As consultants, we often recommend leaders expose themselves to difference; even though it is uncomfortable, it can be a valuable learning experience. It is far too easy to remain in one’s cocoon of sameness. Frankly, it is really comfortable in that cocoon. You know what to expect and how to react. Pushing your envelope a little at a time will increase your level of awareness and help you challenge long held biases resulting in personal growth. However, one should ascertain the line between uncomfortable and unmanageable. Attending an employee resource group function for the first time may be uncomfortable to some, but certainly not unmanageable. Accepting to sit on a D&I discussion conference panel when you do not have D&I experience would certainly move most into the unmanageable position.
Sometimes it takes a personal step in the realm of unmanageable to remind us of this difference. This week I realized I crossed over that line. One of my new year resolutions was to start the process of achieving a private pilot’s license. Now, I have never flown previously and had zero knowledge of flying. It would be truly an uncomfortable experience for me. That being said, the learning program is a series of small steps which starts off with a discovery flight. The discovery flight is meant to expose you to the feeling of flying in a small aircraft and give you some awareness of what you will need to learn to achieve a license. My assumption was we would fly up, the instructor would let me steer a little bit and I would basically enjoy the experience of flying. A little uncomfortable yes, but definitely not unmanageable.
I was certainly uncomfortable when the very experienced flight instructor had me sit in the pilot’s seat (my first time ever) while he took the co-pilot seat. Again, it should be stated I had zero knowledge of flying. He had me throttle the engine and steer (very poorly) the plane down the runway with foot pedals. Every gadget, and there are many in a cockpit, was explained. Before I was able to comprehend just a couple of them, we were already up in the air. Again, with a rather nonchalant explanation of how to 1. Constantly manage the throttle, 2. Balance the wings with the yoke while simultaneously balancing the nose/tail 3. Maintain altitude within 50ft of our target 3,000 feet (by steering nose up/down and throttle control) 4. Keeping a point of reference on the horizon to steer in a straight line; all of the controls were handed over to me for the next 30 minutes in flight. Using the two feet controls of the rudder, and being careful not to hit the brakes on both of those pedals as well, he was instructing me to make turns which require multiple equipment manipulation (yoke both for wings and nose, pedals, and sometimes throttle) and another gauge to view to make sure you are not overusing the rudder. Oh yea, don’t forget to continually look around for other aircraft.
It was not until after we landed and I had time to decompress that I realized I was well into the unmanageable territory. In the world of D&I it is easy to move into this arena if one does not have the proper education and support. It is the main reason why expert coaching is so important. A skilled coach will know what would simply be a growth inducing level of uncomfortableness and what will be unmanageable. It is also why it is so important to have an internal D&I team that has a specialty in this field.
An unmanageable situation for a leader may put them back further into their cocoon. As now I ponder taking on flight lessons after this experience, I am discovering new found security of standing on familiar ground. When a company is trying to move a group of leaders or just one, it is important to understand where they stand and where is the line that delineates an uncomfortable growth inducing learning and an unmanageable growth inhibiting experience. To find this line requires both the internal team and their D&I specialists (either internal and/or external) to thoroughly assess the situation and then pilot engagements to adjust. Afterall, the intent is to get everyone flying to their next destination, not for them to fear leaving known ground.