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Updated: Aug 8, 2022

My 1000 plus NHL games played, coupled with multiple upper and lower-body injuries have helped me to appreciate massage therapy. Jenn and I set them up often as part of our process to maintain/increase our health.

You may rightly ask, “Ryan, what does this have to do with leadership?” I recommend that you keep reading.

The 10-minute easy neck rub has its place, especially in airports when you are running from one flight to catch the next flight. At the other end of the spectrum is the 90-minute deep-tissue massage. This one is much more intentional and has the potential to be a game changer.

After receiving a massage on our day off in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico where I was delivering a keynote to the high performers of our great client, Rifco… it hit me. The process of giving a massage is very similar to the process of delivering effective leadership.

At the lower end of the massage therapist effectiveness scale is what I like to call just pushing the oil around. This is where the person comes to work but doesn’t come to win.

I get very frustrated when this happens because I like a firm message. I often speak up and ask the therapist to increase the pressure and focus on my problem areas. Pushing the oil around leadership is similar in a way. This is where the therapist and the leader either don’t know how to apply their trade (maybe they are just learning), or worse, they don’t care. Either way, I paid good money for the massage and the leadership, but you and I are not receiving good ROI.

One of the hardest parts of setting up the massage is not knowing which kind of therapist you are going to get. Jenn and I travel so much that we are very seldom in a place where we can ask for the same person who delivered well during our previous treatment. It’s hit-or-miss at this point. We often try to have a couple’s massage together and at the end Jenn will ask, “How was it?”

My reply, more often than not, is “Closer to pushing the oil around.”

Leadership is similar. The person can look like a great therapist, or a competent leader, and they can have the credentials, but until you experience their character, process, and results, you are often not sure about your investment.

My next level up from pushing the oil around massage experience is what we call found the problem but gave no relief. At this level, the therapist seems to know what they are doing but either doesn’t understand how to apply the remedy or isn’t capable or ready (too tired?) to apply enough pressure to fix the problem. Does this sound like a leader that you have experienced in the past?

In our experience, most people are very good at finding problems and then complaining about them (we call this Past Negative Thinking in our Thinking Tendencies Model) but seem not to have the expertise or the will to apply the solution.

Many leaders in this found the problem but gave no relief state have been burnt in the past by taking action and then receiving negative results or possibly blistering feedback. Mark Twain illuminates the Future-Negative outcomes of Past-Negative thinking when he states, “If a cat sits on a hot stove, that cat won't sit on a hot stove again. That cat won't sit on a cold stove either. That cat just don't like stoves.”

Ineffective leaders often know the remedies but won’t apply them because they got burnt by their boss the last time they took a chance or took action. They have found it is safer to do nothing or very little. With the just pushing the oil around experience, I want my money back, but at the found the problem but gave no relief stage, I leave disappointed.

Once in a while, after the massage, when Jenn asks me, “how was that?” I will reply with one word: “Awesome!”

When I use this word to describe the massage, here is what I mean: The therapist was an expert in his/her field. You could sense this even before the experience began. They were confident; they had invested the time to understand what they could deliver. Confidence that you can feel in leaders comes from hours of practice and the Future-Positive Expectation that they have the ability to deliver results.

I have also noticed that my awesome therapists did not have just one way to deliver the massage therapy. The just pushing oil around and found the problem but gave no relief therapists always stuck to their program. It might be first the upper back, then the right arm, right leg, left leg, ending with the neck. This is okay, but what if I have a problem, like a large debilitating knot in the muscle near my left shoulder? By the time they have finished the way they always do it process, they have run out of time to fix my issue. Have you worked for leaders or coaches like this? I call this a leadership rut. They apply the same focus, the same stick & carrot, the same mindset to all their problems and the same treatment towards all their people.

The awesome therapists separate themselves every time with a specific skill that has nothing to do with massage technique and isn’t taught in the leadership development manuals. Right away I know that I am in for an awesome massage when I sense that my therapist is becoming curious. In my experience, curiosity separates the best from the rest. Early in the massage they are exploring for stiffness or pain, for tightness, for muscle tension.

This is followed by questions. The best of the best differentiate themselves by asking great questions. “Ryan, I noticed that your right wrist has been operated on; how hard can I work that area?”

Here’s what is scary. The first two levels of therapists simply do what they have always done. They never inquire about my right wrist that has two pins in it (where I fractured 3 bones one night playing against the Hartford Whalers). Remember the options? In my mind, stage 1 and stage 2 therapists either don’t know, or worse, they don’t care. The stage 3 awesome therapist stays curious, finds problems, and while communicating with curious questions, begins to apply the remedy, one issue at a time.

We believe that developing curiosity and exploring processes and people through questions are key skills for great leadership in 2022. Effective leaders don’t use the same routine. They can’t treat everyone the same way - they must get curious! What leadership focus inspires this person? What amount of pressure gets this person’s best? How can I remove obstructions so this person can deliver their best work?

My spidey-senses are always on the lookout for curiosity. As soon as I sense a curious, question-asking therapist I know that my experience has immediately moved out of the just pushing the oil around and found the problem but gave no relief stages. Curiosity is what we call a Future-Positive Leadership Skill. Sure, exploring leaders will dig up some Past-Negative or Future-Negative issues, but staying curious helps keep them moving towards creating Future-Positive Solutions.

Stage three therapists are not perfect. Sometimes I will have to ask for a little more pressure here, or a little more attention there, but I have noticed that most thank me for this direction because they love to grow. They want to develop, to improve, and most of all, they have an “it’s not about them” attitude. It’s about solving the problem!

Staying curious, asking inquiring questions with an attitude of wanting to get better… this is where Leadership (and massage therapy) becomes both a skill and an art.

Connect back with me this week!

Click here to connect directly with Ryan!

Many of our corporate clients are engaging our services to energize their teams, focus their cultural mindset, and brainstorm processes around how to maximize their team COMMUNICATION.

Looking forward to COACHING you and your team soon! Connect with Ryan now!

Further reading…

In her book Ask for More, negotiation expert Alexandra Carter suggests leaders phrase their questions by beginning with the words: “Tell me.” Think “Tell me your perspective on what just happened,” or “Tell me more about why you think that.” As Carter notes, sometimes the problem isn’t what you think it is. When you begin with tell me, you can find out what the other person actually cares about, rather than making assumptions. “No question unlocks trust, creativity, understanding, and mind-blowing solutions like ‘tell me.’”

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