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  • Writer's pictureJason Griffing

The Whiner vs The Whisperer

Dealing with adversity is what defines great leadership. What voice is guiding you during difficult times?

Earlier this summer, I had the chance to spend a Saturday fly fishing on the South Platte River near the town of Deckers, CO. Located only an hour from the Denver metro area and holding very healthy trout populations, this stretch of water is a great place to fly fish. So I was very excited to go spend some time up there.

About 30-minutes into my morning, I succeeded in bringing my first fish to the net. It was a small brown trout, maybe ten or eleven inches at most, but it was enough to boost my confidence. I began to entertain thoughts of a highly productive day of fishing.

The trout, however, had other ideas. From that point on, Deckers began to live up to its reputation as a notoriously difficult place to catch fish. Fast forward about seven hours and my fish count for the day still stood at one. In fact, I hadn’t even gotten another bite. It was now around 1:30 pm. I had been fishing hard for the better part of eight hours with only a single fish to show for it. Even with my deep passion for simply being out there, I’d be lying if I said that I wasn’t growing frustrated.

Then, I made a mistake that every fly fisherman makes way more often than they’ll usually admit to. I got careless with my backcast and hopelessly tangled my leader in a bush behind me. Forget the peaceful, Zen-like experience most people associate with fishing. I was fuming. Taking one look at the mess, I knew right away my entire leader would have to be re-tied from scratch. Normally, this is a minor inconvenience. In my current state, however, it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.

An internal dialogue that had been slowly ramping up throughout the afternoon immediately began blaring full force in my head. “Pack it up, Jay! It’s not your day. Just give up and go home,” said the voice in my head. “You’re terrible at this. Cut your losses.”

Feeling dejected, I bought into this narrative and began the short walk back to my car. Thankfully, I had the presence of mind stop on the side of the river and try to chill out. Taking a few deep breaths, I noticed the sounds of birds chirping and the the river steadily flowing by me. I looked up at the surrounding mountains. I felt the breeze blowing on my face. In that fleeting moment of calm and clarity, I heard a second voice. This one much quieter than the one who had told me to go home. “Are you really done?” it asked. “Or are you’re letting your emotions get the best of you? Pony up. Push through. Keep fishing.”

I resolved to listen to this second voice. I re-rigged my leader and began fishing again. About fifteen minutes later, I finally succeeded in bringing another fish to the net. After taking a couple of pictures, I placed him back in the river and immediately broke down my gear and headed home. The decision was easy at that point—leave on a high note.

The Whiner vs The Whisperer

Fast forward a couple of weeks and I heard Alden Mills, a successful entrepreneur, leadership expert, and author, interviewed on a podcast. He spoke about a concept that really resonated with me. He called it “The Whiner vs the Whisperer”. This mental model describes a conflict that goes on inside all of us between two competing voices anytime we are faced with adversity. It describes perfectly what had taken place that afternoon in Deckers and is a concept we can all use to become stronger humans and better leaders.

The Whiner, in Mills’ model, represents the negative internal dialogue we all battle with. It’s the voice that gets in our ear the second we are faced with something difficult or uncomfortable. It was the Whiner who had told me to quit fishing and go home. In a leadership context, it’s the voice that tells you:

  • You’re not capable.

  • You don’t belong here.

  • You don’t have what it takes.

  • Your fear is a sign of weakness.

  • Your shortcomings are something to be ashamed of.

On the other hand, you have the Whisperer. This is the voice that comes from down deep, from our hearts. It’s the voice that told me to keep fishing that afternoon in Deckers. As leaders, it’s the voice that tells us:

  • Dig deep.

  • It’s ok to be scared and uncertain.

  • Keep pushing through the pain.

  • You’ve got this.

The Whisperer knows that discomfort and frustration are necessary for growth. He knows that facing our fear of rejection, failure, and embarrassment is a prerequisite to reaching our true potential. The challenge, as the the name implies, is that the Whisperer goes about his work quietly. It is up to us to learn how to listen.

It starts, of course, with awareness. But once we become aware, how do we put this knowledge into practice? First, stop resisting. The Whiner is incessant. The temptation to try and silence him will always be there. But the harder you resist, the louder he gets. Instead, accept that the Whiner is part of the human condition, part of your neural circuitry. You don’t have to buy into his narrative. Instead, allow it and move on.

Next, learn to pause. In order to hear what the Whisperer is telling you during difficult times, you have to create the quiet needed to hear him. “Take a deep breath” is clichéd because it works. In meditation, this practice is known as creating space between stimulus and response. It can happen in an instant if you consciously and deliberately practice. And there is plenty of research to suggest that the ability to pause, to not get swept away by knee-jerk emotion, is a muscle you can build.

It’s important to remember that leading is relatively easy when the sailing is smooth. But smooth seas do not make for skillful sailors. The real test arrives when we face difficulty or adversity. These are the moments that that separate good leaders from bad and great leaders from good. We face demanding stakeholders, impossible deadlines, difficult teammates, upset customers, last-minute requests, conflicting priorities, and competitive pressure. We battle with frustration, self-doubt, fear, and confusion. And through it all, the people you lead are looking at you. They are watching everything you say. Every action you take. The question becomes—in these moments, what will drive your actions? The Whiner? Or the Whisperer? The choice is yours.

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