I have a client working with someone who is making his job very difficult. My client’s team is located around the world, so he has to manage them remotely. Not easy.
As he’s talking about this particular individual he says, “I just have to get tougher-skin to handle this person and focus on getting past this deadline.”
His use of the words “tougher-skin” caught my attention because they were out of character for him. His management style and strength as a leader draw as much from his ability to be direct, strong and clear as they do from his compassion, understanding and self-awareness. This is not a guy who looks for short cuts.
I suspected that the term tough-skin was not going to be helpful for my client as a way to manage his employee because it didn’t really fit with who he is as a person. But I didn’t know what to suggest as an alternative. Tough-skin, thick-skinned…etc – most expressions that convey strength are associated with hardness. In other words, extremely limited. What could he focus on to help him deal with this person the way he wanted to, from his best self? I thought about individuals who exemplified strength without hardness or harshness, like Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Thich Nhat Hanh. What was their metaphor?
And it clicked – focus on what you know about your highest self, that essential quality you understand through mind and heart. That quality that you sometimes feel is both your weakness and your strength. That thing that is a part of your essence.
In my client’s case, a core value for him is compassion. So I said to him, “The world is full of leaders with tough-skin…but a lot of them are a**holes. Then there are others who may not be jerks, but who shrink before real challenges that call for a deeper kind of strength. You don’t strike me as either type. So, how can you draw even more from your compassion to be stronger?”
After a long pause he said, “You’re right, that’s what I want. To lead from who I am.”
“Exactly,” I said, “If you do that, it won’t matter whether or not your skin is tough.”