By Robert E. Quinn
I taught a special session for new MBAs who were military veterans. At one point, I asked them to reflect on the moments of trauma in their lives. They were much better at this than most MBA and executive education students I have worked with.
One young man spoke of being a freshman in college and playing on the football team. Everywhere he went, he got into fights and often ended up in jail. He spoke of the shame he brought to his parents. Then he told of being an infantry officer and failing, after several tries, to complete the U.S. Army’s Ranger School, an extremely rigorous program that trains the nation’s premier direct action raid force. Here he described his own sense of shame. Then he told of being transferred home from the battlefield. Shortly after, his unit was in a firefight and his best friend was killed. He spoke of his agony and his sense that he should have been there. Finally, he reflected on what he had learned from such experiences. He spoke of the need to know himself, to know his own most basic purpose and values.
As he spoke, something changed. The conversation became sacred. It was then possible for the other vets to speak with equal authenticity. As the discussion continued, the group went into deep reflection and deep learning.
At the end of the evening, all the “content” I covered was of greater value because the participants were better able to integrate it into their lives. This outcome was possible because of those young men felt free to reflect on who they really are.
This might seem to be a special case. But is it? Think of the last meeting you attended. Were people free to share authentically? If not, how might it have been different?