August Turak

Author Consultant Speaker

A Wake-Up Call For Leadership

Oh men, how long will your hearts be closed, will you love what is futile and seek what is false? Psalm 4:2

I was channel surfing one day when I found myself watching an obviously brain injured young woman being attended to by three nurses. She was in a semi-comatose, twilight condition and the nurses were trying to wake her up.  Propping her limp body into a sitting position, they began poking, prodding, and speaking to her sharply while she, with eyes rolling wildly in fear and confusion, angrily flailed at them trying to get them to leave her alone so she could go back to sleep.

Ignoring her resistance, a nurse eventually forced a tooth brush into her hand. With great effort, her patient finally managed to get the tooth brush somewhere in the vicinity of her mouth. One of the nurses remarked that this was a “good sign” while another branded it a “huge step forward.”

Gradually the camera began panning back, revealing a young woman on a stool with her back to the camera, watching this scene on a monitor along with me. A disembodied male voice from behind the camera said, “Does it upset you to see yourself like that?”  Slowly her head swiveled.  “Oh, no,” she said her face breaking into a radiant smile, “I love watching myself like that!  It makes me so grateful for who I am today and for all the people who never gave up on me.”

I was very moved by seeing such a lovely young woman completely recovered and the intense gratitude that accompanied her recovery.  But there was more to it than that.  I realized that, metaphorically, her story was mine as well. Like her, I had lived in a semi-comatose, dream-like condition while a series of patient and compassionate teachers pushed, prodded, and occasionally shouted at me in an attempt to get me to “wake up.”

And like her angry reaction to her devoted nurses, often all my teachers got from me in return for their effort was angry, self-justifying, fearful resistance. The resistance of a man who apparently just wanted to be left alone so he could sleep his life away in complacent “peace” and ersatz “happiness.” Then, as this radiant young woman’s smile faded to black and the credits started to roll, I too was overcome with gratitude for all the people who never gave up on me.

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Whether it is in business, leadership, or our personal lives, the most important things we must learn cannot be “taught” to us. Instead they must “come to us,” sometimes in a flash of realization, and this experience is often described as a feeling of “waking up.” Most of the world’s religious traditions include the notion of “enlightenment;” a term that tries to capture the experience of exchanging the darkness of deep sleep for the light of profound awareness. Socrates spent his life trying to wake people up, and his sleep deprived fellow Athenians eventually put him to death so they could go back to sleep. Socrates repeatedly argued that the values and character traits that every successful life relies on cannot be “taught.” Instead they can only be “discovered” or “realized,” and he described his own role as that of a midwife rather than a teacher: an analogy that neatly captures both the “awakening” that a baby experiences at birth as well as the sharp crack on the behind that the midwife must lovingly administer to get the job done.

Louis R. Mobley, my mentor and the director of the IBM Executive School, firmly agreed with Socrates. Mobley utterly abandoned books and lectures in favor of games and simulations designed to wake his students up to their limitations and limitless potential. Mobley was not looking for intellectual “answers.”  He wanted epiphanies, eureka moments, and revelations: The kind of experiences that produce a change of heart rather than merely a change of mind. Again like Socrates, Mobley believed that leadership cannot be “taught.” But it can be midwifed by facilitating what he described as a “revolution in consciousness.”

It has now been almost 60 years since Mobley began “blowing minds” at the IBM Executive School, and we spend billions to watch cinematic teachers like Yoda in Star Wars and Morpheus in the Matrix use similar shock and awe techniques with their students. Yet despite these powerful examples, we still cling to our books, lecterns, and Power Points in the vain hope that leadership’s most important lessons can be “learned” intellectually.

The reason why we refuse to take these examples to heart is rather simple. Waking up cannot be accomplished without the aid of a certain amount of trauma. Physically, it is impossible to wake up another human being from their slumbers without producing, at least momentarily, a startled state of confusion, fear, and sometimes, anger. Every sleeper experiences a mild traumatic shock before attaining consciousness; this is true no matter how gently they are awakened and even if they awaken on their own.

Similarly, it is impossible for even the most loving coach to get people outside the box of their dream-like condition without inducing a certain amount of trauma as an unintended byproduct. Deep down I think we all know this, and it is our aversion to trauma that often leads us to prefer living a Rip Van Winkle existence to running the risks of being jolted wide awake.

But in our fear we don’t realize that living life in a semi-somnolent state is fraught with an even bigger risk. The risk of missing out on an ineffable opportunity. The opportunity to someday smile into that magical lens that records your life and respond to life’s hidden producer, “Oh, no, I love seeing myself like that! It makes me so grateful for who I am today and for all the people who never gave up on me.”

Follow me on Twitter @augustturak, Facebook, or check out my Forbes blog for more tips and strategies for becoming a great leader – and to discover how service and selflessness is the secret to success in business and in life.