May 18, 2020

How to *Be* a Coach: Lessons Learned from the Late Richard Levi

Richard Levi had a powerful influence on me early in my coaching journey. He died recently and his passing is a loss to me and the entire coaching community he was a pillar of. These three stories are my small tribute to him and what I learned from him.

Richard was assigned to mentor a small subgroup of us as we went through the year-long New Ventures West Professional Coaches Course program.  Needless to say, I learned a lot that year, but the truth is that my interactions with Richard taught me more about being a coach than anything else.

Story One: Talk Less, Show More

I met him at the end of our first weekend. I and my colleagues had been "drinking out of fire hose" for four days and I was in complete overwhelm about what we had to do over the next year. The reading list seemed impossible. There was a notebook in front of each of us of what we were supposed to learn that had you dropped it, you would have broken your foot.

Four of us had formed a small group and were sitting together probably looking like shipwreck victims bobbing in the ocean clinging to flotsam. Richard saw this and bounded across the room with a big smile on his face.

He didn't try to hero us. Didn't try to assuage our fears.  Didn't say anything like "don't worry," "it will be fine," "you'll be great." It was simply his slow, calm, relaxed demeanor that palpably set us at ease and helped us believe what we were undertaking was doable.  And he was like that every step of the way through the program.  A calm and steady hand on the tiller.

My Coaching Insight: Many clients end up in a state of overwhelm given the size of what they have taken on and/or from all the competing demands they are trying to balance. How you carry yourself can help your clients see what capaciousness looks like.  Your confidence and presence can help them develop what they need for their own journey.

Story Two: "Think in Black and White"

Three quarters of the way through the training, I tried to align myself with a coaching organization. I wasn't ready..."out in front of my blocking" as they say...and I blew it. I was a little too candid with my feedback about their training program and they decided not to put me on their bench. I lamented to Richard about my struggle with being honest and "authentic" vs. keeping my light under a basket and "going along to get along."  I couldn't seem to get that balance right.

A lot of people talk about Richard's heart and I will too in my third story. But, his eyes! You always felt like they were seeing right into the center of your being, cutting through the BS to the core conundrum. He saw mine and he gave me a simple assignment:  write him a letter on what it means to "be authentic."

Well you can imagine the ditch that little trip ended up in. I had no idea what authenticity really meant.  Even trying to figure out your "true" feelings, given the giant voice of the Ego and all those smaller, "minority" voices inside us, seemed impossible.  How then could you act congruently with feelings you couldn't even get your arms around? As I wrestled with the issue, my need to "be authentic" mysteriously became a non-issue, and hasn't been since.

My Coaching Insight: My advisor in graduate school did the same thing to me. I had 20 different research ideas and he got bored listening to them so he told me to "think in black and white," meaning, grab a pen and try to put those muddled thoughts on paper. Richard also knew that what was getting in my way was not being authentic but my confusion about what that meant. But he didn't tell me that. He handed me a shovel and suggested I dig that hole for myself. I never would have gotten there had he just told me what the problem was. I could only have gotten there through confronting the fool's errand I was on myself.

If you want a one sentence description of the job of a coach, here is mine:  help your clients feel and play bigger.

Story Three: Help Your Clients Feel and Play Bigger

None of these short stories can really convey the kind of man Richard was. He was a man of, not few words, but less words because he didn't seem to need them.  He had learned to lean and rely on his depth, heart, wisdom, presence and compassion. He counseled the grief stricken. He went with police to crime scenes as a chaplain to counsel the bereaved. Sotto voce: can you imagine what it takes to be able to do that?

I am very different from Richard.  Not better or worse, just a different set of strong suits. Some of the high marks I get are for my clear, linear thinking and ability to teach with metaphors and stories .

A photo was taken of our learning pod with Richard at our graduation. I remember the photo being taken, but I didn't remember what I had done until someone in the group sent it to me again when they learned of Richard's death.

Richard is in the middle of all of us and I was on one end. For some unknown reason, I reached across the person next to me and put my hand on Richard's heart. My sense is that I intuitively knew that he had a quality that for me was in short supply. And like Spock on Star Trek with his Vulcan mind-meld, I may have been trying to do a heart meld with the man who showed me so much.

My Coaching Insight: I think people respect Wisdom but they are drawn to the Heart, in all its manifestations: empathy, love, passion for a cause or an idea, courage (from the Old French, cuer- meaning heart) all have a magnetic quality.  But perhaps even more important than what we see in and project onto others is how we feel inside ourselves when we are with them.  In someone's presence, can we find and feel our own power, our own wisdom, our own courage, our own compassion? If you want a one sentence description of the job of a coach, here is mine:  help your clients feel and play bigger. Richard embodied that ability and showed me what was possible.

Other than the assignment he gave me, I don't remember one thing Richard said to me. But I will never forget how I felt around him:  I believed in myself more, I trusted more, I was slower, easier, more compassionate.

Richard Alan Levi, you've rejoined the Ocean you never left. On bended knee, thank you for shining a light for so many of us.

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