The work of counseling, coaching and teaching people – asking them to take ownership of their growth and calling them to become more for the world – could be likened to the art of whittling wood. Yes, wood carving. It is work that requires patience, precision, and humility.
Whittling requires patience because it is a tedious activity; hundreds of cuts and notches must be made before the final creation is in hand. It calls for precision because an etch against the grain can result in irreparable damage. And humility is needed because the piece of art has a way of challenging the artist to discover and change along with it.
When you glimpse into a person’s life – whether viewing from the outside or trusted to witness the intimate struggle within – you may find yourself looking at something that seems quite rough and ugly. A wedge of wood with a good number of nicks in it. But, you are really seeing a life in the works, an unshapely chunk of timber ready to be carved into something striking. Potential, either eagerly waiting to reveal itself or stubbornly, even fearfully, hiding.
The first stages in the exercise of people-whittling may be difficult, involving a forceful, though collaborative, chipping away of unwanted large bits by mallet and chisel. Or, if individuals are not ready for such vigor, together you may simply trace light pencil marks upon them, suggesting where the scores can be made when they are willing. At this critical stage, you must be able to discern what kind of cuts the wood can handle. And, you must let them choose what shape they will start to take. What looks to you to be a woodpecker in the making, for sure, may turn out to be a jet plane. Ultimately, they decide who they will be.
If cuts come too quickly or too harshly, individuals can pull back from the process altogether, choosing to safely remain as they are, rough and unshaped. In the worst cases, they may decide to take up space as unprofitable blocks of timber forever.
For this reason, whittling – especially at the beginning – takes an extra measure of finesse and care. It is not light work; rather, it is a task to approach with seriousness. But, don’t worry! The solemnity is far surpassed by the wonder, delight and laughter one experiences while watching the unveiling of each individual’s true personhood and purpose.
At the start, you may have to look hard to see beauty in the chunk of wood before you – the “artwork to be” held within each person. If you believe, you will see treasure, even if the individual cannot. You will catch the vision and be gladdened as you watch each person becoming. You will enjoy working on and with individuals, soon finding that they work on you too, carving away at your rough edges and influencing what you are becoming.
Sometimes you will encounter individuals who are farther along in the process. They are awkwardly taking shape, surrounded by a jumble of curled wood shavings. Though messy, it is not hard to see the miracle of what they are becoming. Enjoy the moments you get to witness and participate in their refining; cherish the moments when they contribute to your own.
Rarely, you will come across a person who has been chiseled so much by life experience that they are really something quite delicate and beautiful. Wooden ballerinas twirling on slender legs; wooden butterflies with paper-thin wings; worn wooden hands that appear almost life-like. Hundreds of lines show where the carving knife has molded them. Your work with these special individuals is to smooth and perfect, using gentle force. They may rub off on you more than you do on them.
Trapped in this artful analogy…we all start out as a lump of wood. Then, if we are willing, we are slowly, and often painfully, whittled into a masterpiece.
As we do this work of people-whittling, let us not lose touch with the realness of our own transformation, complete with its deep aches and joys. And let us not miss the opportunity to be amazed at the gift we have to carve, and be carved by, others. For without this gift, we could not become something uniquely incredible for the world.
To improve your skills of helping to shape others’ exercise of leadership through coaching, you can join us at KLC’s Coaching to Make Progress workshop.
Sheersty Stanton is a Kansas Leadership Center alum. She is currently pursuing a master’s degree in family therapy from Friends University.