“I like to challenge myself to take reasonable risks, and that can cause me to feel vulnerable,” says industrial-organizational psychologist Carol Lynn Courtney, Ph.D., a native of Buffalo, New York, whose leadership development and executive coaching business takes her throughout the country as well as to Ecuador, Turkey and elsewhere around the globe.
Placing herself in stressful and unfamiliar situations helps her better understand her clients, who include top leaders and mid-level managers in corporations, universities and nonprofits. “We ask people to change their behaviors every day,” says Courtney, president of Courtney Consulting Group in Minneapolis, “and that’s a scary thing for them.”
Courtney, 56, both busy and balanced — accomplished and yet accessibly down to earth —created a coaching model called “Life in the Center,” which she uses to guide her clients toward more integrated lives.
Recently, before her weekly saxophone lesson, she talked over a vegetarian dinner about how values and purpose, relationships, creativity, lifelong learning, purposeful investing, exercise and play all contribute to a vital and fulfilling career — as well as a meaningful life.
Why do you use the word integration rather than balance?
It’s not about life-work balance. You can never have life-work balance. A healthy life is about integrating all of your priorities and activities, and that practice may work differently on different days.
At my home office, for example, I can be writing a report and get up to play my sax for half an hour. That’s more difficult to do when I’m at my main office. Recently, I’ve tried to avoid scheduling any client meetings before 8:30 a.m. That allows me to exercise and meditate first thing in the morning, so when I show up for my clients, I am even more engaged.
I’m being intentional and deliberate: These practices are going to help me grow. The self-care and self-expression are just as important as the work I’m doing. In fact, they inform and improve the work. That’s why I call it life integration.
How does this play in the corporate world?
As an industrial psychologist, I’m dealing with the workplace and the challenges that my clients have at work. But I tell people that I work very holistically. There’s a vulnerability any time somebody puts themselves out there, to look at their work style, their strengths or blind spots. My clients’ work issues often have roots in other realms of their lives: physical, financial, emotional or social. Whether we like it or not, those issues can impact how we show up in the workplace.
You challenge yourself to “avoid becoming too comfortable or complacent.” Why continue to take risks at this stage of your life and career?
It keeps me honest. I ask my clients to do some pretty tough things. I could just say, “Well, go do this, make this change.” Instead I say: “You’re going to have to do this, and it’s going to be difficult. And you can get past the fear.”
At times, I’m scared when I get up onstage and play my saxophone — an instrument I didn’t pick up till my 40s — but once you do it, it’s like you’ve never been afraid. By doing the very thing that you’re nervous about, you get through it. You say: “OK, I did that. I accomplished that.” It’s a success, and not just from an ego point of view.
I find myself giggling and saying: How amazing! I was able to do this crazy thing — whether it was playing the sax with our band of I/O psychologists or bungee-jumping in South Africa or taking dance classes every week from a woman young enough to be my daughter.
You say that the decisions we make at midlife will affect the old age we’ll have. When did you recognize that in your own life?
Growing up, I was seeing people around me who gave up in their 40s, plus a lot of people in my family died in their 50s. Heart trouble, cancer, mental health issues — it’s all in my genes.
That impacted why I decided in college to become a vegetarian. I played sports during my undergraduate years at Wells, and only the salad bar would be left in the dining hall after soccer practice. I learned how to control the things I can: exercise, eating, emotional well-being.
Research now shows that if you hit age 50 without major health issues, you increase your chances to live to age 80. I see this with clients and the choices they make. Clients will say: “I’m going to retire and then travel.” Great! What kind of exercise are you doing? Because travel can be rigorous. I have experienced this firsthand.
My exercise — running, swimming, biking, kettlebell classes, kayaking, lifting weights — helps me play my sax better. Those practices aren’t distinct; they’re integrated.
How do the sax playing and the lessons at Zenon Dance Company up your game as an industrial psychologist?
The discipline I have in my work is the same discipline I bring to my sax playing and my other avocations. To play really well, you can’t be self-conscious. The more relaxed you are, the more in the moment you are, the better you’ll play. I’m still learning this.
Similarly, when I’m rolling around on the floor and jumping in dance classes with people 25 years younger than me, I have to trust my body. I have to let go! If you are nervous and your muscles tense up, you can’t move in a fluid way. As adults, we become more physically self-conscious. We brace ourselves when we think we are going to fall and end up becoming more vulnerable to getting hurt.
It’s a great analogy for life.
The work that I do coaching teams and executives on their performance is like music or dance or any physical exercise. Once you’ve mastered the foundational knowledge, it frees you up for the art of what you’re doing. I don’t sit there thinking: I’m using this theory. That’s second-nature by now. And so I’m free to work with the art of the person, to focus on the individual or team, and to see the nuances.
Learn more: To nominate yourself or someone else for a “5 Questions” interview in “The Middle Stages,” contact Amy Gage at firstname.lastname@example.org.