Massaging Leadership!


How many of you have had a massage lately?

(We must be back on the road; I’m talking about massages again.)


You are right away asking, “Ryan what does this have to do with leadership?”

I am going to ask you to, "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: much more intentional and has the potential to be a game-changer.

After playing more than 1000 NHL games, coupled with multiple injuries, I really like massages. Jenn and I often set them up as part of our process to increase health.


After receiving a massage on our day off in Puerto Vallarta, where I am set to deliver a keynote to the highest performers of our great client Rifco… it hit me: The process of giving a massage is very much like the process of delivering effective leadership.


At the lower end of the massage therapist effectiveness scale is what Jenn and I like to call “just pushing the oil around.” I actually get very frustrated when this happens because I like a firm message and 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. This is where the massage therapist and the leader either don’t know how to apply their trade (maybe they are just learning), or they don’t care. Either way I paid good money without receiving my desired return.


One of the hardest parts of paying for the massage is that you really don’t know what kind of therapist you are going to get. Jenn and I travel so much that we very seldom are in a position to ask for the same person who has delivered well during previous treatments. Actually, it’s hit-or-miss at this point. We sometimes 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 a competent leader and they can have the credentials, but until you experience their process and their results, you cannot be sure what you are paying for.


After “pushing the oil around,” my next level of massage experience is what we call “found the problem, but gave no relief.” At this level the therapist seems to know what he or she is doing, but either doesn’t understand how to apply the remedy or isn’t capable or ready to apply enough pressure to fix this problem. Does this sound like a leader that you have experienced in the past?


In our experience, most people are very good at finding the problems and complaining about them (in our Thinking Tendencies Model – we call this Past Negative thinking coupled with a Future Negative focus), but seem to lack the expertise or the will to find and 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 some blistering feedback. Mark Twain illuminates this Future Negative focus: “If a cat steps on a hot stove, that cat will never step on a hot stove again… the problem is that the cat will never step on a cold stove either.”

Many times ineffective leaders understand the remedies but won’t apply them because it’s always safer to do nothing or very little, than to get burnt again.


Back to our Massage-Leadership connection. With the “just pushing the oil around” experience, I want my money back. With 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 experience that I just received, here is what I really mean. The therapist was an expert in her/his field. You could sense this even before the experience began. They were confident, they had put in 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” experience therapist did not have only one way to deliver the massage therapy. Over the years I have observed that the “just pushing oil around” and the “found the problem but gave no relief” therapists always stuck to their program. First the upper back then the right arm, right leg, left leg, left leg, ending with the neck. This is OK, but what if I have 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 are out of time to fix my issue. Have you worked for leaders or coaches like this? I call this a leadership rut. Utilizing the same focus, the same stick & carrot, the same mindset to all of their problems and the same treatment towards all of 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. I know that I am in for an “Awesome” message when I sense that my therapist is starting to get CURIOUS. In my experience getting curious separates the best from the rest. Early in the massage they are exploring for stiffness or pain, for tightness, for muscle tension.


Then come the questions. The best of the best differentiate themselves by asking great questions. “Ryan, I noticed that your right wrist was operated on; how hard can I work that area?” Here’s what scary. The first two levels of therapists just do what they have always done. They never inquire about the scar on my right wrist. In fact, it has two pins in it. I fractured 3 bones there one night, playing against the Hartford Whalers.


Remember the options? Stage 1 and stage 2 therapists, in my mind, have two options: they don’t know, or worse, they don’t care. The stage three “Awesome” therapist stays curious, finds a number of problems, and while communicating through questions, begins to remedy the issues one by one.


We believe that developing curiosity and exploring processes and people through questions are key skills for great leadership in 2020. Effective leaders don’t use the same routine (upper back, then right arm, etc.); they can’t treat everyone the same; they must get curious. What leadership focus inspires this person? What amount of pressure gets this person’s best? How can I remove obstructions for this person to 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 instantly moved beyond 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 often keeps them moving towards creating Future Positive solutions.


These stage three therapists are not perfect and 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 a “it’s not about them” attitude. It’s about solving the problem.


Staying curious, asking great-inquiring questions with an attitude of wanting to get better, to get it right… wow, that seems to be the start of developing some "Awesome Leadership."


As always, Leadership (and massage therapy) is where skill and art collide.













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