“The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.”    —Václav Havel


In my last series, I talked about our “character/presence package,” and how it affects clients, as well as the overall results we all want to achieve in our work. Here is a summary:

The “character” (our true nature) we bring into client relationships is the heart of who we really are as change practitioners. It is this essence of our uniqueness, not what is in our bag of intervention tricks, which ultimately determines whether we generate meaningful benefits for clients. However, our interior character needs a voice in order to be expressed to the exterior world; the “presence” we convey is that voice. Even though presence is what we use to interface with clients, the path to optimizing our effectiveness is through evolving our character.

To be successful as an advanced change practitioner, it is important to:

1.    Deeply explore your character so you can understand and accept who you are,

2.    Embrace the presence you broadcast as a natural reflection of your core and an expression of your unique gifts, and

3.   Seek out clients who value your character/presence package, instead of trying to artificially mold yourself to fit the expectations of the various people who might come your way.

In this series, we’ll explore step one in this sequence by addressing the question, “As professional change facilitators, how can we cultivate our character to increase the impact our presence has with clients?”

Character isn’t “fixed,” it’s refined.

Many people mistakenly think they can develop character in the same way they might attain new knowledge or better their communication skills. They think they can improve it by simply pushing themselves to greater heights.

Cultivating character, however, isn’t about adding (or removing) parts; it’s about surfacing and honoring what has always been there but which, over time, might have become covered up or is leading to unwanted consequences. We can’t “correct” our character by assessing what is missing and attaching the absent elements (e.g., “I’d like to be more caring so I think I’ll infuse some empathy into my makeup”). There is no Photoshop equivalent for character enrichment.

In other words, it isn’t about learning as much as it is about remembering. Character is revitalized by sinking into the depths from which we came in order to rediscover it…it is uncovered, not concocted.

The most effective approach to refining our character involves reviving and amplifying existing qualities, not trying to develop something that didn’t exist before. We can also learn to downplay (though not totally eliminate) facets we don’t value, or re-channel their impact into more constructive endeavors. What we can’t do is fashion character features that were never there or destroy the ones we don’t like.

The true nature of who we are has always shaped our lives, regardless of how muted or cloaked that influence might have become. Rediscovering our character is an act of liberation, not acquisition. Cultivating character is about exploring, accepting, and leveraging not only what is already within us but recognizing it as the greatest asset we have as change practitioners.

Simply stated, when it comes to character, you have to play the hand you were dealt. That said, it’s not a static phenomenon. Character evolves and grows stronger (for better or worse) on an ongoing basis:

  • It is constantly evolving. There is an elasticity to our inner core—it is always unfolding new, more sophisticated ways to interpret client actions and, (through the presence we convey), interact with them. This natural progression doesn’t add or subtract from who we are, it unfolds more and deeper pathways within which our character can operate. 
  • Like most assets, it usually becomes a more powerful influence over time. As it matures, its features typically magnify their impact on those with whom we interact. 

Are you asleep at the wheel?

If we take as a given that our character is always advancing and strengthening itself, the question becomes, “Is this occurring with or without our attention?” Are we mindful of its continuous maturation or is all this happening without our conscious knowledge? 

Even if we are blind to who we really are, deny what we don’t like about ourselves, or are ignorant of how influential our character has become, it still has an impact on clients. Therefore, it is best for professional change agents striving for mastery-level work to be attentive to their state of character. Being vigilant of our character’s effect and intentionally fostering how it unfolds is something we should all make a top priority.

There are many ways to go about encouraging our character’s advancement, but they all have one thing in common…waking up. Since character enhancement involves nurturing and channeling what is innately there, rather than inserting foreign traits or eliminating unwanted attributes, the most important thing we can do is to reacquaint ourselves with what it is about who we are that we have lost contact with.

When did it happen?

When addressing the subject of character, we are talking about something that is indigenous to the center of our being, so, at some level, there must have been a time we had access to it. Yet, as our lives unfolded, most of us went adrift from at least some aspects of our core. We failed to maintain an open passage to our inner nature and started functioning as if we could feign what others wanted from us instead of honoring our true spirit. We fell asleep and began dreaming that we were other than who we are.

But why do we go to sleep in the first place? How can we lose touch with something as fundamental as who we are and why is awakening so difficult? Why is operating in a “walking sleep mode” even a viable option?

To cut to the chase—the illusions we maintain when dreaming can sometimes be far less stressful than the harsh realities we face when we take life head on. For many practitioners, the truth is, although they stay busy with change-related activities, they operate in environments where they are not viewed as critical assets applied to vital initiatives. To the contrary, they are considered tactical resources assigned to marginally important projects and, as such, doing anything other than what their clients expect is unacceptable. Under such conditions, using unawareness to anesthetize themselves can be preferable to the heartbreak of going unrecognized and/or unvalued by those whom they serve.

Falling asleep means forgetting that we each have a unique center worthy of expression. It is succumbing to victimization so thoroughly that our senses no longer register when we sell ourselves and our profession out to keep a job or keep powerful people contented. This kind of self-induced slumber requires that we feed ourselves a litany of bumper-sticker platitudes so we’ll remain oblivious to the real implications of what is happening:

  • “That’s just the way it is.”
  • “This is what it takes to keep the client happy.”
  • “It’s easier than fighting with my boss about how honest I should be.”
  • “Leaders want to be told what they want to hear, not what is really taking place, or what is needed for change to succeed.”

New practitioners are at risk when indoctrinated by incumbents.

When it comes to our relationship with who we really are, hibernation can prove to be a much less painful alternative to feeling small (if not invisible) and/or contorting ourselves into who or what others want. Unfortunately, this kind of sleep modus operandi has turned into the approach of choice for many change agents. Operating while “comfortably numb” is a pattern that is playing itself out within our professional community far too frequently: we first trade off, then disregard, eventually discount, and finally lose awareness of who we really are.

What is particularly disheartening is to see a new generation of change facilitators entering the field and being coached by incumbent practitioners who went numb a long time ago and no longer carry the flame of their own truth. Novices are being indoctrinated into the dysfunctional view that they should pretend to be what clients want rather than who they really are—that this is the only way our profession can function in the politically charged environments in which many of us operate. To the contrary, I believe this is not how our craft should be practiced.

Incumbents who pass along this perspective to beginners don’t declare it as clearly as I am stating it here. They don’t need to. The strongest imprinting takes place when apprentices observe what the senior practitioners they admire do on a daily basis. With this in mind, it is easy to see how trainees can conclude that our profession considers it acceptable to say yes to client demands, even though they are not in the clients’ best interests, and then artfully dodge the flack when the initiatives subsequently fail to reach their intended outcomes.

The mastery path carries great responsibility.

Going to sleep means losing the distinction between keeping clients happy and practicing our craft as called for at the mastery level. Waking up doesn’t guarantee we’ll never again capitulate to political pressure. It means that if we do subdue our true selves in order to “keep the peace” (if not our jobs), we are aware of what is happening and we make an informed decision. We don’t fall unconsciously into numbness and/or feel victimized by circumstances.  

To wake up, we must unravel the conditioning that has influenced many of us since infancy. To say this conditioning is entrenched in how we function as professionals is an understatement. In virtually every aspect of our lives, we have been instructed in how to subjugate our nature to the surrounding pressures, not the other way around.

The intent behind this kind of guidance was usually well-meaning. It helped us “fit in” (initially with our families, then friends, spouse, community, religion, school, work, etc.). The net effect, however, has been incredibly detrimental for us as change practitioners. We have been taught to trade truth and authenticity for the love and acceptance of others—not a pact that is ultimately in our best interest, nor that of our clients.

An inculcation process that permeates virtually all aspects of life is difficult to see, and harder to extract ourselves from. It is the water we swim in, and the air we breathe, so it’s tough to be objective both about its existence or how to handle it.

This is easy to see in our own ranks: the shortfall of sovereignty among so many change practitioners has been mostly unexamined within our professional community. The rampant timidity with which many practitioners perform their role is simply not something that is often examined when we gather at conferences or write about our work. Do we fail to discuss this blight on our profession because we are blinded by the limitations of our own perspective or because we lack the courage to speak the truth?

In some respects, it makes no difference. What does matter is that we come to grips with what must first be acknowledged, then addressed, and finally resolved—to pursue a mastery path in the change business, the tenacity to bring our full selves forward must be seen as an imperative, not a preference to be exercised or not.

My purpose in raising this issue isn’t to advance autonomy for its own sake. This isn’t about some adolescent fantasy of emancipation without accountability, nor is it about independence for the sake of making practitioners feel entitled to a carte blanche relationship with their clients. My motivation for probing into the kind of personal space occupied by character is fueled by the responsibility that comes with pursuing mastery of our craft. The intended readership for this blog is seasoned professionals dedicated to elevating their practice of the craft to new heights. I believe doing so necessitates an introspective dive into the depths of who we are, and that can’t be done unless we wake up.

This is damn hard work.

There is nothing easy about waking ourselves from a lifelong slumber that results when professionals regard their innate being as less valuable than what clients want. But then, if easy is what you are seeking, this is the wrong blog for you.

Mastery in our field is a double-edged sword. There is the satisfaction and the economic rewards of being at the top of your game, and then there are the associated responsibilities that come with those benefits. Mastery-level work means living up to the respect that clients grant to professionals who work at that level. Nothing less than our all-out best is permissible if we claim the high ground of being exceptionally skilled at what we do, stand on our truth, and authentically express who we are.

If you want to accomplish all this and excel in our field, you must wake up. It’s non-negotiable. Either pull yourself out of the conditioning that encourages you to water down what you say and do so people can stay in their comfort zone during change, or stop kidding yourself that you are on a mastery path. Wake up from the dream that you are other than who you are…rejuvenate the connection to your true nature and the value you can create for clients when you allow your character to be the center of gravity for your work.

In the next post, I will talk about the hidden assets of character and the nature of our relationship with it.