One of the aspects of my coaching of senior leaders that many coachees report that they find particularly helpful is the identification (and subsequent challenge) of their assumptions. We all hold many assumptions – in fact we have to hold these, in order to function, because imagine how life would descend quickly into paralysis if we couldn’t operate at least some of the time on automatic. These assumptions, however, can become barriers to action, when, for example, we assume that we can’t do something which – if we did it – could transform our lives and/or the lives of others. One of my favourite coaching questions is ‘why not?’ … and it is remarkable what can happen when you dig down into that question. I have lost count of the number of leaders who have realised that the only thing holding them back from what they really want to do is a set of conquerable assumptions.
So I particularly enjoyed reading an anecdote in the motivational book on team-working and self-leadership by Ben Hunt-Davies and Harriet Beveridge, ‘Will It Make The Boat Go Faster?’ which reinforced this approach, and which I thought was worth sharing. The book itself – which I learned about from a coachee, to whom I am very grateful – is based around the experience of one of the authors, who rowed as part of the victorious British men’s rowing eight in the 2000 Sydney Olympics, and it is a readable and well-structured mixture of narrative and learnings, translated into strategies to help the reader reach their personal or professional goals.
In particular anecdote, generously shared by a colleague of one of the authors, this colleague relates how excited he was to be staying the night at a luxury hotel. When he arrived in his room, however, he was disappointed to find that it was very underwhelming, with a single bed and a small television. After a rather uncomfortable night, he wakes up in the morning and decides to open what he thought was the wardrobe door, to find that it opened into a luxury bedroom; he had been sleeping in the children’s annexe of a family suite. The message of this anecdote, of course – and the whole chapter – is that we should not be held back by what we perceive as the limitations around us, and that we should push the boundaries, metaphorically (or in this case physically), pushing at the wardrobe door. If we don’t think we can, we won’t, of course, and so this is where we must start – with a spirit of adventure, questioning and the combination of relentless curiosity and determination that seems to underpin the success of so many human beings throughout the ages.
I know I enjoyed this anecdote especially because of the connection I made in my head to the wardrobe door that leads to Narnia in CS Lewis’s powerful and captivating allegorical tale, ‘The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe’, which was a guiding star in my own childhood (and still is, in fact, in many ways); this simply made the anecdote more delicious, and imbued it with greater depth, reinforcing its message yet more strongly, and prompting me even more to share it, because opening the wardrobe door is not simply in order to pursue personal opportunity. Rather, it has an underpinning moral purpose, because when we make the most of the opportunities open to us, and when we challenge the assumptions that hold us back in this regard, then we are more able to create the positive impact on the world around us that the world needs us to have.
Anyway, the message is clear … the question now is simply this: which wardrobe door you will open today?