Michelangelo and the Four Fatal Fears

  1. September 17th, 2018  | 

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Published in Leadership

What’s the difference between consulting and coaching?

Fourteen years ago I was contacted by Vistage International—the world’s largest peer advisory organization for CEOs, presidents and partners.

I’d been referred as someone who might have the chops to build and lead a group of executives from non-competing industries who meet every month to help each other make better decisions.

Step one was a phone interview. Step two was a personality profile. Step three was a face-to-face interview where I was flown to Atlanta and grilled. An invitation to the training sessions in San Diego depended, in part, on my answer to various questions, including this one:

What’s the difference between a consultant and a coach?

You may know the difference between a consultant and a coach. Back then, I was a dyed-in-the-wool consultant. While I thought I could explain the difference, I’d never really considered myself a coach. Today, my belief is that to be an exceptional leader, you must be a competent coach.

Before sharing my perspective on the distinction between a consultant and a coach, let’s travel back 520 years ago to Italy for a clue.

A Star is Born
Michelangelo was considered the greatest living artist in his lifetime and today is regarded as one of the greatest artists of all time. Several of his works in sculpture, paint and architecture rank among the most famous in existence.

In November 1497, Michelangelo was commissioned by a representative of the Pope to carve a sculpture showing the Virgin Mary grieving over the body of Jesus. Negotiations 520 years ago could be as protracted as those of today, and it wasn’t until the summer of 1498 that terms were agreed upon and Michelangelo began work on Pietà. He was 23 years old.

When Pietà was unveiled, people were astonished. Georgio Vasari, a contemporary of Michelangelo’s and a highly regarded painter and architect as well as a pioneering art historian exclaimed, “It is certainly a miracle that a formless block of stone could ever have been reduced to a perfection that nature is scarcely able to create in the flesh.”

Michelangelo’s Statue of David—completed four years after Pietà—is considered the world’s finest sculpture. When asked about it, Michelangelo replied, “Every block of stone has a statue inside it and it is the task of the sculptor to discover it.”

His comment, I believe, is a fitting metaphor for coaching: the art of bringing out the best in a person.

That was part of my answer fourteen years ago. Here’s the rest: A consultant is paid for answers. A coach is paid for questions that allow the person being coached to discover for him- or herself what’s possible.

For many executives, telling – not asking – is their modus operandi. If you’re interested in asking better questions, perhaps you’ll find my book That’s A Great Question containing more than 500 questions on 18 topics helpful.

The Four Fatal Fears
In 1505, 30-year-old Michelangelo was invited back to Rome from Florence by the newly elected Pope Julius II. Michelangelo was commissioned to build the Pope’s tomb, which was to include 40 statues and be completed in five years. He experienced continual interruptions, including painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

According to contemporary accounts, Donato Bramante, who was working on St. Peter’s Basilica, resented Michelangelo’s commission for the Pope’s tomb and convinced the Pope to commission Michelangelo for the Sistine Chapel project. Bramante’s motive was to force Michelangelo into a medium with which he was unfamiliar—painting, not sculpting—in order that he might fail at the task.

Given a job designed to expose his weaknesses, Michelangelo conquered his fear of failure and vowed to make his enemies regret their decision.

One of the first stops on my journey as a Vistage Chair was a workshop in Atlanta delivered by Larry Wilson. Larry rocked my world. His vulnerability in a room full of strangers was magical. Vulnerability, I thought, was a weakness to be hidden or avoided. Larry transformed vulnerability into a strength, talking openly and directly about tough topics. His workshop focused on the difference between playing not to lose and playing to win.

In his book Play to Win, Larry identifies what he calls the Four Fatal Fears:

  1. The fear of rejection (the need to be accepted)
  2. The fear of failure (the need to succeed)
  3. The fear of emotional discomfort (the need to feel emotionally comfortable)
  4. The fear of being wrong (the need to be right)

Larry considers these fears fatal because they will lead to intellectual, emotional and spiritual death if they remain unconquered. Michelangelo conquered his fears to create a masterpiece.

If you agree that one of the behaviors separating consultants and coaches is asking questions that encourage the person on the receiving end to reflect, discover and grow, consider these four questions inspired by Michelangelo and Larry Wilson:

  • What fears am I trying to avoid that cause me to behave a certain way?
  • How many of my team’s fears are caused by my leadership style?
  • Am I making stuff up? What evidence do I have that my fears are real?
  • What action am I willing to take in order to conquer my fear and create my masterpiece?

In his book, Larry recounts a series of questions posed by legendary coach Dick Leider, starting with, “If you could live your life over again, what would you change?” Click here for the other questions and the answers Leider compiled.

“The greater danger for most of us,” said Michelangelo, “lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short; but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark.”

What are you aiming for?

Given your current behavior and trajectory, what’s the likelihood you’ll achieve your mark? 

About the Author: Greg Bustin advises some of the world’s most admired companies and leaders, and he’s dedicated a career to working with CEOs and the leadership teams of hundreds of companies in a range of industries. He’s facilitated more than 250 strategic planning sessions, he’s delivered more than 600 keynotes and workshops on every continent except Antarctica, and he coaches leaders who are inspired to take their career to the next level. His fourth leadership book— Accountability: The Key to Driving a High-Performance Culture (McGraw-Hill) —is a Soundview Executive Best Business Book.

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