Michel Vallier was one of my professional mentors. In my early days of being a trainer in management, he showed me the ropes and flew me to the Middle-East to train managers in leadership skills, time management, interpersonal communication, personal organization and team-work.
Michel was an unorthodox trainer, and had started his adult life learning the art of mime in the Marcel Marceau school in Paris. He trained in circus arts, as well as theatre. Later, he worked as the director of a Holidays Village, before he got fired (and learned a lot from this experience!) and transitioned to become the director of a Grand Hotel in the South of France. After a while, he transitioned once again to train managers to become better leaders, and created his own training company, Epsilon Formation. When I met Michel, he was looking for a bilingual trainer to facilitate a few test-workshops in Oman for a large retail client. Michel trained me to assimilate the contents, but most of all to his specific pedagogy. We flew together to conduct the trainings in Oman.
Before we flew, he told me:
“If this works, it will open up the doors of the Middle-East to us. If it doesn’t, it will close them.”
I had nothing to lose, and somehow, we did it.
That was the kick-start of 2,5 years of training more than 350 managers in 11 countries.
In this article, I will share 10 things I learned from Michel during these years, where I was fortunate to receive insights and teachings from his experience, wisdom, and unorthodox ways of thinking.
1) “Doucement, je suis pressé”
“Slow down, I am in a hurry”
I didn’t really get it at the time. It was only a few years later, after I had been teaching this that I started to really get this. And to this day, I am still working on it.
During training sessions, we would set a goal for the trainees to accomplish, in a limited amount of time. Most of the groups, with a leader assigned, would start to scurry into action. This would lead to a massive waste of time, and a high level of disorganization. The reason is because trainees highly relied on the limbic part of their brain (related to emotions), as well as the reptilian part (survival) which was telling them fearful messages such as:
“You don’t have the time, hurry up!”
That is the best recipe to create stress and decrease performance significantly.
So as a trainer, I would stop them, and pause the game, and ask them questions:
What is working out well?
What is not?
What are you noticing?
What if you took 5 minutes to make a plan first, assign the roles, and once all this is clear, set everybody in action?
This small shift in strategy lead to a high increase in performance. In the words of Abraham Lincoln:
“Give me six hours to chop down a tree and I will spend the first four sharpening the axe.”
So, what is one area of your life or your business where you need to pause, and reflect upon?
What is one thing you need to slow down?
2) “Bien faire et laisser braire”
“Do well and let others bray.”
To illustrate this point, I would like to share a story of Nasreddin, a famous fictional character in the Middle-East. He is called “the fool who wanted to be wise.”
Nasreddin needs to go to the market, and takes his grandson with him. Nasreddin is riding on his donkey, and his grandson is walking next to him. As they pass a first village, some villagers look at Nasreddin and start saying:
“Look at this cruel Nasreddin, he is enjoying the ride and leaving his poor young grandson walk next to his donkey.”
Hearing these words, Nasreddin is shocked, and feels guilty for being so selfish.
He unmounts his donkey and puts his grandson on the donkey instead.
As they pass the next village, Nasreddin hears another group of villagers say:
“Look at Nasreddin, he is exploiting this poor donkey !”
Nasreddin takes pity of the donkey, and asks the boy to climb down.
Nasreddin even picks up the donkey, and carries him at arm’s lentgh, with his grandson walking at his side.
As they pass through a third village, Nasreddin hears villagers say:
“Look at this stupid Nasreddin, he has a donkey and doesn’t even know how to use it !”
Hearing these words, Nasreddin puts the donkey down, and continues to walk.
His grandson asks:
“Why did you put the donkey down?”
“Dear Grandson, no matter what you do in life, there will always be people criticizing your choices.”
That is what Michel Vallier meant, when he said:
“Bien faire et laisser braire.”
Do well and let others bray.
3) “Sourire à l’adversité jusqu’à ce qu’elle capitule, car l’obstacle est un moyen.”
“Smile to adversity until it capitulates, because the obstacle is a means.”
Michel was a true warrior. But a peaceful one. He faced such difficulties and challenges in his life and in his business, but always found a way. In his family, he was known as “uncle clown.” His methods were unconventional: he used all of his skills from theatre, creative play, circus, jokes, games, and developed his approach of “Former sans ennuyer” (“Training without boring”), and his “Pédagogie Ludique par l’Action” (Fun Pedagogy by Action). People loved his trainings (a few people hated them, he was good at polarizing people).
What major challenge are you facing currently?
What if you could smile at it, right now, and see what hidden gift is in this situation?
If you want to learn how to turn an obstacle into an opportunity, read my article on Pragmatism vs. Realism.
4) “N’oublie jamais d’où tu viens”
“Never forget where you come from.”
Again, I didn’t get this one till later on. Like many profound teachings, the meaning and wisdom are revealed only months, years or decades after the seed has been planted.
I was happy in my life, living in Lyon, France, flying to the Middle-East monthly and enjoying a high life. Years later, when I went back to my hometown, Grenoble, I saw some of my former classmates, or people I knew. Some of them were facing really challenging circumstances, and some of them were happy with kids. It dawned on me how blessed I felt to have come out of that town to learn from the rest of the world. My experience resonated with what Samuel Lee Jackson shared in the trailer of his Masterclass:
“I made a decision, early in my life, that I wasn’t gonna live and die in Chattanooga, Tennessee.”
And don’t get me wrong. “Never forget where you came from” is a very different message from: “Stick to your roots.”
For me, it means knowing where I grew up, and knowing that I have roots there, although my roots don’t make the whole of who I am. When I need stability and grounding, I get back to my roots, which go all the way back to Thailand, France and South Africa. I’ll cook a thai curry, with potatoes (so I am literally eating my roots), or make a hot cup of roiboos tea, that soothes me.
I am fortunate to have both my parents still living in France, and when I visit them, I am so glad and grateful to enjoy my mom’s delicious food, enjoy time with the cat, and walk in the garden. I also enjoy riding my bike downtown, and meeting with one or two of my high school friends who haven’t moved away from the city in 14 years. We talk about some of the same topics we used to talk about back in the day, and I love to see how each of them is moving forward in their lives. I love catching up in the most simple ways. These are enduring friendships, although we don’t see each other very often.
I also love experiencing the amazing mountains that surround the city (called “The Capital of the Alps”): Breathing the fresh air, enjoying the trees and the greenery, and feeling humbled and human.
Michel was very proud of his city, Lyon, which he called “the most beautiful city in the world”. He had a very enthusiastic and emphatic way to communicate about it, and was an expert at explaining what made it so unique. Michel enchanted the trainees from foreign countries with his descriptions of Lyon. He had found his place in the world.
“Never forget where you came from” is a message of humility. Indeed, Michel he had seen too many trainers fall from their pedestal, after they had had their egos inflated too much. Yes, we were travelling business class, staying in 4-star hotels, being paid really well to deliver contents to managers. We were being treated like kings, which could give a taste of power and influence. That is precisely why we needed to remain humble, and never forget where we came from.