The Three Treasures of the Coach
Frank Lloyd Wright's masterpiece, Falling Water, transports its audience as an object of the highest art, a tribute to the ingenuity of its great architect. But it leaks. It is damp and spawns mildew, and it is so focused in its symmetry that an inhabitant can find no space to adorn with expressions of their own life [Hildebrand1991]. Falling Water dwells among the world's most triumphant art, yet San Michele is unmistakably the more desirable dwelling.
Wright specialized in houses, and Falling Water is his finest. How did Munthe, an untutored medical doctor, beat the twentieth century's greatest architect at his own game?
It's clear Munthe had a strong grasp of the antiquities of Europe, along with the cultural and technical fluency needed to communicate with his Anacapresi artisans. His autobiography, The Story of San Michele, further reveals a deep compassion, reserve, and common touch refined by decades of intimate medical practice at all levels of Parisian society. These are just the "three treasures" lauded by Lao Tse in Tao Te Ching.
By reserve, strength.
By commonality, influence. [Lao2000]
It was Munthe's compassion that afforded the doctor the support and understanding of the Anacapresi. In Lao Tse, compassion isn't mere kindness, but a willingness to enter into long-term relationships, to accept and nurture the viewpoints of developers, managers, and customers, with any of whom you may disagree, to help them find ways to accept each other and build their community. Where Wright dominated his workmen and blinded his disciples with his prolific genius, Munthe was the faithful partner of his peasant craftsmen. While employing them he also served as their scribe and physician for decades.
To cultivate compassion, a Coach must pay careful attention to the needs of each member of their team. Follow carefully instead of competing with them. Draw them out instead of shouting them down. Learn their views and take them into account before speaking. Especially when they seem naive or stubborn, don't ridicule or dismiss them, but find a way for them to retain their dignity and self-respect. Isn't this obvious? Perhaps so, but it's easy to forget when needed most.
If you would establish harmony,
Compassion must surround you like a fortress. [Lao2000]
Compassion alone is not enough to make a Coach. The champions of opposing viewpoints need an impartial and trustworthy reception. Tact is essential. Reserving opinions and judgments makes consensus much easier to build. Easy consensus forms harmonious relationships throughout the team. There is a feedback effect here; harmonious relationships reduce the likelihood of friction and politics occurring in the first place.
Straight but not rigid, bright but not blinding. [Lao2000]
To cultivate reserve, you must let other team members speak their minds before you speak. Ask questions instead of taking positions. Encourage a novice to spike a bad solution, rather than forbidding it. Don't side with developers, managers, or customers, but guard your opinions concerning a dispute. Rather than staking a position, help the disputants understand each other's way of thinking.
And then calmly, and with tact. [Lao2000]
When gentility becomes impossible, a Coach must apply the "rolled-up newspaper" swiftly, with conviction and vigor. This must be dictated by necessity, not by feelings of frustration, and in private, with a swift return to open, friendly relations. The Coach must be trustworthy, especially with those members of the team who are not. Yet even here reserve is required: Boasting about the application of the newspaper returns as animosity and mistrust. The necessity of such violence must be treated as you would sad news.
And lean years follow a great war. [Lao2000]
Finally, the Coach must not lose the common touch with their teams. If they act aloof, coaches lose the ability to affect the team. Distance builds resistance. So, among developers, the Coach must provide vision and perspective, but must always encourage other members of the team to express it. The Coach may have the title and act the role of manager, architect, or customer, but they must still relate to developers as a developer.
In the company of managers and customers, the Coach must become the preferred lever to use to move the developers. No matter what company they find, the Coach should be "one of us," not "one of them." In a meeting involving developers, management, and customers, the Coach's compassion and reserve are truly tested. To be effective, a Coach must accept, but not own, responsibility for the whole development. If they're successful, the team should claim the achievement as their own.
Thereby the river is master of the valley.
In order to master people one must speak as their servant;
In order to lead people one must follow them. [Lao2000]
The Coach is a demanding role that allows few opportunities to enjoy slack or take things lightly. The Coach is like the pilot of a ship. Taking things lightly makes things hard. Enjoying slack may lead the whole team into difficulties. The Coach must avoid hasty decisions and fickleness, for the flow of development is easily diverted and swiftly dissipated.