KarenPery.com | Leadership: Tough Love or Unconditional Love?
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Karen Pery on stage with Karen Davis at the Reinventing Yourself Weekend

Leadership: Tough Love or Unconditional Love?

How do you learn to lead?

I offer words of encouragement and caution to students at every training: learning must be integrated to become valuable.

How many conferences have you attended, returning home with a binder full of wisdom, and three or six months later, realize you’ve done nothing new or different?

If you aren’t seeing a return on the investment of your resources (time, money, and energy), look at how you are taking what you learn and making it your own.

To take it a step further, I’d like to suggest this: the conditions in which you learn are just as important – if not more – than the takeaways and will leave a more lasting imprint.

I want to talk about two different kinds of leadership learning models and their short- and long-term impact on me.

But I also don’t want to talk about it because of what I had to learn the hard way.

Model One: Tough Love

I’ll start by saying there was a lot of good in this leadership program.

I met AMAZING people who inspire me daily. I gained both confidence and support to take risks in changing my business which made it (and me) exponentially more meaningful, profitable, and fun. I grew an incredible network.

I learned to trust my gut and my heart along with my brain which helps me navigate through my world as a leader.

Above all else, I came to appreciate myself for who I AM more than for what I DO.


But as I look back, I can’t land on the origin of my issues with the program.

Was it that I was seeking approval and found a program I thought would give me the “official” stamp and guarantee?

Was I so enamored of the program’s graduates and their positive outcomes, personally and professionally – and had I mistakenly attributed who whey were with their affiliation to the program?

Did I skip the step of asking myself “is this right for me?”

Could I have waited out my nerves and excitement and sat with the idea of attending instead of rushing to secure my seat? (Note: anytime you feel rushed to make a decision, check out if the pressure is FOMO or a scare tactic from the person asking you to decide or … basically anything motivated by fear and then get really curious about your fears. Don’t let fear drive the bus.)

Given who I was at the time it seemed right. How could I have known?

I was intrigued by the relative secrecy around the container of the program. Its graduates belonged to a seemingly elite and exclusive society which suggested a Fight Club air of “The first rule of [Leadership Program] is: you don’t talk about [Leadership Program].” A path to self-mastery held under a veil of rites and rituals known only to its graduates was super intriguing. Of course I said yes. I wanted was desperate to be initiated into the cadre.

Beneath the perceived smoke and mirrors were moments of beauty.

The material was rich.

I validated how the “secrets” added to the learning for each participant because if you knew the “secrets” in advance, you’d be overthinking the exercises designed to reveal your leadership strengths.

You can’t go into the game already knowing how to solve the puzzles.

Beneath the beauty was an ugliness I can’t stomach.

There were unplanned, off-curriculum activities that, upon reflection, make me feel like I was re-enacting the grisly bits of Lord of the Flies.

I feel a healthy amount of shame for participating in the groupthink instead of standing up for what was right.

Casual interactions took place between participants and the leaders which I’d now consider within the realm of #MeToo; I was willing to swallow my pride (and only my pride for what it’s worth) and look the other way because I was in the favor of the The Guy In Charge. Because he liked me, I had greater opportunities, more focused attention and with that a higher level of visibility. I believed his endorsement would benefit my career.

Never again.

On our last day, we were invited to meet with the leaders of the program 1:1 to bring up any last-minute issues and concerns with our leadership.

When I brought mine to The Guy in Charge, his response was: “I feel sorry for you.”

He went on to reflect that after a year in this program, I was still facing the same self-imposed obstacles that had me enroll in the program. Sarcastically, he wished me good luck with leading in the future given how little I’d changed. I obviously hadn’t taken the program seriously nor paid enough attention to what was happening in the classroom to become the leader I wanted to be  … and that was on me.


I left deflated.

It took me years before I could voice how angry I was. Even now, I have to consciously separate the good from the bad. I keep my focus on the positive, otherwise the emotional scars flare up and I forget who and what I am right now and how much I’ve grown. I am kind to myself when I notice my critical self-judgements and I find compassion for the person I was and the regrettable choices I made.

You force yourself to do the hard thing under challenging circumstances because it’s supposed to be good for you in the long run. You endure harsh treatment to gain resilience. You leave with battle scars, and those scars are intended to build character. It hurts, that’s why it’s called tough love.

There’s got to be a better way.

Model Two: Unconditional Love

Many years later, I was invited to facilitate a learning circle at the Reinventing Yourself Weekend in Denver, Colorado. Gary had facilitated a circle at the prior year’s conference, and couldn’t make the dates for this one, recommending me in his place. We’re not usually interchangeable, but for this it worked.

Gary’s recommendation granted me privilege. I quickly got to know the other facilitators who knew of me through my business partner. I was welcomed as a colleague and friend immediately with nothing to prove and no status to earn.

The weekend was hosted and led by the Godfather of Coaching, you’ve probably seen his books on every bookstore’s self-help and personal growth shelf, Steve Chandler, along with Executive Coach and intuitive powerhouse, Karen Davis and former Buddhist monk turned coach and author, Alex Mill.

Karen framed the weekend for us. There would be coaches and lay people attending, most all were there as fans of Steve’s work.

All the facilitators were life coaches, and we were given one instruction upon arrival:


Our job was to create a safe and inviting space for reflection and connection.

We were not to lead the participants towards anything in particular.

It’s not how I usually go into a facilitation gig. Typically, I am driving towards an outcome on behalf of my client, whether that’s giving a team an experience of solving problems together to translate into their day to day or provoking deep conversations so that they access the ability to communicate with greater vulnerability. This approach was bewildering to me.

I was open…and baffled.

What’s it like to have no pressure to perform?

Well, it’s actually quite pleasant. I’d even call it refreshing.   

(And still as I’m typing this, my forehead is scrunched up into a question mark, mystified by how and why this actually worked?)

Throughout the weekend, sessions with Steve included his signature talk on the Ladder of Consciousness and the Owner vs. Victim Distinction. Everything he presented came through his grandfatherly wisdom and corny jokes. (For an insight into Chandler’s seminal Reinventing Yourself, click here for a 13 minute video from Philosopher’s Notes.)

I took notes intently, as much on the content as the impact of how Steve filled the room with his calm and joyful presence.

Reading my notes from the weekend, I honestly can’t distinguish what was said out loud from what I was inspired to write. It’s kind of crazy. Scrawled in the margins, I see versions of my future book title and company mission statement. At the time, I wasn’t actively “trying” to create these. Crazy good!

I was relaxed and happy. I dozed off during meditation, which I shared, embarrassed, with Alex the former monk. He responded in turn with a wink in his eye, “maybe you’re not used to letting yourself relax this much.”


I told a story about my kids and my former mommy blog to one of the other attendees during a break. She said I should write a book and not thirty-six hours later I began to outline it while sitting at the airport wine bar. Now I’m a published author!

The last note I wrote in the margins that weekend: create a world-class equestrian facility to explore intuition, leadership and horses.

If you’re selling tough love, I’m no longer in the market to acquire it.

The ability to heal and grow and create can come from force but it’s preferable to be loved and supported unconditionally.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not always the most kind to myself. I’ve long compared myself against ideas of how I’m supposed to be, completely lost to how and who I am.

I wonder how we can learn to be as gentle and compassionate with ourselves as we are with a new puppy? Consistent, affirming, redirecting – no, over here, no sweet precious thing, over here. No scolding.

Training does not need to induce fear or defensiveness.

Approach learning calm and relaxed, knowing it’s all going to work out, it’s all a phase, you’re doing fine, and you’ll get a metaphorical jackpot of treats at the end of the session. It now becomes instinctual to integrate the skills you are acquiring; there’s no reason to go backward if moving forward is positive and filled with rewards.

What if the answer to most problems isn’t fixing them but instead learning to be patient as we give ourselves time to allow our imagination to find a creative response?

I wrote something in There’s Got to Be a Better Way: An Overachiever’s Guide to Discovering Joy that requires an update.

If  Whenever you have a chance to choose love over fear, always choose love. It will change your life.”

It’s not if you can choose love over fear, it’s when.

It really will change your life.

It’s certainly changed mine.

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