The Refurbished Chairs: A Lesson in Executive Re-invention

By Rick Forbus, Ph.D.

Lessons learned as we go about everyday life are many times the best ones. Leadership teachings are evident just about anywhere, if we are attuned to their cues. In my article writings every week or so, topics and leadership concepts emerge in different ways. When a profound need or a vital solution appears within a coaching session or surrounded by inquiry in a training class, a topic will present itself as worthy to be written. Sometimes the subject matter is such that hours of reading and research will be done prior to starting the articles. Other times, like this one, the idea materializes from a recent life experience.

Nature often holds up a mirror so we can see more clearly the ongoing processes of growth, renewal, and transformation in our lives.     Unknown

Changing and striving to become a better version of oneself is a preeminent topic in coaching conversations. Generational differences, cultural diversity and even aging often emerge as worthy topics of discussion. Many clients seem to be just settling for life as it is while others seem to never be satisfied. Breaking through to a fully actualized version of oneself is certainly a worthy quest. These ideas surfaced recently in everyday happenings.

My wife, Nancy and her sister Eloise, own an antique business with retail space in Destin, FL. Nancy hunts for rare finds, and unique things in between her trips to Florida, in the North Georgia and Atlanta metro shops, garage sales, estate sales and even consignment stores. Eloise does the same in the panhandle of Florida between the times that they work together on the retail space in Destin. Occasionally, they will make “a run” as they call it, across the southeast and even plan some further away, to explore the dusty confines of antique stores, garage sales, consignment shops, and yes, even, roadside “permanent” yard sales.

Certain items need refurbishing. Some objects need repair then refinishing. There are antique finds that just need sanding, a coat of primer and painting. Mostly, the aged objects are cleaned quickly and sold “as is.” I volunteer, when possible, to refurbish a few things, mainly for “therapy” for me. Although “therapy” is somewhat spoken with tongue in cheek, of late, the necessity to be alone and get out to my shop have worked well. Working with people all day long can be tiresome. Although my work is extremely rewarding, silence is golden at times. In my shop at least the sounds that are made seem to be soothing even when they are the noise of sanding, grinding or hammering.

Refurbish is a great word. It is made up “re” and “furbish” and implies going back to an original state. To furbish something is to restore to freshness of appearance or good condition. An example would be to furbish a run-down neighborhood or to furbish up one’s command of a foreign language. Furbish can also mean specifically to polish. In a continual state of furbish would be to make something bright by polishing or burnishing. Also, it can mean to improve the appearance or condition of something by renovating or restoring it.

So as long as a person is capable of self-renewal, they are a living being.     Henri Frederic Amiel

Over a year ago Nancy and I were driving north on one of the state highways in the suburbs of Atlanta and she spotted a yard sale. As often as I can, I try some sort of distraction in hopes she will miss it. This time it didn’t work. This particular sale appeared to be more of an estate sale and many items were old home furnishings like tables and chairs. Actually, since the children of the former homeowners were just trying to get rid of some things quickly, the prices were very low. Of course, that is how antique sellers make their good profits. She purchased several great items at very low prices including three small ladder-back cane bottom chairs at two dollars each. They looked like they had been outdoors for years. These chairs had weathered and the cane bottoms were worthless.

Here the leadership significance begins. A few weekends ago the three small chairs caught my eye. They had been outdoors at our house for another year after their purchase. They were discreetly tucked in by the fence, continuing their lonely survival in the rain, wind, snow, ice and sun. They each had aged even more, and the wicker bottoms had finally given up. With the weather at last shifting from cold to spring-like temperatures and the sun beaming, I couldn’t resist rescuing the chairs.

I sensed the shop in my backyard was laughing at me, as the door was unlocked after many months. To know me is to know my aptitude towards accidents, destruction, breakage and really messing things up in the world of construction. Giftedness for me lies more in demolition and coaching people. However, sanding a few little chairs is a mindless task and very inviting on occasion. Carefully, the wicker bottoms had to be cut away and discarded. Sanding and smoothing the chairs was almost magical. Their appearances were more adolescent now than old and weathered. The sanding took an hour or so for each, but the fun part started as bright pastels were selected, also known at our house as “beach colors,” and I began to transform the chairs. Coat after thin coat brought dazzling smoothness to each chair. From a distance, they seemed brand new and revitalized. A closer look, revealed some aging, but now in more of a dignified way.

Now, for a new assignment, these chairs no longer would be sat upon. As their “refurbisher” and as their coach, they were newly appointed to be plant stands. That’s right, indoor or outdoor bright and happy holders of plants. Nancy placed a round basket-like planter in the bottoms of each chair, secured them, and a rebirth had occurred for some old, tired, worn and useless little ladder-back chairs. For the professional refinisher this would have been an assignment for the more menial employee. But, when viewed from a therapeutic vantage point, the chair experience was more than menial, rather, it was especially rewarding.

Two of the chairs seemed to roughly, no pun intended, be the same age. They appeared to be twenty to thirty years old. However, the third chair seemed to be very old. I am not sure exactly, but the supports and rounded dowels looked as if they were planed by hand. It had some wormholes in it, as well. This particular chair took me twice as long to sand and it still showed signs of age when completed. The character of the chair was especially dignified and its markings would make one think of many, many years of service possibly:

  1. On a front porch
  2. In a small kitchen
  3. In a bedroom
  4. Maybe at a game table
  5. Outside under a tree
  6. Maybe near a fireplace

Wherever and however it served the owner-family, it had earned its marks well, I’m sure. The other two chairs were faithful additions to a home, as well, but this old one had really given its efforts and wore the indentions to prove it. To now be a freshly painted, new version of its former self was especially rewarding.

What leadership lessons were learned?

  1. Chronological age or tenure can insure or prohibit effectiveness. It can insure effectiveness as long as a leader gets some continual learning in place, some good coaching or is willing to reinvent himself through introspection and self-study.
  2. One’s potential could be fully discovered by an outside observer, executive coach, a trusted advisor or a committed mentor. As the chairs were rescued, and then seen to have future value, in a new version of them,so must the leader discover ways to overcome their present state or slipping effectiveness.
  3. Old ways of seeing things can be challenged by a coach a certain “ways of being” can be contrasted with “impossible futures.” Leaders, and their coaches, must step back away from former winning strategies and honestly, with an unbiased examination, consider what new versions could emerge from this clear look. As the old chair became a planter, should the leader consider becoming something else?
  4. Tired and worn ideas with comparable strategies could hinder leadership breakthroughs that bring exceptional results. As a leader must take a look within themselves with no predisposition, so should their ideas, plans, present management tactics and business practices. As the chairs were salvaged, scraped and sanded, so should a leader’s past practices be confronted. Current strategies should be forced to fight for their lives and prove themselves. Executive coaching specified accountability within a work team or from a close friend may be a helpful step.
  5. Executive re-invention takes unbiased coaching with no politicized agendas to overcome deeply entrenched former approaches. Re-invention includes several steps:
    1. A leadership assessment and, possibly, a 360-degree assessment
    2. Willingness of the leader to look for a new version of themselves through coaching
    3. Time away from the daily routine for introspection, soul searching and even revitalization through intentional downtime
    4. Plainly set milestones with intermediate achievable smaller goals
    5. Some unmistakably stated boundaries by the leader and the coach so that stretch goals will not seem too personal and too painful as the process unfolds

The chair metaphor breaks down in a few ways. The chairs were purchased against their will, of course, they don’t have a will, and an executive leader must consent to reinvention and a new examination of their present reality. Without willingness to change no leader will be able to cross over from their present state of being into a new ideal future state. Also, chairs do not have self-awareness, yet, any person who wants to develop starts with awareness that there is a need to improve. If where one leads and how one leads seems to be okay, then that is probably where they will stay. Only through some discomfort, changing effectiveness or the need to change occurs, like termination or loss of the job itself by closure or acquisition, will most people enter in to the state of refurbishing and renewing their acumen and selves. Normally, it takes crisis to force someone to change or examine new possibilities. Crises can range from general stress, termination, company closure or acquisition, or mere restlessness.

The take-away from this article is this: are you where you want to be? Are you who you want to be? Are there clearly set goals to frame the journey that is before you to become the ideal version of yourself? When will you begin the self-examination? Will you consider an executive coach? It is certain that without a beginning point, a first step, re-invention only eludes you. Maybe this chair story was intended specifically for you. Why not start your journey now?

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