Remember You Are Mortal
“Men of Rome, keep close to your consorts, here’s a bald adulterer.” That was the song sung to Caesar by his own men as they returned from victory.
The day-long parade was called a triumph (this is the original meaning of the word). It was a huge public ceremony sanctioned by the Senate to commemorate vanquishing enemies. They marched through town and partied all night. The general (or “triumphator”) sat in a purple toga woven with glittering, gold embroidery. His face was painted bright red to commemorate the God Jupiter.
As the crowds screamed and held signs about Caesar’s glory, a slave stood behind him and held a crown above his head. Throughout the ride the slave whispered, “Memento mori” or, “Remember you are mortal.”
2,100 years ago, we understood that the adulation of leadership might lead to a skewed self-perception. The raunchy songs and whispering in ears were meant to keep the leader balanced and fight against jealousy of the Gods and those he served. In other celebrations, the General was reminded, “Sic transit gloria” (glory fades). It sounds like kind of a downer.
But perhaps we’ve swung too far the other way.
Today’s triumphs (the employee meetings and CEO awards) have lost the counterbalance of realism. Often, there is no one whispering the truth in leaders’ ears. This is where executive coaches come in as a way to keep the full range of feedback flowing.
As part of our work, we interview people that work for our client and ask both what they do well and what needs improvement. During feedback sessions, people often hear difficult messages that have never been spoken out loud.
Without institutionalizing a means for honest, confidential feedback to be delivered to executives, it frequently doesn’t happen. A number of forces work against it, including fear, managing up, and cultures that punish bad news. Leadership coaching provides a safe place for people to hear the truth and have the support to operationalize changes. After the feedback session, a plan is created and executives have goals and accountability to develop new skills. By providing coaching as a necessary vehicle for feedback, we remove the hazard of managing in a vacuum. This is where transformation begins.