Take me to your leaders.
About four years ago, sitting around a polished conference table with some of Sarasota's top media insiders, business leaders and attorneys, I noticed many of them were speaking in a clunky, Orwellian version of English Words and phrases such as "creating a new paradigm," "partnering," "using a new technology" and "This is how you're landing on me (or occurring for me)" came up again and again. I felt bewildered and a bit offended. Why were these smart and successful people not only abusing the language, but excluding those of us who weren't privy to the new vocabulary?
I wasn't the only one having that experience. As I bumped into more and more of this jargon, I heard from others that they were running into it as well -- at charity luncheons in Michael's On East's ballroom, at business meetings, on the weight machines at the downtown Y. And those who were using it seemed to share other secrets, too. The language, the knowing glances, the enthusiastic nods at the mention of certain names -- it all seemed like signals between cadets in a mysterious cadre. It was a phenomenon that some people exclaimed was invading Sarasota, enlisting -- "brainwashing" said others -- many of the town's "who's who." People such as Diane McFarlin and Lynn Matthews, executive editor and publisher, respectively, of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune; Jean Weidner, chairman of the board of the Sarasota Ballet; Marjorie North, the newspaper's social columnist; Michael Klauber, owner of Michael's On East; architect Carl Abbott; YMCA president and CEO Carl Weinrich; developer Bob Morris, president of Ramar; and Don Roberts, executive director of Goodwill, are just a few of the local notables who have gone through training by Atlanta-based Jan Smith & Associates, which conducts Leadership Intensive seminars, and more recently, Sarasota-based Tesserack.
What are these companies? Basically, they are personal growth and development businesses offering seminars that hundreds, maybe thousands, of people in Sarasota have taken, starting back in 1986. Most graduates say they teach "powerful," "transforming," and "life-saving" techniques that quickly and simply show people how to live life more fully, whether it's in relationships with children, a spouse, the workplace or just with oneself. The seminars are about effective communication and helping people unveil the "real" self. They are also about becoming a better leader. For many, these seminars are a welcome relief from long-term therapy that might get to the bottom of your feelings but never shows you how to change your life.
But there are detractors who feel the seminars are expensive, flaky, New Age feel-good sessions for lightweight minds or even downright destructive eat-like therapy cults led by untrained people. Some people say Leadership Intensive and Tesserack are responsible for the break-up of marriages and for "deconstructing" people and not building them back up. "The leaders sit up there telling everyone who they are and what they should be -- it's an ego trip," said one Sarasota psychiatrist who has patients who have taken the seminars. "And it can be very dangerous if you push people who can't handle it too far."
The truth, of course, is that the courses are whatever people have experienced -- for some an event so traumatic that they've gone into therapy to deal with the resulting turmoil; for others positive, self-affirming breakthroughs they say have made them the happiest they've ever been in their lives. For still others -- as with this writer -- it was an experience less dramatic, less life-altering, and yet, on balance, something to grow from.
Whatever they are, these seminars have sparked heated debate and intense curiosity throughout Sarasota. People are dumb-founded when they hear the list of Sarasota movers and shakers who have done the training and curious about the two leaders who built the seminars into such a small-town phenomenon: Jan Smith and Dale Townsend. (Former partners, the two recently split, and many of their former customers are now divided into separate, and often fiercely partisan, camps.) Who are they? Where did they come from? And how did they turn some executive training classes in hotel meeting rooms into a whole new lifestyle for many of their clients -- and a lucrative business for themselves?
Jan Smith, the founder of leadership Intensive, is a voluptuous, attractive 47-year-old who has made her living for 10 years from personal growth and development work. Smith is based in Atlanta but periodically returns to Sarasota to work with former clients and enlist trainees for new seminars. Her friends, and most people who have taken her seminars, describe her as extremely charismatic, larger than life and insightful. Some people even insist she is gifted with extra-sensory powers.
When I talked to her, however, in her plush Atlanta condominium (Elton John lives in one of the units above her), Smith came across as gracious, vulnerable -- and nervous. In her luxurious, cream-colored apartment, surrounded by glass objets d'art, Greco-Roman columns and ethnic artwork, Smith, who was dressed in flowing, silky clothing, confessed she is wary of publicity and afraid that people who have not done the training may not understand her.
In fact, not being understood seems to have been the bane of her childhood and the source of her talents. A missionary doctor's adopted daughter, Jan spent the first 10 years of her life in Ethiopia. She says she always felt like an outcast, first from her family and then from the culture around her. Her father was Haile Selassie's personal physician; she grew up in a compound of Westerners but played with African children. "We couldn't speak the same language, but I could understand them," she says. Often language only gets in the way of communication, she asserts, since "hearing what is not said" can be more important. That's an ability, which, from all accounts, she has an uncanny knack for and on which she has built her business and reputation.
When her family moved back to the States, 10-year-old Jan didn't fit into American culture, either. She'd never seen TV or a stoplight. At school, she was the last child picked in gym class, partly because of the thick orthopedic shoes she had to wear. She says she was dyslexic and so self-conscious that she always wore turtlenecks to hide the splotches that discolored her neck whenever anyone spoke to her. "It was painful not to fit in," she said several times during the interview, "to be misunderstood." Perhaps that's why "I began to hear into life, really observing, and I began to observe pretense at a very early age."
Her official entry into the human potential movement came in her 30s. She's reluctant to talk about what came before this period. She grew ill at ease and even evasive when I asked about her academic credentials or marriages. She did say that although she was a home economics major in college (she refused to name the school), "I was majoring in getting a husband." After school, she drifted along through three marriages and short careers in selling furniture and art. She was living in Atlanta when she met her third husband, yacht broker Mike Smith, and got involved with Werner Erhard, the charismatic, controversial founder of est. The three were personal friends and Jan and her husband were trained by the est organization to help conduct seminars.
Est was famous for the intense, confrontational nature of its sessions. Furiously energetic trainers would confront people over and over about what they called their dead-end thinking, hammering away at the message that they, rather than their upbringing or circumstances, were responsible for everything in their lives. The trainees were often treated like hostages, not allowed to leave the meeting room even for the bathroom while the trainers harangued and screamed, often pushing people to tears.
Est was succeeded by something called the "Forum," basically a kinder, gentler version of est. Jan became the national director for training and one of the top seminar leaders for the Forum, and she and her third husband also started a management consulting business, offering seminars in Sarasota on such subjects as time management.
Sherry Watts, today well-known in Sarasota for her support of Girls' Inc., met Jan in 1985 at a Forum seminar. And it was Sherry, many people say, who started the ball rolling for Jan in Sarasota. Sherry was coming to terms with the sexual abuse she says she suffered as a child and Jan, she says, was "a guide," someone who saw a future for her that was much larger than she ever dreamed of for herself. Sherry was also doing work with Dale Townsend, the founder of Tesserack. In the mid-'80s, Dale was doing massage, Rolfing, and some counseling -- in fact, Sherry says, she was using him as a counselor. Dale and Jan didn't know each other yet, but he was eventually to become Jan's partner.
Dale Townsend is a tall, handsome 51-year-old with a velvety voice. (A number of women I spoke with think he's incredibly sexy.) Sarasotans seeking massage and various kinds of alternative body work and therapy have long heard of him. He calls himself a "pioneer" who has always been interested in the cutting edge of new body/mind techniques. A minister's son, he grew up in western Pennsylvania and became interested in the budding human potential movement in the '60s, studying at Esalen with trailblazing psychologists such as Carl Rogers and in Colorado at the Rolfing Institute. He received his M.A. and his Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh's department of counseling education. Although the department doesn't exist any more, at that time it trained graduates to practice mental health counseling in institutions, schools and in private practices.
Dale is not a licensed psychologist in the state of Florida, although he plans to apply for a Florida license. He says he considers what he does "education," but the state disagrees. Dale has been admonished by the state to "cease and desist" practicing counseling twice since 1990; and one of his former clients, who is also a graduate of a Tesserack program, has filed a complaint with the Department of Professional Regulation (DPR), claiming Dale practices psychology without a license.
Earlier in his career, however, Dale says he was the chief psychologist at a mental rehabilitative institute in Pittsburgh. He was also a teacher, a full-time Rolfer and, after he moved to Sarasota in 1972, he says he flew all over the country as a "therapists' therapist." He is married to Jaime Wallace, a Sarasota attorney practicing family law, and has no children. In 1982 Dale says he "burned out," and began practicing real estate and opened an investment firm. When his name comes up, some people remember that he voluntarily surrendered his real estate license in 1987 after being accused of fraud by a California woman who was investing in Florida real estate.
Today Dale says that was an expensive lesson. "Everyone makes mistakes," he says. "I was involved with this woman before I got married, and when she found out I had no intention of marrying her, she stopped making her payments. For a while I made them, until she owed me $36,000 in back mortgage payments and improvements on property. My attorney told me to stop making payments. I stand by my integrity. I was trying to protect my investors. I walked out with nothing." In 1986, he began his massage and counseling practice once more.
The first time I met him, Dale seemed a bit edgy, but once he sat down, he began to talk easily in his peculiar convoluted syntax. He absolutely loves to talk (it can be hard to stop him) and, like Jan, he tends to talk in the catchphrases Leadership Intensive is famous for.
By no stretch of the imagination does he come across as a stuffy, pipe-smoking Ph.D. He appears open, unguarded and unusually sensitive (twice during the interview his eyes welled up with tears -- once when he talked about the deep, loving conversations he and his father had in the days before his father died; and once when he described relief work in Miami in the aftermath of Hurricane Andrew). Yet it's hard to grasp the nature of the man; he seems elusive; and it's difficult to see what is underneath the surface.
Dale says he met Jan after his wife took Leadership Intensive "and I could see that it was real effective." His client Sherry Watts was just as enthusiastic, and Dale says they both began to "feed" clients and friends to the course. "Sherry and I built the practice," he says. Dale took the course in March 1990, and he says he believed so much in the work of Leadership Intensive that he became Jan's business partner and worked with Jan for three years, from 1990 through 1992.
But the relationship began to fray. In 1993, Dale filed a suit alleging that Jan was stealing from the company. Court documents show that Jan countersued, claiming that Dale had been her counselor from 1990 to 1992 during the painful breakup of her marriage and she had become "emotionally dependent on him." She alleged that he gave her an ultimatum in 1991 that "she either sign over half of her business to him or else he would no longer assist her." She charged that Dale had told her he was a "financial genius," had an "impeccable reputation" and intimated that he was a licensed psychologist. Dale says all of that is "bullshit" and Jan was not a "helpless little girl" when the two signed on as partners. "Everything was out in the open," he says.
The lawsuits were eventually settled out of court. To many who were used to working with them as a team, the split felt like a gut-wrenching divorce, and it divided many of the graduates into bitter camps initially. Today, Jan and Dale -- who evidently still think alike when it comes to language -- will only say that they "think forwardly" of each other and "empower" each other.
In the beginning, however, the pair complemented each other, many course alumni say, becoming a powerful duo. Both were almost frighteningly insightful ("she could guess the type of car you drove," said one graduate), but Jan was more streetwise, theatrical and confrontational and interested in how individuals could improve society. Dale seemed to excel at reading body language and was more interested in people's "spiritual" development.
Together, they packed hotel conference rooms full of Sarasota's most successful people. And they did this without any advertising whatsoever. When graduates are asked how they heard about the seminars, almost without fail they mention friends or business acquaintances.
What was so powerful and contagious about the seminars? People who have taken the course say it was a different way of viewing the world, a way of removing their defenses so that they could stop walking around in fear or pretense -- a way to unzip the "frogsuit," as Jan would say in Leadership speak. A way to "reprogram" their bad habits and negative thinking. Still, graduates' descriptions of the course were often vague and full of jargon, leaving the questioner still puzzled about what actually went on during a seminar.
Some graduates were so gung ho that people felt as if they were being besieged by Jehovah's Witnesses. ("There was a lot of proselytizing in the beginning," admits one alumnus. "It was sort of like coming out of a great movie and wanting all your friends to go see it.") An air of mystery surrounded Leadership Intensive, mystery that helped fuel the skepticism and interest of those who hadn't taken the course. "I'm curious about it," admits one Sarasota therapist, who has had several patients come to her after the course. "I have patients who felt damaged by it, and then I know people who say they are extremely happy."
"Leadership Intensive is a course, a process, a conversation to help you get in touch with your real feelings and the things you're afraid of," says Sarasota attorney Dan Dannheisser, who got involved with Leadership Intensive in 1990 and met his wife there. "It helps you clean up those things that are holding you back."
"It's a tool, a threshold, a door opening about how you run your life," says design consultant Keith Westerberg, who took the course when his girlfriend was diagnosed with what eventually became terminal cancer several years ago. "It's a way to continue the exploration of yourself. It's not the only way to do this work, but it's a very accelerated way to do it."
When it started, Leadership Intensive offered a menu of courses, including a weekend orientation; "graduate" seminars on relationships and communication and a year-long course called "Forward Thinking." These courses were not cheap. The weekend orientation cost anywhere from $1,100 to $1,500, and according to financial statements filed with the Sarasota courts in 1993, participants paid $22,500 for the year-long course. (Today Jan says her new "Future Thinking" course costs the same and lasts three years.) Quite a few couples took "Forward Thinking" together, so some Sarasota families were investing $45,000 of their annual income in the experience.
Those prices outraged some people, like Brad Rawling, an experimental filmmaker, who says he was kicked out of the basic course on the first day after challenging Jan and Dale. He says he can understand making a profit, but considering that the costs of the year-long course, for example, are basically the leaders' time and the rental of the hotel room, he asks, "Why should it cost what an Isuzu Trooper costs?"
"I don't have a problem charging what I do," responds Jan. "I can't be everything to all people." Besides, she adds, "The course really shouldn't cost people anything. They should see an increase in their income and in their time off."
Since the beginning, the seminars have been part lecture, part inspirational videos, part question-and-answer sessions between leader and student. However, the largest impact in the orientation course almost always came from the videotapes.
The course was done in three days, and although the approach has changed over the last nine years, much is still the same. On Day One, the participants were videotaped standing in front of the group while answering questions about themselves: name, profession, education and leadership roles, mostly. On Day Two, the tapes were played back and the group offered feedback, telling the person in the spotlight how they came across -- what their "act" was that was hiding the real person. In Leadershipspeak, the group would "call you on your shit." On Day Three, the group suggested ways each individual could be more effective in life. In the early days of the course, hair, make-up and clothes consultants came in to re-make the new person. Today, participants are videotaped on the last day, wearing their new persona.
Lots of training programs, from executive business school programs through est, have utilized videotaping as a way to show people how they come across. As recent Leadership graduate Diane McFarlin, executive editor of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, says, "It's quite enlightening to hear how other people perceive you. I was perceived as an ice maiden, and I always thought of myself as being open and warm." McFarlin, who took a course with publisher Lynn Matthews and 10 of the newspaper's department heads, says it's been very worthwhile, both for the newspaper and for her personally. "We all got to know each other better," she says. "We are talking for the first time."
As Westerberg says more bluntly, "When one person tells you that you're arrogant, you can say, `well, f--y--.' If 15 people are saying you come across that way, you have to sit back and think."
Perhaps one of the secrets of Leadership Intensive's success is that it tapped into the vulnerabilities of successful business people. Many have built careers on others seeing them as strong, invincible, confident, analytical and emotionless. Though that's their image, they all know that the reality is somewhat different, and that no matter how confident and polished they seem, they have many moments of self-doubt and insecurity. To sit in a room with other highly successful people -- a peer group they admire and feel comfortable with -- and talk about the difference between "their act" and their true inner selves was probably cathartic and liberating. "We all have a kind of shell we ensconce ourselves in," says Jean Weidner, the elegant board chairman of the Sarasota Ballet. "It's a kind of prison, really. I was afraid to let people see my deep sensitivity because I thought they would think I couldn't lead. I could have been a dead thing in time. This saved my life."
Perhaps the real brilliance of Smith and Townsend was in seeing that business leaders represented an untapped -- and well-heeled -- market for that kind of personal growth. And the course was packaged in an acceptable way for even the most uptight of such people -- it was all about business and success, not therapy!
Ramar's Bob Morris, of Sarasota, who is one of Tan Smith's best friends, says it's not surprising successful people were attracted to the courses. "Successful people are always looking to improve themselves," he says. "They have an insatiable appetite to grow." Of course, he says, there are also "group junkies," people who go from one course to the next looking for answers, people who just need to belong. But, he warns, "It's not a place to put your life together. You should not take it if you're teetering on the brink; you should be looking to enhance."
There are plenty of other theories about why people seem drawn to the courses. * "It's the spiritual void we feel in our lives today," said a Sarasota writer and county planner. * "It's the coming of the new century," said another friend. "People see the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, Nelson Mandela in power in South Africa and they believe there is a radically new life waiting out there for anyone with the guts to seize it." * "It's just part of a continuum of the self-help, positive-thinking movement," said another. * "Of course, successful people would do the course," said another. "It's way too expensive for unsuccessful people to do it."
Although most of the people interviewed were very positive about the benefits -- "People say I'm a disciple, and I am," says Herald-Tribune columnist Marjorie North -- there are those who have mixed or angry feelings about Leadership Intensive and its leaders.
Sarasota actress and director Carolyn Michel says she took the course three years ago on the recommendation of a friend and thought she was walking into a leadership training seminar. Instead, what she found was more like extremely confrontational group therapy. After the group berated her for wearing a hat they felt was "silly" and then accused her of constructing an inappropriately youthful and arty persona and then told her she was "inappropriately" angry about the criticisms, Michel says she became deeply depressed and had to seek therapy. "The scary part is that they (Jan and Dale) haven't been trained and don't realize the consequences," she says. "There's no follow-up system. They break people down but they don't patch you up. They tried, but I was too deconstructed."
Another woman, who wanted to remain anonymous, says she and her husband, a successful attorney in Sarasota, got involved with Leadership Intensive, took the first course and then took the year-long Forward Thinking course. She said that during one session, Jan turned to the corner of the room where she, her husband and his female law partner were sitting. "I sense something secret, something hidden here," the woman says Jan charged. The woman's husband rose to his feet and confessed to the group that he and his partner were having an affair. "It was devastating," the woman says. "In front of 50 to 60 people I find out my husband is having an affair and the woman is sitting right next to me." The betrayed wife says that she grew emotional and upset, at which point Dale and Jan began attacking her for her reaction. "You are not your feelings," she says they told her, repeating one of the canons of Leadershipspeak.
"They are manipulating people's lives without taking responsibility," she says.
Joseph Spinella, a Sarasota musician, is another disgruntled graduate, both of Leadership Intensive and of Tesserack. He insists Dale fraudulently presented himself as a psychologist and practiced private marriage counseling with him and his wife, using "unorthodox methods." His wife ended up leaving him for another man who was very involved with Tesserack. "My ex-wife got swept away by all of this," he says. "I feel like she got brainwashed." Spinella said when he discovered Dale was not licensed, he called the DPR to complain.
Jan and Dale emphatically refute that what they do is therapy. In fact, if there is one thing that the two have in common these days, it's their belief that traditional therapy and psychoanalysis keep people "stuck" in the negative and in the past. Jan says her courses are "so not psychological." Dale, who goes so far as to say he's "not sure if there is pathology," says he wouldn't discount traditional therapy, but that he believes "you can alter people and turn them to their natural, innate ways of being and it doesn't have to take a long time." In fact, he says it's possible to change in an instant. Again and again, he emphasizes that what he does is education, not therapy. "I'm looking to evoke people's potentials," he says.
Even people who are still involved with the courses say the leaders sometimes went too far. For example, Sarasota communications consultant Linda Larsen, another Forward Thinking student, walked out because of its confrontational approach (she and Jan are still good friends) and Sarasota poet Joan Adley said she couldn't handle the harsh criticism, "the sadism," of Leadership Intensive, either (she has since joined Tesserack).
Perhaps these criticisms and others are why the courses are now much softer. That's probably not surprising -- the whole self-help, human potential movement keeps changing, as proponents say what worked in the '60s didn't work in the '70s and what worked in the '70s certainly couldn't work in the '80s and so on. Est, now called Landmark Education, has changed its format, too, softening much of its former approach. Dale and Jan have each softened their courses, as well, to let people "unfold" rather than forcing them open.
"My work is in transition," says Jan.
In the past two years, Jan says she's been working on her master's in sociology and anthropology and "undoing everything I've learned." Jan says her work is headed more to corporate consulting, where 80 percent of the people she will work with will be business owners, entrepreneurs, executives and their spouses. Toward this end, she is training others to take over the ground-level Leadership Intensive courses and may eliminate them altogether as she reshapes her business. She talks about her approach becoming more positive. Today, she is not telling people to get rid of anything in their lives, just to manage what isn't working and develop what is. It seems a wiser, more mature, more gradual approach based on ensuring that people make permanent changes, rather than switching tracks after one euphoric weekend experience. Unlike Dale, she says there are no "drive-through breakthroughs." She doesn't want "course junkies" and is asking all her students to stay away from the jargon. "People use jargon when they're not connected," she says. "It's offensive really."
Dale, who started Tesserack in April 1993, says his whole organization is about creating new visions for people. "What you focus on you become," he says. "If you scan for sick, you feel sick." Dale wants people to scan for possibilities. "You can feel whatever you want to feel. Just master your feeling states."
One possibility Jan and Dale -- like many others I interviewed -- urged upon me was that actually taking these courses might enhance or change my perceptions about the experience. So, torn between a journalist's need for objectivity and equal need for information, I decided I should try them.
I signed up for Dale's entry-level course (price: $495, although he allowed me to take it for $100), called "Reinvention Weekend." It does not have any of the harsh, belittling dialogue that many participants say characterized the old Leadership Intensive. In fact, everything about Tesserack seems bent on gentle guidance, from the very stairwell the students ascend to the sunny, pastel-colored conference room at Tesserack's headquarters on the second floor of the Enterprise Bank Building at Osprey Avenue and Siesta Drive. Someone at Tesserack has read up on the soothing qualities of aromatherapy -- the smell of flowers and herbs wafting through the brick stairway is delicious and inviting.
Inside the conference room, the tables and chairs are set up in a semi-circle, and there are name placards, notebook binders, pitchers of water and glasses on the table in front of everyone's seat. The printed materials are striking and extremely professional. Although there are 11 students, several people are sitting in chairs to the side of the room, "partnering" the course. (These are past graduates who want to support the new students and to go through the training again.)
Structurally, the course seems very much as the Leadership Intensive grads described theirs. It includes lectures; inspirational videos; questions and answers; and those darn one-minute videos they take of you standing in front of the group desperately trying to act real.
In my course in mid-January almost everyone seemed to be in their 30s and 40s and no one was what one friend describes as "out there in la la land.", They were almost all professionals, with the exception of a very precocious 19-year-old FSU student and a woman going back to college in mid-life. Three of the men in the course worked for the same employer and, get this, their boss was paying for their seminar and "partnering" the course with them. I was immediately skeptical of the worth this course could have for the employees when the man who could fire them was breathing down their necks. I mentioned this, but Dale, the employer, and his three supervisors assured me, this was my "paradigm" -- a fallacious model "I hold" that bosses and employees aren't equals and can't communicate their true feelings to one another. I can't say for sure if these men revealed as much as they would have without their boss in the room, but they did seem remarkably open and touched on subjects that left them teary.
My big shock came when everyone reviewed my video and came up with a one-liner for my "act": 'The detached flower child stuck in Middle America." I didn't think the epithet fit. Detached, yes, that's partly the journalist in me, partly the introvert, but I don't think I come across as a flower child (I was the straightest person at New College) and how could anyone know from the few questions that I answered if I felt "stuck" in the dull life of the bourgeoisie? Frankly, I felt cheated. I told the group that I was really trying to be an untouchable Audrey Hepburn, and I suspected that Dale came up with that description based on what he knew about me (that I'd studied in India, went to New College, recently did an Outward Bound course), not on how I actually appeared. And although the group originally described me as "elegant," "graceful" and "poised" (I loved those adjectives) as well as "aloof," when I turned to them and asked them to refute the flower child description, they said, "Sorry, the flower child part really does come through." I'm still unconvinced, nonetheless.
That, apparently, is the whole point, that you're not going to easily accept how other people see you. "People usually perceive themselves as more positive than others do because you know your own intentions," says Schon Beechler, an associate professor of management at Columbia Business School, who designs a lot of the executive MBA programs that include videotaping. "There's a fair amount of defensiveness when you're confronted with others' perceptions."
Okay, so I was a little defensive. I also felt somewhat manipulated. It's hard to go against a group (doesn't that ever worry you when you think about juries reaching decisions?) even when you feel something is wrong. But I didn't want to come across as the naysayer and doubting Thomas, so there were many times I kept my mouth shut. In all fairness, whenever I did challenge a notion -- such as that people can find something good in their childhood sexual abuse -- I never felt as though Dale or the group was trying to make me wrong, just trying to get me to see things from another perspective. "Play with the idea, experiment," he said.
After we finished telling people how they came across, or were "landing" on us, we were supposed to reveal our deepest darkest fear -- for example, "I'm dumb," "I'm worthless," "I'm nonexistent." This was probably the most emotional and painful part of the process and, no, I'm not going to tell mine in print. In one sense, I'd have to agree with Dale, that if this course is to be considered therapy, it's nothing like traditional psychology. Whenever anyone began to get too emerged in their childhood hurts, Dale brought them out of it very quickly. "I don't want you to get associated with your feeling states," he would say. He was much more interested in what people wanted to create in their lives than in where they had been. "Your defenses worked for you when you were a child," he would say. "They don't work in the world as an adult. Create new ways of behaving that will give you the feeling state that you want."
On the third day, the group brainstormed and came up with new "declarations" for each one of us; in other words, we listed all the qualities we'd like to see in one another that weren't being shown. "Fun, spontaneous, silly and passionate" were a few of the adjectives the group suggested for me. I have to admit that my first thought was, "I don't want 10 people I barely know telling me who I should be," but the truth is, the qualities they listed were qualities I really do want in my life. They gave me my new motto: "I am the silly and sensuous goddess of unlimited possibilities." (Dale had a very talented woman draw caricatures of all of us with our new mottoes and hang them on the table in front of our places.) Then the group went around and gave everyone movie characters to model themselves after. Mine were Ariel from Disney's animated feature, The Little Mermaid, and Dolly Parton's character in the movie Nine to Five. (Anyone who knows my figure had to laugh at that suggestion.) Although I didn't really like the characters the group came up with, I got the point and it was a fun exercise, keeping us in stitches when we'd try to picture a quiet, self-contained middle manager behaving like Robin Williams as Peter Pan during the food fight in Hook.
Right before the end of the seminar, Dale's assistants videotaped us again, this time striding forward, saying our new "declaration." The differences in most of us from the first tape to the second were marked, and I have to admit I liked the second person (the silly and sensuous goddess) much better than the first, even if the new me did feel contrived.
I did Jan's course next. Called "Marketing Yourself and Your Business," it was a $250 (Jan let me do the course for free), two-day test version of the new direction she's headed in. It was much easier for me than Dale's. On a scale of emotional risk-taking, I would have to say it's a "two." The goal was to uncover '`hat juiced you." In other words, what is your passion in life? If you could discover this and then market it -- not an overnight process; in fact, more like months and months of work, Jan warns -- you would be guaranteed happiness and success.
Perhaps the most useful part of the course was the homework assigned the week before the course. We had to ask 10 peers, co-workers and friends what they thought our "gifts" were. "What do you think I'm excellent at?" "What do I provide people?" I, and the other people in the group, discovered the responses were amazingly consistent. Others seem to read us better than we do ourselves. The homework was a great way to get us thinking about what we're really good at.
The other 12 students were Leadership graduates and to me, they all seemed to have that close bond of survivors that says "we've been baptized in the same fire." Sitting around the semi-circle of tables were two attorneys, a life insurance saleswoman, an entrepreneur, a journalist, an educator, two developers, a real estate broker, an interior designer, a mental health counselor and a restaurateur.
Jan sat behind a table in the front, looking great in her black suit with gold lame trim. Her demeanor was professional and polished and in control, with quite a bit of theatrics thrown in. You can tell she's had a lot of practice in front of groups. First we had to get up in front of the group, introduce ourselves and then give a sales pitch. "Remember," she said. "No one cares about you, only about what you provide." I was surprised to see that everyone was as embarrassingly bad at it as I was, especially considering how successful some of these people were. The rest of the time, we did exercises designed to uncover what we most loved to do.
Jan was the sole source for this seminar. She had no materials and no apparent agenda (it was almost too loose). There were also no frightening confrontational moments that have made her courses so legendary. She conducted the group with humor and, I have to say, quite a bit of insight.
Interestingly and much to my chagrin, I received some of the same feedback: "You come across as detached and judgmental," course participants said. "I thought if I fell overboard you'd never throw me a life preserver," a commercial real estate broker told me in front of the group. I was shocked that anyone would see introverted, inhibited me like that, but I had to take note. At the end of the course, Jan had each of us stand up again, reading our new marketing statements. For the most part, I felt people were more convincing, and more themselves; definitely people I would have liked to hear more from.
To me, or probably anyone with an interest in psychology and personal growth, none of the information in these courses was really new, although it's exhilarating to think about putting it all into practice and becoming a new person. The problem is I, and most other people, I suspect, easily slip back into our old habits, and the good feelings from the courses can't be sustained.
Not only do I question if most people can change as easily as Dale's course suggests; I also wonder whether they should. I'm not sure that our histories and, yes, even our conflicts and fears, don't add to the richness and uniqueness of our characters. There's something hollow, even frightening, about the idea of someone suddenly assuming a brand-new personality. Perhaps the difficulty of sustaining new behavior is why many of the graduates of these programs tend to band together afterwards and why the support groups and the smorgasbord of courses both groups offer have been successful. New ideas need to be reinforced and people need to be prodded and reminded.
Still, it is fun to imagine what Sarasota would be like if there were a bunch of spontaneous, free-thinking, creative, self-actualized people constantly reinventing themselves and running this town. Both Dale and Jan say Sarasota is a special kind of community -- "I think Sarasota had a higher consciousness in being human than a lot of other places," says Jan. Well, maybe. I must admit it's somehow difficult to see Leadership Intensive or Tesserack becoming such a widespread social phenomenom in Tampa or Miami or New York.
And no, I didn't feel transformed by either course, but if a friend of mine asked about taking them, I'd say "Sure, if you have the money. It won't hurt you, it might help you and you might meet a great bunch of people." I did. And, I have to confess, a colorful drawing of a silly and sensuous goddess is now taped to the back of my closet and smiles at me every morning when I open the door.
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|Title Annotation:||self-help courses by Jan Smith and Dale Townsend for executives in Sarasota, Florida|
|Date:||May 1, 1995|
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