The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™
FEB 2010, No. I, Sec. II
Fight when you can
Take flight when you must
Flow like a dream
In the Phoenix we trust!
Shrink Rap II:
In Challenging Times, No More "Inner Child":
Boldly Bring Your Inner Chutzpah
Over lunch, my agent posed a provocative challenge: "Write an article on
chutzpah." He believes the timing is right. In this difficult economy and
uncertain times it's certainly tempting to withdraw into a shell. But a better
strategy might be a contrary one, throwing off the shell and putting yourself
out there. One "chutzpah" source involves productively tapping into what I call
the "RAGE" in "Out-RAGE-ous." (And these days, there's plenty to be
enraged about!) Try harnessing some aggressive energy and attitude -- develop
an "out of the box" presence if not an edgy essence. (Remember, if you're not
living on the edge you are taking up way too much space!)
Actually, the word itself has become double-edged. According to Wikipedia,
"chutzpah" derives from the Hebrew, and connotes "insolence", "audacity", and
"impertinence." However, "the modern English usage of the word has taken on a
wider spectrum of meaning…with even positive connotations. Chutzpah can be used
to express admiration for non-conformist but gutsy audacity. Leo Rosten in
The Joys of Yiddish defines chutzpah as 'gall, brazen nerve, effrontery,
incredible 'guts,' presumption plus arrogance.'…In this sense, chutzpah
expresses both strong disapproval and a grudging admiration."
One does not need to be loud, though, to demonstrate "chutzpah." Let me
illustrate. In the Wall Street area of Manhattan an elderly woman had a soft
pretzel stand. Each day, one of the nattily attired Wall Street-types would
pass her stand, not buy a pretzel, but put a quarter in her tip jar. The woman
acknowledged his kindness with a brief nod of her head. This unspoken exchange
went on for several years. One day, however, as he was about to deposit the
quarter, the woman, to the gentleman's surprise, raised her hand. Bending over
slightly, in a quiet yet firm voice, she declared: "It's now thirty cents."
Now that's Chutzpah!
Personal Confession and Chutzpah Strategy
It's time for a personal "Chutzpah Confession." Back in the early '90s, I wound
up writing some rap-like lyrics for a black beauty contest theme song. (Don't
ask. I know, nice Jewish boys from NYC don't write rap!) Actually, living in
New Orleans in the '70s and '80s -- my "American in Cajun Paris" years -- I had
periodically tried my hand at poetry, including a bluesy number called "The
Burnout Boogie." Email email@example.com for any and all.) One morning,
shortly after my noble, beauty contest effort, I awoke chastising myself: I was
a university professor, a psychotherapist (thesis)…What was I doing trying to
write rap lyrics (antithesis)? A blazing flash scattered my sleepy haze. As
the mist lifted, there…a mystical (if not hysterical) conceptual vision; a
catalyst for my pioneering efforts in the realm of psychologically humorous rap
music. I was no longer just playing in a field of dreams: "If you write and
"Shrink Rap" ™ it…they will come" (creative synthesis). And they do. I close
my speaking programs with my singular rap…in full regalia: Blues Brothers hat
and black sunglasses while prancing around the room banging on a black
tambourine. The audience may not remember anything else, but no one forgets the
"Shrink Rap!" An African-American friend dubbed my efforts, thusly: "So you're
into 'Aristocratic Rap.'" Clearly, my goal in life has a paradoxical and "chutzpatic"
bent: to be a wise man and a wise guy.
So "chutzpah" involves an assertive if not aggressive attitude and takes a
little daring. To step outside a comfort zone and find your "Inner Chutzpah,"
you may have to "Confront Your Intimate FOE." Consider these "Three Steps
for Overcoming Fear of Exposure":
1. Aware-ily Jump In Over Your Head. You can only subjectively
determine water temperature by jumping in. Still, drawing on my N'Awlins
experience, find out if there have been any recent alligator in the bayou
sightings. Chutzpah isn't allergic to some calculation and analysis. The value
of taking the plunge: you get rapid feedback regarding both existing strengths
and needed skills and resources.
2. Design for Error and Opportunity. Life rarely demands just one right
way or ideal goal. As von Oech noted in his classic on creativity, Whack On
the Side of the Head, "Sacred cows make great steaks." Get out of the box;
explore a variety of options and possibilities. Confront all the "b.s." -- "be
safe" messages. As I like to say: "Strive high and embrace failure!" Learn to
see failure as less a personal judgment and more the transitional space between
your aspiration and current position. And boldly close the gap one outrageous
step at a time.
3. Laugh at Your Flaws and Foibles. You really start earning your
"chutzpah" merit badge when you can transform that "Intimate FOE" by turning
"Fear of Exposure into the Fun of Embarrassment." Sure, one reason audiences
laugh during a "Shrink Rap" (after their initial shock), is that here's another
white man who's "rhythmically and vocally challenged." (But I'm confident that
I can poke fun at myself much better than anyone else can make fun of me.)
Also, I know the lyrics are clever and they hit home.
Here's a sample from the "Stress Doc's Stress Rap":
Now the boss makes demands, yet gives little control
So you pray on chocolate and wish life were dull.
But office's desk's a mess, often skipping meals
Inside your car looks like a pocketbook on wheels!
Nearly all admire my audacity; still, when someone invariably calls out, "Don't
quit your day job," my retort is immediate: "Too late. This is my day job!"
And then a final riposte: "What this shows after twenty years of all kinds of
therapy -- from Jungian analysis to primal scream -- I have one singular
accomplishment, just one: Absolutely no appropriate sense of shame! And
the program ends on a ringing note of shared laughter.
Now that's Chutzpah…and a strategy for leaping and laughing, learning and
landing on your feet in these turbulent times.
The Audacity of Humility: Leading by "All Too Human" Example
Just before the start of a "Stress, Change and Creative Teaming" workshop, I was
testing out my microphone. The program was for managers of a global engineering
company. Most of the 50 + participants were ex-military, now contractors
working with commands and brigades based at Ft. Hood, TX or presently stationed
overseas. As I called out, "Can people in the back hear me?" a former Sergeant
Major who knew me from my work at Ft. Hood (and had recommended me as a speaker)
reassured the audience, "Don't worry, the Stress Doc has a 'command voice.'"
And of course my ego if not my heart skipped a beat. (Actually, I was a
clerical specialist in the Army Reserves over thirty years ago; hardly a
"command" presence. However, I did start my presentation by sharing that, "In
addition to my work at Ft. Hood these last few years, one not so distant
experience helped me feel pretty comfortable with this 'military' audience: I'm
a former 'Stress and Violence Prevention Consultant' with the US Postal
Service…So I am battle-tested!") Anyway…
When you think of the phrase "command voice," what comes to mind: words like
authoritative, firm (if not loud), perhaps self-assured, knowledgeable,
compelling, focused, direct and forceful? And if we push the semantic envelope
maybe even "audacious" which, according to Answers.com, means: fearless daring,
(being) intrepid, and bold. And I suspect many folks would associate or use
these words to describe a powerful leader. (Of course, some leaders try to
cover up their lack of knowledge, skills or meaningful experience with Wizard of
Oz like smoke and bluster.) In addition, audaciousness can also morph into
"insolence," that is, "heedlessness of (such) restraints (as) prudence,
propriety or convention." No big surprise for a "risk-taker or daredevil"
(common synonyms of "audacity"), especially one with inflated self-importance.
And this brings me to a daring turn of phrase if not a 180 degree conceptual
turnaround regarding a critical yet often overlooked facet of leadership.
First, I'll contrast "audacity" with the word "humility" and then,
paradoxically, meld the two. "Humility" connotes a "lack of vanity or
self-importance," while antonyms include arrogance, assertiveness, egoism,
pretentiousness, and pride. As we've noted, these terms border on if not
occasionally crossover into "audacity" territory.
Of course, "humility" is also associated with "meekness" and "lowliness."
However, regarding "psycho-semantics," I'm primarily concerned with a more
complex and developed notion of humility. From my "humble" vantage point,
"trial and error" and "hard-earned" humility reflects and hones an ego into a
more mature and confident as well as more open to questioning, self-identity.
Those humbling life lessons may prove an antidote to an audacity spiraling (and
viraling, to coin an action verb) into arrogance. The "sadder yet wiser"
individual-leader appreciates the fine line often dividing vision and
hallucination, and reins in unbridled exuberance with some focused reflection
and feedback. Conversely, one may need to challenge or risk going over the line
to discover that fine edge or to push those "tried yet no longer necessarily
Clearly, this multifaceted "self" is infused with both a sense of vitality and
vulnerability. And within the appropriate temporal and contextual bounds, such
a leader is not afraid to express genuinely such "head and heart" variability.
A quote by the early 20th century British actor, George Arliss, resonates with
my conception (or vice versa): "Humility is the only true wisdom by which we
prepare our minds for all the possible changes of life."
Finally, to be able to share this humbling, trial and error learning with others
or to take off the "I know what's best" or the "Corporate VIP" power mask in
public can be both daring and daunting. Such honesty and humility not only
reflect a degree of openness and transparency but often signal a willingness to
grapple with change…and may ultimately be liberating for self and others. Hence
our title: "The Audacity of Humility." In addition, I hope to shed some
"leading" light on this seeming contradiction with two "All Too Human"
scenarios: one from the above referenced workshop, the other from a book on
This vignette involves a Vice-President of Operations, who, even before we met,
made a distinct impression with his rapid-fire, "this is what I want" manner on
the phone: no doubt, he was a no-nonsense, competitive, Type A driver. A
second conversation, the evening before my presentation, was also memorable.
This time he stressed that his managers (mostly ex-military) must learn to be
understanding, even show compassion when communicating with employees. A
military/authoritarian superior-subordinate communication model was antithetical
to the company's values and how the President/CEO expects his Senior and Junior
Level Managers to interface with employees. And, naturally, his message had a
"my way or the highway" delivery: those that couldn't make the adjustment would
no longer be employed by the company.
During my time with the group I sensed that a number of the managers were not
totally enamored with the VP's aggressive "my way/company way" attitude. (There
may have been some regional tension. The VP worked at headquarters, up north,
the managers were dispersed in satellite offices throughout the state of
Texas.) Still, to this VP's credit, he participated in the program without
inserting any spontaneous "fire (or fired) and brimstone" corporate sermons.
Typically, the last hour of an interactive half-day program, involves my
signature "Team Discussion and Team Drawing" exercise. Small groups are tasked
with identifying: a) the causes of stress and conflict in everyday operations
as well as b) the barriers to more effective team coordination. Then the groups
are challenged to come up with a group picture that integrates the individual
perspectives into a visual story or metaphor, e.g., a stalking dinosaur and
people scattering in fear, a sinking ship with sharks circling, a five-ring
circus with a juggler dropping balls, etc. Eventually we do a show and tell,
with each group selecting a spokesperson and a holder. (Of course I urge the
participants thusly: "Don't everyone volunteer to be the holder." ;-)
Invariably the room rocks and rolls with laughter and nodding heads as people
appreciate the exaggerated yet honest and revealing images along with the
spokesperson messages, invariably delivered with individual style and a little
attitude. Upper management is not immune from some playful yet on point
criticism. However, the playfully pointed and meaningful products when seen in
the context of the great energy in the room, the laughter, the sense of empathy,
the teamwork, and the group creativity belie the notion of a "bash session." In
fact, a sense of "we're all in this together" camaraderie and community was now
palpable. (One senior manager later shared that he would be framing and hanging
the drawings in the Dallas company office.)
Well, the VP's group chose to present last, and you know who the spokesperson
was. And then something rather startling unfolded. Instead of being the
corporate mouthpiece, after articulating some of the overall pressures of his
group, this exec began explaining specific images in the picture that
illustrated his two toughest trials - jumping hoops for the demanding big
government clients, and especially being caught in the middle of never-ending
CEO demands and the needs of the people in the room. The stress takes a toll.
In other words, this "company man" let down his seeming implacable mask and
acknowledged that it was not all "wine and roses" in the corporate palace.
Scanning the room, seeing the quiet and intent listening, the empathic nodding,
and the full-throated laughter as the VP skewered some high level policies and
procedures, told me people were taking in the moment. And people were seeing
this individual anew, in a more human and compassionate light. (Aha, just what
the CEO claimed was the essence of the company's values.) So by being real,
showing some individuality and vulnerability, poking a little "higher level"
fun, as well as laughing at a few of his own foibles, this leader was truly
beginning to win the "hearts and minds" of his people. (Remember, people are
more open to a serious message when it's gift wrapped with humor. Also worth
noting, after the session, the VP personally thanked me: "I learned a lot."
And he would be recommending a repeat performance at the corporate office.)
Finally, even before the VP's thanks, the end of the program proved a personal
challenge regarding "walking the humble talk": a standing ovation was
immediately followed with a prized military-civilian medal-like award.
Fortunately, I was able to think on my feet. I suddenly started gazing up and
down the horseshoe shaped rows, looking into the eyes of each person in the
room, wanting to freeze this moment in memory. Holding the moving gaze for a
minute or so, and then, taking everyone in, I said, "This medal is a reflection
of what we all have accomplished here today, a real sign of teamwork." These
were words from the heart: a leader is only as good as the partnerships he
facilitates, especially when confidence and humility allow him to share the
proverbial stage, making room for others to bring out their best music!
This vignette comes from Steve Farber's short nonfiction/novella-type leadership
book called, A Radical Leap. Farber relates the story of a Sales Manager
whose division was dramatically underperforming. He knew he had some talented
people, but the division was floundering near the bottom of the company
performance chart. Something had to be done. At a meeting with his supervisory
and management team, he screwed up his courage and shared his observations and
concerns, recognizing that the problem starts with his leadership. He would
need help from the people in the room.
The Sales Manager said he would be leaving the room so that the others could
critique his performance as a leader, especially the areas where he was not
being effective. In the midst of the surprise and silence, he left the room.
After thirty minutes he returned and knocked on the door. Now came another
humbling moment: the group was not finished with its critique. He left again;
someone came for him a half-hour later. It was not easy hearing the critique
and the criticism. But he primarily listened and took notes, resisting the urge
to speak in his own defense.
Yes, perhaps the consequences of this tale are predictable: in a rather short
time, the division's performance began decisively moving up the performance
charts. But there is a surprising element when it comes to the moral: the
improvement was not primarily driven by newfound humility or by personal changes
in this Sales Manager's leadership-operational style and substance. The real
motivational generator was the impact the Sales Manager's humble risk-taking
actions had on the leaders in the room. Without prompting or prodding, the
others courageously took the same "being vulnerable and asking for feedback"
approach with their employees.
How's that for irony? Daring to be vulnerable by opening yourself up to
criticism (first, though, facilitating an atmosphere whereby your request is
deemed trustworthy), ultimately helps people focus less on your flaws and
errors. Actually, you become a role model for humility as well as courage, and
in vital operational areas a model for reaching out to significant others for
insight and ideas.
A capacity for being vulnerable and humble, whether by laying down the
"self-important" corporate mask and megaphone or by inviting and absorbing
critical feedback, involves accepting and sharing your "less than perfect"
nature. Courageously coming down from the pedestal makes it easier for people
to meaningfully relate and connect and it encourages those around you to be more
accepting of their own humanity, motivating understanding and compassion for
self and others. And for a pro-active and empowering leader this paradoxical
perspective surely confirms the "audacity of humility." Words to help one and
all…Practice Safe Stress!
Mark Gorkin, MSW, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™, a Licensed Clinical Social
Worker, is a one-of-a-kind "Motivational Humorist & Team Communication
Catalyst." The "Doc" is an acclaimed keynote and kickoff speaker known for his
interactive, inspiring and FUN speaking and workshop programs. The
"Stress Doc" is also a team building and organizational development consultant
for a variety of govt. agencies, corporations and non-profits. And he is AOL's
"Online Psychohumorist" ™. Mark is an Adjunct Professor at Northern VA (NOVA)
Community College and currently he is leading "Stress, Team Building and Humor"
programs for the 1st Cavalry and 4th Infantry Divisions and Brigades, at Ft.
Hood, Texas and Ft. Leonard Wood, MO. A former Stress and Conflict Consultant
for the US Postal Service, the Stress Doc is the author of Practice Safe
Stress and of The Four Faces of Anger. See his award-winning, USA
Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com -- called a "workplace
resource" by National Public Radio (NPR). For more info on the Doc's "Practice
Safe Stress" programs or to receive his free e-newsletter, email firstname.lastname@example.org
or call 301-875-2567.
(c) Mark Gorkin 2010
Shrink Rap™ Productions