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Embracing Stokefire's Fifth Wobbling Value

We've made it to the end! Stokefire's fifth and final value is: "Embrace the Wobble"

Embracing the wobble means a couple different things at Stokefire. One is a relatively light, somewhat impersonal story. Easy to write. Harmless. The other is the opposite. Deeply personal. Painful to write. Humbling.

Bear with me. I’m gonna start with the easy one and work up to it.

I first heard about the concept of embracing the wobble about twenty years ago from a boss/director of mine who also happened to be a private pilot. He’d occasionally bring people up in his single engine plane and let them take the controls for a while.

My wife got the opportunity to take a 45 minute flight with him, circling around the towns and waters east of San Francisco in the early 2000s. A few days later he and I had a one-on-one status meeting and he mentioned the flight, and complimented her natural ability. She had clearly been nervous, but she’d done well.

Flying over the San Francisco Bay and surrounding hills isn’t easy. Right when you think you’ve got things under control you’ll get shoved by a thermal or crosswind that seems to come out of nowhere. If you’ve flown as a passenger in an airplane for any significant length of time you’ve felt it yourself. A sudden weightlessness or a jolt that sets all your senses on edge. He said that first time pilots - and quite a few experienced ones - have an instinctual reaction to the situation. And it’s almost always wrong.

The mistake is to try to keep the aircraft on the exact same heading and at the same altitude. My boss called it ‘fighting the stick’ - a term I’d heard before in old war movies.

For those not familiar… The ‘stick’ is roughly the airplane’s equivalent of a steering wheel. When a pilot fights the stick, they’re trying to force the craft to do something that the plane itself or the air around isn’t prepared to support. Making a plane do something that it doesn’t ‘want’ to do tends not go well.

As I remember it, he said a novice pilot encountering their first rising thermal tends to force the plane down as an immediate correction, which puts them into a descent they’re not prepared for, so they quickly pull up and overcorrect. That pattern continues - creating a kind of ‘porpoising’ of ups and downs that can quickly turn into a stall or dive if an experienced pilot isn’t there to help.

The right response to being buffeted isn’t to clench up or fight it. It’s to breathe. Loosen your grip and feel what the plane and the air around it are telling you. Breathe. Check your instruments and indicators. Breathe. And then you act, once you understand what all the movement and other information is telling you. He called it embracing the wobble. In a plane that embrace might take a few seconds. But it's time well spent.

He said my wife did it well, and that was the end of it.

If there was an implied business lesson in it I admit I missed it on first pass, but a couple decades later I can make it out.

In my experience working as an employee at other organizations there’s been an expectation that the way business gets done is that we establish strategic direction, set goals, work out the tactical issues, and just push like hell until we get where we’re going. The obstacles that pop up in between where we are and our goals are just that - things that get in our way. We can choose whether to go over, under, around or through the obstacle, but no matter what, our job depends on getting past it so we can stay on track.

The focus never seemed to be on understanding why the obstacle popped up, what we could learn from it, or if it should impact the strategies, goals, and tasks that we’d committed ourselves to. I acknowledge I was a mid-level manager back then, and perhaps I didn’t have access or visibility into those discussions, but the end result always seemed to be that we muscled our way in the same direction, same altitude, same speed - no matter what. We wouldn't take the time to figure out if we were forcing our business 'plane' to do something that it was not built to do. We wouldn't reexamine the situation and see if there was a better way. We wouldn't take a few hours or days to breathe and see what our 'plane' and the air around it could support.

It didn’t matter if our little business ‘aircraft’ ran into a hurricane, our job was still to fight the stick and make it to the destination on time and on budget, or die trying. It’s the opposite of embracing the wobble, learning from it, and making the strategic choice that’ll get you to your goal safer and wiser. A helpful hint? If folks are trying to inspire your team with phrases like, ‘...or die trying’, then you’re at an organization with some serious commitment to fighting the stick. It’s great when it works. And it can work. It’s just that, from what I’ve seen, most of the time it doesn’t. Embracing the wobble is the opposite of a win at all costs mentality, but it makes winning more likely because you’re able to use what you learn to focus your efforts on the things that your environment tells you are most likely to work. Enough about the flying metaphor for now. On to the painful one, which starts pretty innocuously.

This one came out of a more recent leadership discussion about the concept of organizational integrity. After hearing me talk about integrity (how organizations must be authentic, accountable, and connected) and following along as I showed how this needs to be woven into the DNA at every level of the organization - an executive said something like, “Can any company actually have integrity as you define it? If even one of us is off our game, or if we make even one bad hire, it all disappears. No?”

There’s truth to that.

And I know it firsthand. But there’s more here than it seems.

And I guess here’s where I start telling people about it.

I think most of us try to live our lives in a way that, whether it’s true or not, we’re seen as good, upstanding people by members of the communities we’re a part of. I’m no different. I’m pretty sure that my reputation was - and until today largely still is - squeaky clean. But that’s not the truth. At least not how I’ve seen it.

Years after I first started working on Linden’s Lens, I screwed up. No laws or marriage vows broken, but I’d very clearly not been acting with the kind of integrity I was telling others was so critically important. This wasn’t just a private failing. My decisions and behavior hurt people that I love and rely on. And those people knew I’d failed. I lost friends. I stepped away from my career. Instantly I saw myself as a failure. A fraud. How could I possibly go out into the world and preach a set of practices that my own support network knew I’d failed to follow? That I knew I couldn’t always follow?

Where’s the integrity in that?

I asked myself this question countless times for years. I spiraled through self-doubt, self-loathing, and hopelessness.

I couldn’t see a way to do what I saw as my calling because I would constantly be afraid that I’d run into one of the lost friends or acquaintances that knew I’d failed, and they’d tell the world. Or the audience. Or someone else I care about that hadn’t yet known. Most days, though, I couldn’t see a way to even leave my house. So, yeah. I’d been thinking quite a lot about whether integrity vanishes when we screw up. And right up to the moment my behavior was discovered, I probably would’ve said that it does vanish. And my belief would stay the same for years .

It was still my belief when someone (who didn’t know I’d failed) persuaded me to begin engaging again by sharing Linden’s Lens with the world. This ensured that I didn’t mention my screw ups in my workshops and client work, despite the fact that every time I’d talk about integrity my brain would focus on what I’d done wrong. The result? Some successes. A handful of clients. But not the kind of gangbusters responses I’d been getting before my failure. Seeking answers, we (at Stokefire) asked anyone we could find to hear me pitch and give critiques. We went through dozens of very helpful Zoom meetings, and got things tighter, but it didn’t move the needle much. And then we talked to a board chairman who was short on time but very interested in helping, and he cut in after just a minute with something no one else had mentioned. “You can’t look at me when you talk. That’s human connection. If you can’t do that? You’re done.” And he was right on multiple counts. I couldn’t look him in the eye because I felt like I wasn’t being transparent. And if people think I’m hiding something from them they’re gonna be a lot less interested in working with me. He ended up talking to me for longer than either of us had planned, and I was thankful, but it felt awful. I knew he was right and said so. And the whole time I was saying so I still wasn’t able to look him in the eye.

And here’s where embracing the wobble comes back into play.

None of us are perfect. We all screw up. Presidents, Janitors, Kings, Accountants, Astronauts, Parents, Kids... ALL period OF period US period.

No exceptions.

Making mistakes, doing the wrong thing, or causing harm doesn’t automatically mean that we can’t have integrity. That’s not the issue at all. It’s what we do after we do wrong that determines whether we are capable of integrity.

In a way, our personal and organizational missteps are a bit like the airplane turbulence I talked about earlier, though with a slightly different focus.

A pilot doesn’t lack integrity as a pilot because they encounter turbulence. They don’t even necessarily lose integrity when they make a mistake in response to that turbulence.

Their integrity is only lost when they refuse to acknowledge or adjust to those things. The mistakes, screw ups, turbulence, or wobble... Those are the moments where we have the opportunity to grow.

I didn’t do that. I punished myself. I hid. Right up until I talked with the chairman, I’d become my mistake rather than learning from it. It’s as though I’d encountered turbulence, failed miserably to deal with it, and then continued diving towards the ground because I wasn’t willing to live with the consequences of admitting I’d screwed up.

And, while it felt like the only option I had every minute, day, month, and year that I did it - it wasn’t.

We don’t have to celebrate our screw ups. I know I usually don’t. But, as people and organizations, to truly have integrity we do need to acknowledge, embrace and own them. Bring ‘em close, examine ‘em, understand how and why they happened, and do what it takes to avoid similar screw ups next time.

Professionally there’s not much more to it.

Personally? I’m only just beginning to embrace my own wobble, and some days it still feels larger than I can get my arms around.

It still sucks to know I hurt people, and it probably sucks more to have been one of the people I hurt. It doesn’t undo the harm I caused. It doesn’t make my past attempts at making things right any more effective. It doesn’t make lost friends found again.

To embrace the wobble is to know that we can’t be perfect, but that we can be better than we are. And that even when we’ve wobbled so far off our path that we can’t see a way back, there’s value in it for us and for others to try. Because...

It opens me up to opportunity and improvement. It encourages me to be authentic, accountable, and connected - which are the three components of integrity itself. And maybe? Maybe it can help me undent the universe a bit, even when (or perhaps because) I’m able to accept and portray myself as something other than mint condition.

And there’s something else that’ll happen as a result of me finally embracing the wobble in my own life. Tomorrow I’m waking up and I don’t have to be someone or something I’m not. Tomorrow I don’t have to hide. And tomorrow I just might, for the first time in years, have the courage to look you in the eye when we talk.

That’s it.

You’ve made it to the end of my stream-of-consciousness writing on Stokefire’s five values. If you missed any of ‘em or want to take another look, you can find the list here.

If you have questions or comments I encourage you to reach out to us on LinkedIn.

See you next time.


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