Yet for this artist, I don’t know had unusual meaning and power. It expressed his openness to creativity and to collaborating with his brushes, paints, and canvas. He was constrained neither by self-criticism nor by expectations of pre-ordained results. He was not made weak by his need for the approval of others. He was free to express himself in the moment, to create, to discover. He was able to do things he had never done before with trust and confidence in his ability to listen to the creative energies within him and around him.
Too many leaders make fast (and wrong) decisions in the face of disagreement. They trust their own thinking, and then justify their decision based on what they interpret as positive results. Yet they fail to consider the cost of rejecting an opposing view that would have led to a different decision or additional insight.
We all hold beliefs about ourselves. Some are true, some are not. Many have been there a very long time. As human beings, we all shoulder some burden of self-doubt: the fear that we’re imposters, not good enough, smart enough, worthy of love, or perhaps, that we have a tinier brain than everyone else. Even the best leaders among us have minds that generate irrational fears of inadequacy. Effective leaders have the discipline to listen to their internal critic, but then provide balance with a realistic appraisal of their strengths and shortcomings.
Leaders can create the conditions to help people inspire their own change. Good leaders know they are working with other humans beings. We all have unique gifts that are usually offset by corresponding weaknesses. And, we are not programmable robots. When our behaviors need to change, the reprograming needs to come from within, not because someone else wants us to. The best leaders — and partners — help a person create that motivation.
Too often, I hear clients announce that they’re going to “hold someone accountable,” but what they’re really doing is angrily venting their frustration. Though the leader might feel justified by “coming down hard,” the impact is rarely positive, and often has nothing to do with accountability. Worse, the boss may leave feeling better once they’ve unloaded, but are often oblivious to their actual impact in terms of erosion of trust and decreased motivation.
Many of my coaching clients are results-driven leaders who have the outward appearance of confidence and a long list of accomplishments. So I’m often surprised by how much time I have to invest at the beginning of a coaching relationship to reinforce that my role is to develop, not evaluate, them. Early conversations sometimes feel like a cat and mouse game, with clients responding to questions as if it is my job to uncover their fatal flaws and their job to ensure none are revealed. But until the mindset of evaluation has shifted, there is little likelihood of growth.
As a facilitator of leadership training programs, I’m sobered by research that ranks the impact of training programs as pretty low on the developmental experience scale. At the top of the list: challenging life experiences and adversities. I even see this in my own growth as a professional. The strategy I now use as a coach when working with executives “in crisis”was significantly influenced by a series of difficult events near the end of my father’s life.
Executive influence is a result of many elements including competence, judgment, approachability, and trustworthiness. But one secret source of influence often goes unrecognized: To be influential, one must also be willing to be influenced. For Becky, as for many others, an untapped source of influence lies in a willingness to reach out and solicit support and advice from others.
Part of the problem occurs when leaders create a culture where they are the most important “customer” of everyone in their organization. In these companies, it’s in everyone’s best career interest to make sure the boss is happy, and to treat any request as urgent and important. Inherent in these cultures are some unchallenged and dangerous assumptions including:
• The leader is the smartest one in the room
• The leader knows all of the implications of their decisions
• The leader is more important than anyone below them
What we call ‘common sense’ is really a collection of personal experiences and knowledge that we assume everyone else shares. But it is rarely as common as we assume. I’m confident that what is ‘common sense’ to an African American from Harlem would be ‘foreign intelligence’ to a small town white southerner like me! And yet most of us tend to take our knowledge and experience for granted, label these ‘common sense,’ and then judge harshly those who don’t act in concert with our world-view.
When one institutionalizes something special, it becomes routine. Corporate recognition programs are great examples of well-intended attempts to “automate” what should be meaningful interactions between colleagues. In my opinion, the ability of a leader to affirm others authentically is one of the most profound skills of effective leadership and one of the least mastered.
Collaboration requires time, patience, and at times, the discipline to listen for the music behind the words. Most executives I know have precious little time for anything that won’t produce a tangible result, quickly. Efficiency and urgency are key. Consequently, busy executives rely too heavily on their immediate judgments and the “certainty of knowing” derived from past experiences.
Our brains have minds of their own. At an early age, we instill beliefs in these minds that certain ‘noble’ principles must be maintained: be careful, be perfect, never fail, don’t let other’s fail, and even don’t walk through open windows. This mind holds fast to its belief systems as if they are unshakeable truths. It’s as if we all carry an overprotective mother in our heads. She shrieks, “Watch out!” any time we initiate an action that conflicts with her rules, even though our rational brain knows better.
Falling forward IS the strategy.
Like many executives, Chris overdid her strengths. Her intellect and confidence made her a dynamic visionary, but an ineffective change catalyst. Her communication flaw was something I refer to as the “jug head assumption:” Executives with this condition believe that communicating is like pouring water into a jug. You just open the lid of an empty mind and pour. Once full, communication is assumed to be complete…no spillage.
One way we help leaders develop their strategic thinking muscle is through the use of experiential exercises. In just a short time, these activities allow participants in leadership development programs to make decisions in a safe environment that reveal flawed “mental models” while they develop new mindsets.
Mental filters, or biases, affect how we assess and decide in complex situations. One of these filters is called “confirming evidence bias:” we arrive at conclusions prematurely based on what we already believe. Then, we seek evidence that supports these conclusions while minimizing any information that contradicts our predetermined decision. We humans may be clever, but we are not as logical as we think.
There’s a saying among coaches that ‘you are only as good as your clients.’ This is overly simplistic. In reality, a coach is only as good as their client is coachable. ‘Receiving coaching,’ like ‘providing coaching’ is a skill, and both require disciplined practice. A good coach ensures that this skill is developed in their coachee. It is the same for leaders coaching direct reports: A good coachee is as essential as a good coach.