Coaching As Service

I was never much of an athlete. I recall an episode around 1982 where dad bought me a glove, took me out to toss the ball around in the big backyard where all the neighbors could see.  It didn’t go very well.

The glove was heavy for my diminutive frame and the ball ended up making more contact with my massive head, which to this day remains out of proportion to my wiry frame.  How can you miss it?

Donk! (Crying ensues).

After a season of coaching my first grade T-Ball team and soldiering through the leadership of the most uncoordinated youths in Sullivan county, Dad’s interest in my sporting career diminished and his passions moved on to other things, like fine raised paneling and early american architecture.

Around my father’s wood shop and personal spaces I would discover drawings and sketches between the pages of Southern Living, American Heritage or US News & World Report of things that he was going to build.   They were drawn on wrinkled, torn out sheets of blue and white graph paper that had the Eastman Chemical Company logo or “Safety First” in the top right margin.  I imagine him daydreaming at the office, sketching out blueprints of the 18th century style home he would steadily complete from 1985 to 1995.

One night when we were hanging out in the furnished basement with the puke green carpet and the cheap wood panelling, he sketched my portrait.  I had never seen him draw like that before and was transfixed by the way he used many strokes to find the right lines.  From that moment until I was about twelve years old, I was determined to be the best freehand artist in my class.  Through relentless practice, I was.

Even though Randy Gray wasn’t a coach in contests or feats of strength, he was a powerful coach in my life.  In fact, his own relationship with his High School football coach he fondly referred to as “Coach Owen” was instrumental in his development at 17 and 18, when he suffered permanent ACL damage that ended his promising college football career and tried to comprehend why his father’s body was riddled with terminal cancer of the spine in a Huntsville AL hospital.  My paternal grandfather, who died seven years before I was born, instilled in him a way of familial interaction that was both invasive and cathartic.

Again and again through my time with him, he would force me to talk about things that I didn’t want to talk about. And we’d have these talks about every two weeks. Sometimes these life coaching sessions would bring me to tears because I didn’t want to face the truths that were obvious from his more mature and objective perspective.   He wanted to know what I was thinking about both emotionally and logically because he had a deep need to understand the motivations of the people around him. A compulsive instinct for control became a doorway to explore and reflect on his own mind along with his son’s, and I think now that part of my karma in this life was to be with him on his journey of growth and to benefit from the wisdom he was uncovering.

Like his father, he died in late middle age at 56.   A young man by modern standards at the peak of his power and professional success.  My process of mourning his death is an ongoing one of understanding how much of my own mind is part of his legacy, and how I can honor that in my life work.

The roles that our mothers and fathers play in our minds is very deep and unique to each of us. The story of that generational relationship goes back infinitely, and most of us spend our entire lives coming to terms with and defining most of our relations in terms of those early ways of loving, nurturing and guidance.

Since times immemorial there have been social roles for a member of the tribe to be an objective listener and guide – to play the role of the father/mother figure for those who want to continue to grow beyond the nest.  The role was often called shaman, elder, priest or pastor.  It wasn’t until advanced stages of specialization that we started to see those roles amplified into professional paths such as psychology, psychoanalysis, clinical therapy and that sort of thing. These relationships were established through the channels of science and medicine that were popularized in the 20th century, and continue to have a staggering influence on the way our society deals with physical and emotional health.

In India, people have said that you can’t wave a dead dog in the air and not hit what is known as a “Guru”. The guru is ubiquitous because of Indias melting pot of religious methods.  They serve the rest of the population by creating a highly customized game or method that a person can engage in order to reach a higher state of enlightenment and awareness of their karma.

A million different paths to the same place with a million different guides.

This is unique to India in that it affords tremendous diversity compared to other cultures, and indeed becomes a matter of commerce. The idea that you hire a person to help you get better is a normal thing — you get a Guru. It’s been a big business serving people all over the world since the 1960s when the Beatles and Harvard Professor Richard Alpert imported it to our cultural palate.

The US and European world has dabbled with inventing their own modern capitalist functional equivalent through the self-help movement via labels such as consultant, teacher, guru and coach.

The trick of course is that you can’t be taught if you are not open to teaching. It’s like taking piano lessons, but instead of someone next to you to keep you focused on your technique and the sheet music on the stand, you want guidance on how to improve yourself to play the music you want to make.  Or as Aristotle would say, to help you on your teleological growth toward arete.

A friend, partner and client, Micheal Burt was inspired by the path established by western paternal luminaries such as Steven Covey and made it his life work to serve as an objective advisor to both individuals and organizations based on Covey’s foundational philosophy of life.

Known as “Coach” to the many who know him, Micheal is deeply disciplined in the idea that to truly serve those who are open to coaching, he has to embody the lessons that he teaches and consistently do the self-work that the people around him want to aspire to.

From an eastern perspective, this is both admirable and normal for someone to take on the role of the Guru as a service, because to be effective and acceptable at the job one must live a relatively selfless existence in terms of the idle pleasure and transgressive patterns that so many people cling to for meaning. For those unfortunate enough to get involved with a charlatan , well, we could just say that’s their karma.

When I first met Coach Burt a several years ago, he was at the dawn of his freelance reinvention and I was skeptical of anyone’s ability to take on that kind of responsibility without it becoming subject to his own insecurities. No doubt the power, fame and persuasion must be a sweet taste, but what I’ve witnessed in my relationship with him is a man who has made it his life work to serve other people in a way that makes them better, and perhaps to serve as the father to many in the way Covey was the ideal father he didn’t have.

If that is for his economic benefit, then good. That’s the way we do things in our democracy. The yogis of India, as part one of the longest running capitalist societies in history, have been doing it for millennia. The life of a travelling teacher and Machiavellian advisor is ultimately one of dedication and service, and with that responsibility comes both sacrifice and risk of the king’s sword at your throat of things go awry.