Where There’s Smoke There’s Fire
One of the things you need to have when you work as a mental skills coach and psychologist at a busy Air Force training Base is a thick skin. There’s a constant churn of courses coming through here, ranging from 4 week block courses to 15 week residentials, one after the other and many running at the same time. One of the things I love most about my role is getting to deliver a half-day workshop on Mental Skills and Performance Under Pressure. But not everyone through the door necessarily starts out on my side.
The typical attendee I teach is away from home, away from the real Bases where the Operations and important, tangible, stuff happens. They’re now on a training Base which to them means it’s irrelevant and out of touch. The typical attendee thinks that what they’re about to learn on their leadership course can be filed away under yawn. Most people attending need to be there for promotion reasons, as a prerequisite to progress to the next rank and pay-grade, and to get the next job they want. And because promoting will mean they get more respect in the tribe among their peers.
But there’s something else going on too. While there’s cynicism there’s also a need. Many of them are starting to feel the pinch of being in their current position. It’s different to what they’ve done in the past. There are more responsibilities. There are sometimes difficult subordinates. They have to manage people and all the associated complexities and they don’t feel like they have a map. What’s the right thing to do when their subordinates start having mental health issues? What do they do when they feel themselves getting stressed about work? How do they manage their work-life balance in an increasingly demanding workplace, without neglecting their families?
Blowing on Embers
Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire.
William Butler Yeats
The workshop I run is time spent together in conversation. The purpose of the conversation is to transform people from being uninterested or uninformed about how to build habits for high performance, to people who are interested and motivated towards building habits for high performance. It is to take people from there’s not much I can do to there’s so much I could be doing right now, and actually, I know how to start. It’s to light a fire, get people out of ruts, and to inspire change.
To make better humans. New Zealand’s beloved national rugby team, the All Blacks, have a saying:
Better People Make Better All Blacks
You don’t build an international grade rugby player by solely focusing on their rugby skills. You help build a better human, and one of the things they end up being better at is playing rugby. If you focus on improving ability in a narrow domain, like sport, you get one dimensional returns. If you focus on levelling-up the human, you get a better athlete, father, leader, and ambassador for their country. That’s why we do what we do.
Providing the Fuel
What people need are skills. Theory and information is cheap and boring and what busy people want are the action points. When you have trouble with this subordinate or situation, call this support service. If you can’t get a habit to stick, make it 90% smaller and easier to do than you first thought and schedule it as a recurring appointment in your calendar. A good fit is a conversation around practical, usable, actionable tools. And a conversation around the realities of our work and how it affects us, and how we can all end up down in the orange and the red zone sometimes. But how we’ve got each others’ back and there’s support to get us back into the green zone as well.
But there is a lingering mismatch in all of this around the legacies of the warrior culture. The narrative that says warriors are strong, and stoic, and self-reliant. They don’t cry and they don’t show weakness. The stigma around seeking help for mental health concerns stems from this, but it’s a false narrative. Because the warrior culture is completely in alignment with the responsibility culture. Where saying “this is a time when I need to be brave, and honest, and seek the additional support of my comrades” is the greatest possible act of strength and accountability. Where to nurture and train your mental health is seen as just as important as nurturing and training your physical health. Because we all have both.
When I was at grad school I put up quotes from Carl Rogers and Maslowaround the walls of our grotto crewroom. I’d lie on the tattered couches late at night and talk smack with the other bleary postgrads in between thesis writing breaks. I put those words on the wall as a reminder. To myself. That I stand in the lineage of these great heroes of humanity.
What a man can be, he must be. This need we call self-actualization.
So my job really when I’m running these workshops is simple. All I have to do is remind people of who they already are. Of where they’re already going. Call out to their inner warrior. Then all I have to do is get out of their way.
And watch them burn the place down.