist" ™
There are satirical essays on "lean-and-MEAN" managers and on mismanaged downsizings. Learn to "laugh in the face of layoffs" and ponder the possibility of "Van Gogh, Prozac, and Creativity." The Stress Doc also shares his his own trials, errors, and triumphs in battling the "Toxic Trio."
Safe Stress provides many discrete "Top Ten" lists and "strategic tips" essays useful as educational/informational handouts. To quote the Internet Newsroom: Your Guide to the World of Electronic Factgathering: "The most outstanding feature…is his 'psychohumor' essays. Always witty, thought-provoking, and helpful." With this easy-to-follow, fast-paced, and fun health and wellness guide, you'll return often to Practice Safe Stress.
b) The Four Faces of Anger: Model and Method
Transforming Anger, Rage and Conflict Into Inspiring Attitude and Behavior
The "Four Faces of Anger" presents an elegantly simple yet intellectually powerful model that will challenge your beliefs about anger -- both regarding its range of emotion and its potential for positive communication. The book is a dynamic blend of popular psychohumor articles, essays, case examples and short vignettes, as well as Stress Doc Q & As and even "Shrink Rap" ™ lyrics. You will gain ideas and tools, skills and techniques for personal control, playful intervention and conflict mastery. Learn to:
Ø Identify self-defeating styles of anger and violence-prone personalities
Ø Transform hostility and rage into assertion and passion
Ø Confront directly or disarm outrageously critics and (passive) aggressors
Ø Bust the guilt not burst a gut
Ø Prevent emails from becoming e-missiles
And finally, his years as a multimedia psychotherapist and as a Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant for the US Postal Service yield a survival and spiritual mantra at the heart of the "Four Faces of Anger":
Seek the higher power of Stress Doc humor…May the Farce Be With You!
Published: 2004; Pages: 116 [Book size: 9"x12"]
Paperback: Price: $20 + $5.00 priority shipping in US; $7 for shipping in Mexico and Canada; other international destinations to be determined
2. Training/Marketing Kit
I'm confident my speaking and training program can expand the interactivity, fun and memorability quotient of your stress (or other program) presentations. An insurance agent, who had never led a stress seminar before purchased the kit, including 2 hours telephone coaching, and said the results were "awesome." He's gotten follow-up requests. Feel free to email or call Ryan Yoch for a testimonial: firstname.lastname@example.org or 618-234-6679.
Stress Doc Enterprises
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Kensington, MD 20895
Three Levels of Program/Service:
A. Stress Management Marketing/Training Kit: $200
B. Coaching/Consultation Services Fee: $200
C. Training/Marketing Kit and Coaching Combo Cost: $300
Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, is a psychotherapist and "Motivational Humorist" whose Interactive Keynotes and Kickoffs draw wide and "amazing" acclaim -- from Fortune 100s and Federal Agencies to around the world with Celebrity Cruise Lines. An OD/Team Building Consultant, Mark is the author of Practice Safe Stress: Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression and of The Four Faces of Anger: Transforming Anger, Rage, and Conflict Into Inspiring Attitude and Behavior. Also, the Doc is AOL's "Online Psychohumorist" ™ running his weekly "Shrink Rap ™ and Group Chat." See his award winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com -- cited as a workplace resource by National Public Radio (NPR). Finally, Mark is an advisor to The Bright Side ™ -- www.the-bright-side.org -- a multi-award winning mental health resource. Email for his monthly newsletter showcased on List-a-Day.com. For more info on the Doc's speaking and training programs, call or email the "Stress Doc": 301-946-0865 or email@example.com . And to view web video highlights of a Stress Doc Keynote, go to http://www.stressdoc.com/media_downloads.htm .
(c) Mark Gorkin 2007
Shrink Rap Productions