Rick Kauffman

For kicks, see if you can remember what DISC stands for when it comes to personality assessment. Is the “I” for intelligent? Innovative? Introverted? Is the “C” for conscientious? Cogent?

Actually, no. None of those are correct, which is a point Rick Kauffman, vice president at Marlton-based Take Flight Learning, likes to make when working with companies looking to understand leadership roles better. Acronyms, he says, get confusing. That’s especially true in leadership and management training, where words like dominance, inducement, submission, and compliance (what DISC actually stands for) sound harsh and get lost in the shuffle, and no one really knows what some of them mean anyway.

But what if, instead of trying to memorize an acronym and decipher what those words mean, you thought of the four main personality types as eagles, parrots, doves, and owls? Even just having read those, you probably can think of a few people who fit each, without any further need for explanation.

That’s another point Kauffman likes to make — why overcomplicate an idea when our existing understanding of archetypes is already doing half the work for us?

Kauffman will speak on these avian-inspired personality types during a workshop on “Client/Supplier Relationships: Win-Win Strategies that Work!” at the Association for Talent Development’s Mid New Jersey Chapter on Tuesday, June 12, from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. at Chauncey Conference Center. Walter Meremianin of the Michaels Organization, a client and frequent collaborator with Take Flight Learning, will also be part of the workshop. Cost: $35. Visit midnjatd.org.

Kauffman was born in Trenton and grew up mostly in the Philadelphia area, where his father was a minister and his mother a teacher. After finishing his master’s in liberal studies at Villanova, Kauffman became a teacher himself, of middle school, for about 10 years. He later worked in event planning and other jobs, trying to find something he liked.

Kauffman, you see, is a parrot. In the parlance of Take Flight, that means he is sociable, chatty, colorful, and prefers to have fun over knowing all the details of every project. He leaves that to the thoughtful, exacting, detail-loving owls. His perpetual urge to fly around and see what’s new led him to Take Flight a few years ago, where he says the fun of the training program based on bird names has held up well.

The birds. The bird-themed personality types are just what you would expect — eagles are strong and decisive, parrots are imaginative and friendly, owls are thoughtful and conscientious, and doves are supportive and compassionate.

The first thing to keep in mind, Kauffman says, is that our preconceptions of what these birds represent don’t refer to strength and weakness, they refer to leadership styles. An eagle might be a strong personality but wouldn’t necessarily be the best leader; a dove might want peace, but there’s no weakness. Think of the loudest, brashest person you know. Is that person the head of something? Or think of the Dalai Lama. Few humans are more associated with peace and nonviolence, yet there’s nothing weak about him.

The basis for the bird monikers does, of course, come from DISC. That’s actually what Take Flight taught until recently. “The company’s been at this for 27 years,” Kauffman says. “For the first 20 years we did it the way everyone else does. But it didn’t stick.”

For one thing, no one remembered what the acronym stands for, and for another, people didn’t enjoy the mental gymnastics needed to remember how they fit into those letters, he says. Forget applying them to dealing with other people, which is, ultimately, why it’s important to understand the different personality types.

“People would go to a workshop,” Kauffman says. Then afterwards, their lesson plans would go “to the bottom of the drawer” of their desks.

So the company’s founder, Merrick Rosenberg, decided to change up the program to something that didn’t sound like a punishment best served out via continuing education credit. The bird names were an obvious solution, Kauffman says, because we already know what each of those birds is like.

But what about the silliness? “Give me 10 minutes” is something Kauffman says a lot. He and the rest of the crew at Take Flight are quite aware how cartoonish the bird system comes off at first glance. It might not help much to see the cartoon versions of the birds on the company’s website.

But within 10 minutes, the reason for making the system so simple is, well, simple. There’s no reason to overcomplicate things with college-level jargon, and people actually learn when they’re having fun, Kauffman says. The birds are a more concrete concept to get your head around, and your hand: you will leave the workshop with a toy version of the bird that best fits you.

Just identifying the birds, he says, makes rooms full of people immediately identify themselves, their coworkers, their spouses, their friends. And the response, often, is that companies have called him to ask for more birds because people want to take them home.

In the birdcage. In the office environment, knowing who you’re dealing with is exceedingly important to getting anything constructive done. Yet while everyone knows this, many businesses have a lack of defined culture that leaves everyone to mutter to themselves and maybe one trusted colleague about how much of a jerk this guy is or how you can’t say anything to that woman.

But when you, a parrot, see an owl on someone’s desk, Kauffman says, you know that you need to give the owl what he wants, which is as few holes in the plan as possible. And when you, an owl, see a parrot coming over, you’re more aware of having to listen to something that might be more ethereal than you’re used to.

Knowing where everyone stands, predominantly, is the key to communicating, Kauffman says. It might not be that someone is blabbery or brusque or anything else, it might be that we just don’t understand how to listen in their voices. This makes sense when you realize that few of us would act the same way around a real eagle as we would act around a real dove.

And then there’s the reptile. The end goal of learning how to identify birds, Kauffman says, is, ironically, to be a chameleon who can weave in and out of the different styles. What makes that easier than it sounds is that few of us are any one kind of bird.

“Everybody’s got a little bit of all four in them,” Kauffman says. The boldest eagles can be as supportive and caring as any dove, just as a dove like Martin Luther King Jr. can be as fierce a leader as any eagle.

The key is to lighten up a little. If you can do that and have a little fun with the idea of finding out who belongs to what flock, and if you can take the message with the appropriate grain of salt, Kauffman says, the program can work pretty well for you. Just keep in mind, it’s actually supposed to be a little silly.

“When you’re laughing, you’re learning,” he says. “When you’re not bored, you’re not tuning out.”

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