Laura Crawshaw~ Ph.D.~ BCC's picture Submitted by Laura Crawshaw~... November 17, 2015 - 1:04pm

My mission as an executive coach is to relieve suffering in the workplace caused by abrasive leaders.   

As I read this, I realize that I may be giving the mistaken impression that I aspire to be the Mother Theresa of executive coaching, which is not the case. I don’t do what I do because I am divinely inspired or in the least bit noble. It’s my parents’ fault—I blame them. Too often parents are blamed for everything that we don’t like about ourselves, but I am pleased to blame my parents for teaching me that the most important use of one’s life lies in helping others. I learned about suffering from my psychiatrist father and hospital volunteer mother –not at their hands but through their hearts and eyes. I was blessed with a safe, loving home and only encountered suffering as I ventured out into the wider world. 

Intent on becoming a psychiatrist, I embarked on a premed track in college. As I wrestled with my courses, it gradually dawned on me that I was never going to succeed as a physician because, frankly, I didn’t have the patience or interest to memorize every bone, sinew, and organ of the human anatomy. I figured it would be pretty unethical to even consider the practice of medicine if I wasn’t willing to memorize everything (“I’m sorry sir, but I’m hesitant to remove your appendix because I never bothered to learn what it’s connected to”). I wanted to study psyche, not physique, and was fortunate enough to discover that I could become a psychotherapist without pursuing a medical degree. So I abandoned my medical pretensions and instead pursued a degree in clinical (or what was then called psychiatric) social work. 

Degree in hand, I moved to Seattle with the plan of paying my dues by working in respected settings and eventually opening a private practice to treat emotionally disturbed children. After two years of seeing patients in a community mental health clinic and working nights as an emergency room social worker in a major trauma center, I experienced two revelations. First, I realized that if I were to become a private practitioner, I would have to sit in a room, inside, all day, every day. The prospect of being cooped up in the same clinical office every day made me want to flee. Second, it became clear to me that Seattle was overrun with psychotherapists—I’d have to wait until a fair number of them dropped dead before I could have any hope of opening a viable practice. I’m not the deathwatch type, and beyond this, I was (and still am) a total tourist—I lusted to explore the wider world beyond the four walls of a clinical office. So I heeded the call of the wild, purchased a ferry ticket north to Alaska, and bolted. There were jobs aplenty in the Last Frontier, and who knew what other experiences awaited? 

Within a week of my arrival, I was hired as the first full-time clinician in the first stand-alone employee assistance program (EAP) in the state, embarking on the greatest adventures any tenderfoot clinician and future coach could hope for. EAPs provide confidential counseling services to employees and eligible family members experiencing problems in their personal or work lives.  

I was trucked up and down the Alaska pipeline in  –70°F (–21°C) temperatures to explain the benefits of EAP counseling to pump station employees and helicoptered out to Bering Sea drill rigs to deliver the same message to exhausted roustabouts. Back at the office igloo I counseled employees on the problems they experienced at work and home, learning that shooting a spouse’s sled dogs was a reliable indicator of marital distress in Alaska. Another indicator of marital peril lay in the discovery by one newlywed that her gun-loving, hard-drinking husband’s past two wives were buried on her new love’s wilderness homestead. I referred unwilling addicted air traffic controllers into substance abuse treatment and helped wildlife biologists cope with their fears of flying. It was truly the Last Frontier—right down to the guns. 

The guns? I encountered the guns in the course of my counseling work. The typical scenario consisted of a call from an employee for a same-day appointment because he (they were always men) “needed to talk to someone right away.” We took these quiet, urgent calls seriously, reshuffling our schedules for such sudden requests. I would find myself seated across from the client, who was usually withdrawn and obviously embarrassed to be sitting in a counselor’s office. My questions of “Could you tell me what’s going on? How can I help you?” would elicit a halting story of suffering. The suffering was inflicted by the employee’s boss, whose behavior could take many forms, such as tyrannical control or public humiliation of the employee. The variations never failed to amazed me, but the common theme was of abrasive behavior that had pushed the employee to the point of . . . what? To find the answer, I uttered the classic question: 

Counselor: And how does this make you feel? 
Employee: Like getting back at him. 
Counselor: Have you thought of how you would do that? 
Employee: Yeah. (An embarrassed silence.) With a gun. 
Counselor: Do you have a gun? 
Employee: Uh . . . yeah . . . out in my truck. That’s why I called you. 

The same pain that cut through me as a child when confronted with suffering  now sliced through my adult soul. This man was suffering—tormented by his impulses to silence his tormentor, shamed by his loss of control, and humiliated by his need to seek external restraint for his retaliatory impulses. He had reached the point where he saw his gun as his only remaining defense against his boss’s aggression. He was one of many, and as the arsenal in our office safe increased, I wondered how this could be happening. Having experienced good parents and good bosses, I was mystified—why would bosses brutalize their employees, and how could companies tolerate this infliction of suffering? What were the dynamics of aggression and defense that created such profound anguish? These questions set this boss whisperer on a journey to understand these unmanageable managers and learn how to tame their abrasive aggression. 

I’ve learned a lot from coaching over 400 abrasive leaders over the past thirty years: they have been my best teachers. I also made a lot of mistakes in the beginning, and I hope that the insights I’ve gained through my practice and research prove helpful to you. Please don’t hesitate to contact me at The Boss Whispering Institute ( if you have additional questions.  

Want more? Listen to Laura Crawshaw's CoachX podcast on Coaching the Abrasive Leader