It was with great sadness that I learned that a dear colleague, George Reilly, had died at the beginning of November in his 75th year. He will be greatly missed: even though he received his biblical three score and ten, he leaves a hole. I wanted to take a moment to talk about his legacy in the management consulting, leadership development and psychotherapeutic counseling fields.
He also authored the stunningly great book, Finding Our Way: From the Past to the Present in Personal Growth. It continues to pull me apart, as George’s writing speaks under my layers and reveals my hidden heart. I liked it so much I’ve been shilling it in sidebar for months.
Although he was an accomplished and respected psychotherapist, I knew George through our joint interest in the late Elliott Jaques’s work. George was different than most folks you meet at these Jaques-ian things. He was more curious, more humble and more focused on the little guy. He didn’t see work levels theory as a way to show that “smart people” should be Lords and Masters but as a way to free those who had gotten lost in their lives, a way for them to see the pain that working outside of where they fit.
George Reilly’s humility could trick you into thinking that he was a simple country therapist. I could go along, thinking that I was telling George something new (and was — George seemed to have continued to want to learn and grow, even in his last months), when BAM! George would release some little nugget that would blow me away. Here’s an example from his book:
I stumbled upon a very useful understanding of the word “shame” quite by surprise one evening several years ago. My wife and I were driving along a quiet country road on a summer holiday evening. As she drove, I silently mused. I had been studying shame theory and books by Gershen Kaufman11 and John Bradshaw. 12 As we rode along, I played with the word in my mind. “Shame, shame . . .” I silently repeated the word over and over again. Suddenly, it fell apart into two segments: “shh” and “ame.” It was like someone saying, “Shh, ame, shh!” as if a parent were hushing up a child. And then the word “ame” took on a little hat over the “â,” a French accent circonflexe. It gave me the word “âme,” which is the French word for “soul.” And there it was: hushing the soul! I suddenly had a meaning for shame that made sense. [From Chapter 5, “Silencing the Soul” (Kindle Locations 863-871)]
George did this constantly. He would take a term, turn it inside out and find a way to make you really see it for the first time. A playwright we know does this a good bit, and my wife, the art historian, used to say it was about finding the “navel” of the piece around which all other details circled. George could find the navel of a term, unravel it and release it’s true meaning.
George Reilly was also adept at theory. Many psychotherapists simply aren’t. They are lucky that they accomplish anything. They meander around ignorant even of how ignorant they are. George though knew his stuff. His training wasn’t the normal one for a clinical person. His was rigorous, tough, demanding. When he discovered fellow Canadian Elliot Jaques’s work, he spent the time to understand it.
He also understood that theory is not what our clients come to us for. They come because they are in pain. It’s a tricky thing, to get people to see the truth that the theory reveals without burdening them with the intricacies of the theoretical base. You have to really know your stuff to be able to pull that off. George could because he did.
Maybe you met George Reilly at one of the GO Society conferences and were tricked by his unassuming manner, his midwestern dress or his deep humility-driven curiosity into thinking that he was not much of a mind. For he thought deeply, expressed wisely and saw the heart that was hidden.
I was blessed to be part of George’s process (as a friend and colleague) as he wrote his early drafts of his book. A friend last week pointed out to me that he mentioned me in his Acknowledgements, which out of habit I never read. So I missed it. And never got to thank him for the deep honor of including my name in a very short list of “the broader group of influencers”.
Although he will be sorely and deeply missed by all who knew him, George Reilly left a great legacy in this small book of his, a book that encapsulates his deepest learnings as a practicing psychotherapist and a true Elder among us. You should take advantage of it.
Image Class: Story illustration from “”Grim Grand Manan”, Harper’s Monthly Magazine (August 1912) by William J. Aylward